If you were only writing for yourself then it wouldn't matter what you called your book. You could call your book a "zigglemorf" and that would be quite fine. The reason you label your book into a category is to help potential readers know what they're about to get. So it's important to use industry standard terms that your readers will understand. The problem is, there are no real industry standards. They're more like fuzzy guidelines and they can be different from genre to genre. So here are some basics.
These are meant to be like shots of whiskey. You drink it, you finish it, and it's done. It's not something you read a bit of every day until you get through it. Typically it's less than 8,000 words. Many magazines feature short stories because they just take up a few pages. They can run Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and have a reader enjoy the whole story from start to finish. They wouldn't be able to do that with the full version of War and Peace. I love sci-fi short stories. They can pack a dense, intriguing world into just a few pages. Track down Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" - that's one of my favorites.
Here's the key. The story must be complete. It can't feel like a random hacked-out piece of a larger story that is missing key elements. It must feel satisfying and rounded as its own standalone story. Sure, it might leave you wanting to know more about that universe - but it should still have you feel that you enjoyed the story reading process.
I've written quite a number of short stories including the story-every-day-for-a-month Black Cat project.
Novellas are interesting entities. In a traditional novel, there is a story arc. There's the buildup, the main excitement, and then the culmination. This typically falls into thirds. With novellas, you often get each third as its own story, attaching together in a series to provide an overall experience. This system is used a lot in the romance genre, although it can be found in other areas as well. Since each novella is a piece of the overall story, it's shorter than what we'd think of for a traditional novel. So definitions of novella tend to start at about 8,000 words and go up to 40,000 words, where a regular "novel" (albeit a short one) begins.
A novella doesn't have to be in a series. It can stand alone. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a novella, at 176 pages, which would seem to put it near the 40,000 limit. I can't find anyone who has an actual hard word count for this. Still, it's clearly nowhere near the 587,000 words of War and Peace. So a novella can simply be that - a short version of a novel. A story that is told in less space than a novel. Some readers will feel they aren't getting enough story this way. That detail was left out or resolution was truncated. But, depending on the story that's being told, maybe that is simply all there is.
I've written a number of novellas including the One Scottish Lass regency time travel series.
Novels are what many of us think of when we think of a "book." Harry Potter. Twilight. The Hunger Games. A book that tells a full story. It might be incredibly thick, or reasonably thin, but it takes us from start to finish on a journey. It ends with a sense of completion, even if there is clearly more story to be told next.
I've written all sorts of novels. The Medieval Romance novels are a good example. They range from 67,000 words to 115,000 words.
How to Choose What to Write
I'm a strong believer that you, the author, know how long your story is meant to be. You'll know its start, finish, and end. That will take up a certain amount of time. "The Cask of Amontillado" was a short story. It had a scene, it finished, and it was over. There was no need for it to be longer. On the other hand, Lord of the Rings had an epic story to tell. It couldn't just be a short story. There was too much plot to fit. So it naturally became longer.
Write your story. When you're done writing, trim out the excess, certainly, but leave in important plot and dialogue. What you're left with is probably what it was meant to be. If anything, the only real decision is whether to put it out in one bulk package or to break it up into segments. I talk about that task in Dividing an Epic. I chose to divide my Scottish Lass series into three novellas so I could release each as I finished writing it. That way I could get feedback from readers while I worked on the next one. Other authors choose to hold onto everything until it's all complete and just release it as-is as one unit.
Why Does It Matter?
Again, to go back to our initial statement about a zigglemorf, the main reason you have these categories is to set your reader's expectations. Especially in the world of ebooks, a reader has no idea how short or long your story is. They see a cover, they read a brief description, and they buy. Let's say they buy expecting a massive 800-page tome. They settle down into their favorite chair, snuggled up in a blanket, a cup of hot cocoa at their side, and prepare for a delightful day of reading. A gentle rain is falling outside, the kitty is purring in their lap, they get to chapter 10 and ... THE END. That's it. An hour has gone by and they thought they'd be reading for ten full hours. They feel disappointed, frustrated, and let down. It's not that the story was bad, necessarily - it could be they loved the story! But they were expecting more.
This is why using descriptive terms in your title, cover, and description is so key. If your story is a short story, absolutely say so EVERYWHERE. Label your title as "Nightfall - SciFi Short Story." That way they know they're getting a quick, fun read that they can finish up before dinner rather than an epic tome that will keep them busy all weekend long. If your story is a novella, let them know that, and let them know if it's a series. That way, if they need to, they can buy all three sections of the book before they head out on their wi-fi-free camping trip.
I have, as mentioned, a Scottish time travel novella series. Each is 10 chapters long. When I first posted the three books in the series, I didn't label them as novellas. So people seeing the books on Kindle or other online stores saw only the covers and descriptions. They could easily think they were getting massive tomes. To compound this issue, many other books in this topic area happen to BE tomes. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, is a massive 800 pages long. So if someone loves Outlander, then finds my book, and thinks it's similar, could easily think "Ah OK another Outlander-like book. It's gotta be big!" They download mine, settle in for a weekend of reading, and then POOF ten chapters in the story ends. They would be sad, disappointed, and frustrated.
After a few complaints about this issue, I rebranded EVERYTHING (cover, description, title, etc.) to make it absolutely clear that these are novellas. They are priced cheaply, so it wasn't the price that was the issue. It was the reader's expectation of how much story they were getting.
I want to make it clear that if you get complaints about CONTENT that you should take that seriously. If someone knows they are getting a novella and they claim the story is sparse, then that is something to fix. Whatever your story length it needs to feel like a rich experience. There needs to be enough character development and plot to keep the reader interested. But if it's that the readers adore your story, and think they were going to get more, then that's a matter of clarifying the story's length before they buy.
This one is trickier. At least in case #1 it was people expecting a giant novel and instead getting a short novella. That is fairly easily fixed. But my second issue arose with my short story, The Lucky Cat. This is book 1 in my Salem Massachusetts mini mystery series. These are clearly labeled as mini mysteries and short stories. But "short story" is a fairly vague term. This could mean something a full 8,000 words long - or it could mean something only 1,000 words long. That might not seem like a big difference but it's fairly substantial to a reader.
I wrote these to aim to fit into Amazon's "1-11" page category. I wanted to write super-short mini-mysteries that people could read while waiting for a bus or so on. I've already written both novel-length mysteries and novella-length mysteries. I wanted to do a short set for people who didn't have the time to read novellas. Maybe they were at the doctor's office and wanted to ease the stress with a short story. Start, finish, end. Not something they'd have to put down and finish off later.
As it turns out, because of the way I set up my title page and copyright page, most fell into Amazon's "12-21" page category. So a bit longer than I thought. But I wasn't willing to hack them down further to force them to fit. I was content with being in this slightly longer ('half hour read") category.
I did still have a reader complain that it was "too short" and that she'd rather have a longer story. That is fine, we all prefer stories of different lengths. This is a case where maybe she prefers 7,000 word short stories and didn't realize mine was only a 13 page / 3,500 word short story. This is especially tricky with my book being in a category of things 12-21 pages. She could love the 21 page short stories and feel unsatisfied with the 12 page short stories. Heck, it's only half the length! So setting those expectations are key. I really should list, for each story, a description saying something like "This 12 page short story contains ..." and so on. That way it's nice and clear.
To summarize, it's absolutely imperative that the reader know what they're going to get. That way the reader is content with that length and can prepare for it. If it's a short story, they know not to tuck under the covers and expect to be there for hours. If it's an epic tome, they know not to try to zip through it before dinner is ready. The more information you can provide to your reader, the better sales you'll get, the better reviews you'll get, and the better word of mouth you'll receive.
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