Most writing projects, regardless of genre and purpose, will have some kind of restrictions and/or guidance in terms of length. From novels to novellas to novelettes to short stories to flash fiction to drabbles, the categorisation of stories has a lot to do with word count. And, even within these categories, most publishers and competitions will give a range within which they are prepared to accept pieces.
Because most of my new work is prompted by upcoming submission opportunities, I usually start a story, knowing roughly how long it needs to be. And, over the years, I’ve developed the ability to plot and plan stories to fit a particular word count.
A piece of flash fiction will likely just be one scene, evoking a sense of the wider story but not laying it out in concrete terms. A 2,500 word story will likely follow one series of events from start to finish, tying off loose ends. As stories get longer, they require more characters, additional subplots, more layers of complexity and more comprehensive planning and tracking.
It doesn’t always work out so well, though. For example, what was meant to be my second novel has only just topped 50,000 words in its first draft, which is way too short for a novel and actually a bit long for most novellas. So, at the moment, its future is uncertain while I work out whether it can be expanded to novel length or cut down a bit for the novella market.
And sometimes, I’ll get an idea, independent of a prompt or often coming out of a workshop, that doesn’t fit neatly into a preconceived format. I’m working on a story at the moment, which has been rattling around in my brain for about three years and has not yet seen the light of day. I first developed it at a writers’ conference, over the course of a weekend of workshop sessions. I’ve always liked it and regularly returned to it over the years, as submission opportunities have come and gone that I thought it might fit. But, even though I have a ton of notes, a rough outline and a set of characters I love, I just can’t seem to write it.
Recently, though, a new opportunity presented itself, for a fantasy novella of 20,000 to 40,000 words, with a publisher I like. And something clicked. I think the reason I’ve been having so much trouble with this story is that I’ve been trying to fit it into a box it’s too big for. The scope of the story is larger than I first thought (though not enough to make a novel) and needs more space to develop properly. So, now I’m working on it with a target of a much higher word count and it already feels more possible.
Stories have a size and a shape and it’s important to be able to recognise early on the dimensions of those things. Certainly, stories can be expanded or contracted to an extent, but I think they know how big they want to be, and it’s the writer’s job to listen and recognise that. I’m now hopeful that my story will soon be completed, and I’m excited at having something to submit for what sounds like an excellent publication opportunity.