Resolving the Word Count Conundrum

So I got caught up in an interesting debate on twitter on the other night, largely revolving around the question of whether or not 50K actually constituted a novel-length work and the difference between answering yes to that question, answering yes, but it may be extraordinarily hard to sell, depending on your genre, and answering no, it’s a goddamn novella.

If that sounds like a waste of time…yes.

If it sounds like something you have passionate feelings about…yes, it’s that too. Writers get passionate about wordcounts. We get passionate about what they mean and where the arbitrary lines between form may be, and occasionally we spew some truly stupid shit in the name of trying to unravel its mystery.

It gets even weirder when you start considering the importance of genre on the discussion.

For example, I used to think short stories were around 3,000 words long, largely because that was usually the upper word-count on any short stories we submitted during my writing degree. The one time we actually wrote longer than that, in my undergraduate course, was in a subject devoted to the novella, where we were permitted to break out an 8,000 word story.

That sound you hear? It’s the vast majority of Sci Fi authors laughing hysterically at those word-counts.

SF is a genre where the short story is still relatively well-respected and, compared to many genres, well-paid. Our awards have neatly codified word-lengths that make things obvious – short stories don’t end until 7,500 words, novelettes fill the space between 7,500 words and 17,500, and novellas cover the space until you hit 40,000 words.

It’s all neat and tidy, on the surface, until you consider that the majority of the novels we pick up as SF readers usually kick on until they hit 80,000 to 100,000 words and the short-novels of the pulp eras can feel slight to someone used to modern story lengths. Professionally speaking, selling a shorter work to a big six publisher can be tricky, which is why the internet is full of cranky writers looking askance at NaNoWriMo participants chasing 50k with such dedication.

Personally, I wish they’d stop.

For one, it’s a pretty blinkered world view – there are plenty of books that still get published at the 50k word length. My understanding, from talking to peeps on the romance side of things, is that there is still a good market for the short romance novel. It can feel like a pretty solid length in YA and middle-grade fiction. It’s perfect for anyone trying to capture an old-school pulp feel in their work.There is all manner of non-fiction options that work at that length.

There’s a surprising number of contemporary crime and literary books in my collection that would hover around the 60,000 word mark.

Limiting myself to books within arm-reach of my couch, where I’m writing this post, I’ve pulled down The Great Gatsby, James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Elizabeth Bear’s Book of Iron, Christa Faust’s Hoodtown, and one of James Sallis’ Lew Griffin books whose title is partially obscured by a paperweight and difficult to make out. I’m not doing an exact word-count, but they’re all books that feel like books and exist on the shorter side of word-count.

One book in reach – Matthew Reilly’s Hell Island – is probably considerably shorter, and I expect I could pack that list out considerably by grabbing some of the omnibus editions of books by folks like Jack Vance or Philip K Dick.

One of the things that got interesting about studying the novella at uni was the various essays we read attempting to define the form. Everyone basically fell back onto the same excuse: I don’t know what separates a novella from a novel, but I know it when I see it it and I know it’s slightly different.

This was usually from people with passionate beliefs about the novella. People who read them and enjoyed them and sought them out. Hardcore novella-readers whose definition is I’ll know it when I see it. 

Word count is an absurdly arbitrary means of distinguishing between a novella and a novel. It will be at the mercy of contemporary tastes and the history of a genre and how well-read a particular reader is inside it. For many folks – people who aren’t passionate readers interested in the minutia – the novella and novelette lengths may as well cease to exist. Short works are short-stories, longer works are novels.

Some people will bypass a definition of novel altogether and just go with this: is it a book?

the rise of the 100k novel is still relatively recent, when you consider that it began as pulp paperbacks began to die off between the fifties and the eighties, and those thirty or forty years are a drop in the ocean compared to the four hundred years, give or take, that the form has been around.


We won’t even begin to talk about the fact that a major disruption in the way books are sold and distributed has already started to challenge the primacy of the 100k book in all manner of interesting ways.

So here’s how you solve the conundrum of whether your 50k is a book.

You write it. You hit fifty thousand words. You ask yourself: “is this done yet?”

If the answer is yes, you finish up. You figure out what’s next.

If the answer is no, you keep writing until you hit the end.

Either way, you go back and fix things up, make it the best book you can posssibly make it, ’cause if you’ve done NaNoWriMo with the intention of kicking off a writing career, you may as well try to sell that bad-boy regardless of the market’s preference for 50k books.

You may not sell it to Penguin/Random House or any of the other big six, but there are options.

So many fucking options.

And you figure them out after you finish the book.

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