08 June 2013

In So Many Words


by John M. Floyd

A couple of weeks ago I received a nice surprise: an acceptance from The Strand Magazine. I was informed that my short mystery, "Secrets," will be featured in their summer issue. My friend Rob Lopresti had a story in their winter/spring issue, so I'm pleased to be able to carry the SleuthSayers banner forward into the fall of the year. (Rob, hand it over.) Note to members of our group: one of you must now get a story accepted for the next issue . . .

Here's a quick summary. My story involves two (mysterious) strangers who happen to meet on a ferry between the mainland and an island where one of them has scheduled a (mysterious) meeting. All the action takes place within an hour or so, during which the two characters on the ferry discover things about each other and about themselves and about the suddenly deadly situation they've been thrown into. (Hey, what can I say?--I love that kind of stuff.)

One unusual thing about writing this story is that I had trouble deciding on a title. I liked "Secrets" because there are so many of them in the story--secrets kept from the characters by their bosses, spouses, etc.; secrets that the two keep from each other; even secrets that I try to keep from the reader until certain points in the story. But I almost called it "Secrets: a Ferry Tale." I finally decided not to, for two reasons. First, it sounded a little too cutesy, and second, I'm not crazy about titles that contain a colon.

Now, having said that . . .

I should confess that none of this has anything to do with the reason for today's column. The reason I'm writing this column is that I recently discovered something a little odd about the eight stories I have so far sold to The Strand. The strange thing (besides the fact that they were accepted at all) is this: they were all very close to the same length. About 4000 words. Part of that was because the guidelines said 2000 to 6000, and it doesn't take a genius to realize that hitting that range right in the middle can probably help your chances. Another part of it, though, was coincidence. That length just sort of turned out to feel "right" for those particular stories.

Which brings up a question. Should you try to write stories specifically for certain markets, and of certain lengths, or should you just write the story with no preconceived ideas about how long it should be or where it's going?

I guess I do both. Woman's World mysteries have to be a set length--just under 700 words--so yes, I do write those with that wordcount in mind beforehand. But that's unusual for me. I've always believed that it's better to write the story first, let it reach whatever length it needs to be, and only then--when it's completed--decide where you want to submit it.

Thankfully, there are some good markets, including EQMM and AHMM, where length doesn't matter much. The shortest story I've sold to AH was 1200 words, the longest was 14,000, and a few days ago I sold them one that was 5400. I believe their guidelines now specify a max of 12K or so, but that still leaves authors plenty of leeway. (And I should emphasize here that all Strand stories don't have to be the same length either. Mine just happened to be.)

Marketability

Another question: generally speaking, are shorter stories easier to sell? I think that answer's usually yes, for several reasons. For one thing, it's easier for an editor to fit a shorter piece into a magazine or an anthology than a longer one. Also, if you're not an already established name, an editor might be more apt to hang in there and read your story all the way to the end if it's shorter rather than longer. I honestly think markets these days--both literary and genre, both magazines and anthologies--are more receptive to shorter stories than they used to be. Case in point: many of them, in their submission guidelines, seem to have lowered their maximum wordcount.

Why would this be true? One school of thought says that editors want only what readers want, and since we as readers have so many distractions nowadays, so much competition for our attention, we just won't sit still long enough to read a really long story. I'm a little skeptical of that; after all, we sit still long enough to read novels. But maybe those folks who are already drawn to short stories prefer them shorter now. Who knows.

A mixed bag

I'm one of those people who like to write, and read, stories and novels of all different lengths. My latest collection of short fiction contains thirty stories that range from 500 words to 15,000 words (one might argue that a 15K story isn't a short story at all, but I continue to believe that novellas begin around 20K). I think that kind of variety makes for a more effective collection and a more interesting read, but that's just me. I also believe that shorter is not necessarily better, and that every story seeks its own length. My favorite story that I've written was about 10,000 words. But I also believe, as I said earlier, that shorter stories are easier to sell.

What do you think? Which--shorter or longer--had you rather write, and read? If you're a writer, do you write with a certain length or market in mind? What do you consider the break point to be (in wordcount), between shorts and novellas? Between novellas and novels? Between short-shorts and short stories? Between flash fiction and short-shorts? Do such distinctions even matter?

Perhaps more importantly, how long should a column be? No more than a thousand words? Well, I just checked, and this one is already 996.

So I'll stop here.

29 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

John--all interesting and useful information. I learned a lot, but then, what few short stories I've written have been whatever number of words it took to tell the tale the way I wanted.

Personally, I like short stories that are SHORT and tend to check the contents of anthologies and/or magazines and read in order of length from shorter to longer.

BTW, I've never seen any guidelines on SleuthSayer blogs and didn't know 1,000 words is preferred maximum length. Actually, a set of guidelines might not be a bad idea.

Janice Law said...

Congratulations on your success with Strand.

John Floyd said...

Fran, I too usually read the shorter stories first, in an anthology or a magazine, and save the longer ones until last. Strangely enough, some of the best novels I've read lately are REALLY long ones.

As for the length of SleuthSayers columns, I don't think there is or has ever been a preferred maximum. One of the things that makes SS pieces enjoyable, for me, is their variety.

Thanks, Janice. I've been lucky lately with certain markets--but I must tell you, my rejections far outnumber my acceptances.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

John, for me the story unfolds to the length it's meant to be, which is usually between 3000 and 4000 words. There's an occasional exception, like the story of mine that you saw recently, which came in under the minimum for the anthology submission I wrote it for. I increased the encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist from one to three, which greatly increased the tension in the story and made it the perfect length.

David Edgerley Gates said...

My stories generally run 4000 to 6000 words---sometimes longer. The upper end for AHMM and EQ seems to be 10,000 words. They're loath to take anything longer, because it uses up too much space, and you'd push somebody else out of the issue. They like to mix up different story types and styles.

I try to cap my SS blogs at 800 to 1000 words, although I've certainly run long. Depends on the subject.

John Floyd said...

Liz, I think between 3000 and 4000 is a pretty "comfortable" length for most shorts--and that length seems to be especially acceptable for a lot of publications.

David, I agree that 10K is probably the upper limit for AH and EQ despite what the guidelines might say. I've seen few stories there longer than that. I also agree that the length of an SS post depends almost completely on the subject.

I think it's interesting that almost every entry in the Novel & Short Story Writers Market says "also publishes short-shorts."

R.T. Lawton said...

John, congrats on the Strand sale.

My stories are written to whatever length the story needs, but sometimes to my chagrin I have to add or delete words to match the guidelines. Had to add about 100 words to "The Delivery" to get into the 2013 MWA anthology. Most of my stories to AHMM come in at 4K to 5K, with my longest being 8,100 words. I tend to run on the sparse side when it comes to character description, preferring to let the reader picture the character themselves, except for maybe one physical or other trait per character.

John Floyd said...

R.T., I'm with you on character description, and description of settings as well. I think less is more, there.

As for the average length of your stories, I've heard others say that 4K to 8K is ideal, for most shorts.

I've been in the same position as you at times, on having to add a few hundred words in order to make the length suitable for a particular anthology or magazine. For some reason I find that harder to do than deleting a few hundred words. (That should tell me something, right there: I probably "overwrite" a lot, and NEED to trim things down.)

Herschel Cozine said...

John, first of all congratulations on your sales to Strand and AHMM. (Not suprising, however).

Most of my shorts run about 3000 words. Like Fran, I use the number of words that it takes to tell the story, and, with the exception of WW, don't worry about the word count while I am writing.

Lately I have hit a dry spell, with a word count of a dozen or so--totally unacceptable for most editors.

John Floyd said...

Herschel, I like that advice: "Don't worry about the word count while you're writing."

As for your "dry spell," it doesn't sound all that dry--I saw one of your mysteries in WW a couple of weeks ago. Keep up the good work . . .

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Congrats, John, I'm very impressed by your continued success! Not long ago I was asked by an editor to shorten a story for a publication. The editor it seems was very strict about word length. So I guess it is important to follow guidelines exactly when submitting.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Jacqueline, that's kind of you. As Herschel said, we all have dry spells--I've just been fortunate lately.

Yep, I think we all have to try to follow guidelines as closely as we can: if they give you a range, shoot for the middle if possible, and if they specify a minimum or a max make darn sure not to go below or above those. What can be frustrating at times is that every ellipsis counts as a word (at least is does with my word processor), so I try hard not to use many ellipses in stories to markets that require an extremely low wordcount. (I wish, of course, that that was my only frustration.)

Pat Marinelli said...

John, first let me congratulate you on your recent success. Two WW mini mysteries, back to back, and now The Strand. Way to go!

I write as many words as needed to tell the story and worry about cutting or adding on the second draft. My comfort writing zone is 500-2000 words. However, I have writing both shorter and longer.
Snowbird Christmas Volume 2anthology just accepted my “The Christmas Train – South” story at 1,740. In my cover letter, I had apologized that the story was over word count but when I rechecked the guidelines, I realized the specified word count was 1,500-2,500 words. My previous story to them, “Kindling a Flame in the Dark” was 1,737. I’m seeing a pattern word count here. LOL

Because I usually write romantic suspense, I consider novellas to be 30K up to 45K. Short stories are all over the place with word count. It always cracks me up that WW romances are 800 words which in reality is a short-short or flash fiction. Ditto on the mini mysteries. Since that’s the market where most of my rejections are from, I’d say that is a word count I work toward. Probably why I haven’t sold to WW. I guess I don’t work well in the small count. Who knows? Only two of my rejections came from the first reader. My manuscripts usually make it to Johnene and take 6 month for a rejection. Only three have ever had comments—two were mysteries and one was a romance.

I, also, tend to write as little character and setting description as I can get away with—don’t like to read it, don’t like to write it—unless it’s important to the story.

Michael Bracken said...

The vast majority of the stories I write these days are written for specific markets, so I usually know my target word count before I type the first word of a story, and I self-edit as I write--tightening my style for short word counts and loosening it for long word counts--so that I don't have to do significant revisions to fit word count after I've completed a full draft.

Beginning in 2009 I've kept track of my production, including total stories written, their word counts, and the yearly averages:


2009: 75 short stories, with an average of 2,884 words.
2010: 42 short stories, with an average of 3,451 words
2011: 52 short stories, with an average of 3,465 words
2012: 46 short stories, with an average of 3,272 words

I sell almost every story I write, so it appears--based entirely on personal experience and not an actual study of all writers and all markets--that the sweet spot for a salable short story is 2,800-3,500 words.

The reality, though, is the shortest of those stories is a mere 10 words and the longest is 6,600.

Jan Christensen said...

Hi, John--congrats on all your recent publications and sales. If I listed them all, there'd be no room for other comments. LOL I do both--write a story with no market in mind, so it can be any length, or if I want to write one for a particular market, I usually don't have any trouble hitting their word-count target. I really prefer to write in that spot between 3,000 and 5,000 words, though. Fascinating discussion--thanks for posting it.

John Floyd said...

Pat, I was interested to read your take on novella length. And you're right, those WW mysteries and romances might be defined as either short-shorts or flash fiction. (Sounds like you have perfected the 1737- to 1740-word story!)

Michael, congrats as always on your story output. You are indeed a lean mean writin' machine. And I was glad to see your thoughts on optimum salable length for a short.

Jan, thanks for your perspective on this, also. As you said, it seems the 3 to 5K range is comfortable for a lot of writers.

Eve Fisher said...

John, congratulations, and I'm looking forward to reading the story.
Michael, John has you pegged.

Anita Page said...

John, very good news about the Strand sale.

I generally let the story decide the length, but I just trimmed 1500 words off a 6,000+ word story for a particular market. I wasn't sure it could be done without gutting the story, but in fact, as you might guess, the story was better for it.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Eve and Anita.

Anita, good luck with the revised story!

Leigh Lundin said...

Congratulations! I confess A Ferry Tale appeals to my whimsical side. Although I’m sure John made the right decision, I’d trust him to make it worthwhile!

With my ADD, I prefer shorter stories, but I also enjoy a superb novel, emphasis on superb. I’m not sure what makes this so, but I’m definitely in the camp that stories seek their own length.

Robert Lopresti said...

John, congrats on both sales. You can have the banner when you pry it from my cold dead fingers, pal.

There was a period of some years when every story I wrote came in at around 3000 words. It was absolutely bizarre how the story would always stop on page 11.

I have never written deliberately to a market length, but I have shortened to one. When I wrote the novella I sent to the BONA I was egotistical enough to cut 500 words out. Why? So that IF I won the award and got it published it would be short enough to be eligible for the Derringer Award, which at the time topped out at 18000 words.

John Floyd said...

Leigh, I love novels too, but for some reason seem to prefer the shorter stories. Go figure.

Rob, I understand that reasoning. Might as well maximize your chances. And--again--I've always found it easier to cut than to add.

Toe Hallock said...

John: Your post, along with all the comments it generated, is extremely helpful to someone like me. Unpublished, and still searching through the mist of a strange new world. I have always preferred short stories. Ever since I read "The Most Dangerous Game" in High School. Also, what was that story by Jack London? "To Build a Fire?" The impact of drama in stories like these far surpass most novels exceeding 300 pages. Again,thanks to all you folk at SS. Yours truly, Toe.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Toe--I really appreciate the comment.

Best of luck to you in all your writing endeavors.

Dixon Hill said...

Congrats on the Strand!

Gotta admit, I’m used to reading short-to-long when it comes to magazines and anthologies. But, lately, that’s been replaced by: read the stories by writers I “know”, then read short-to-long.

As for overwriting: I’m GUILTY AS CHARGED! This upcoming Friday’s post runs 1,600 words. And, I’ve never added words to sell anything. I always have to cut. My hat’s off to you guys who can peg a winner at 700 words. My stories lie there and die on me, at that length.

--Dix

John Floyd said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dix. And I too enjoy first reading stories that were written by folks that I either know or "e-know." It's amazing (I hate that word these days, but sometimes it applies) how many stories I've read that were written by our fellow SleuthSayers. Keep up the good work, everybody!

Jeff Baker said...

Congrat's John!
I've never gotten a rejection from The Strand. Really! I send a story off and wait about a year and never hear back from them! Nope they never bought anything from me!

John Floyd said...

Jeff, thanks for the comment. I've heard some say that submitting to The Strand Magazine is like submitting to Reader's Digest. If I recall, RD only let you know if you made it, not if you didn't--the things I sent them always got sucked into a black hole.

But I must encourage you and others to continue to try The Strand now and then. They do in fact sometimes accept stories from less-than-well-known writers. (Picture me pointing to myself, here.)

Hang in there!

Jeff Baker said...

Thanks! I was worried that I'd ticked them off somehow! :)