Saturday, November 2, 2013

On Writing Longer than Short Stories

I heard recently from a writer friend who mentioned that the venerable publication Asimov’s does not receive many submissions of novella length, thus the magazine hasn’t published a novella in several issues. (Sidenote: I love hearing about these "problems" which I could solve by simply writing, don't you?)

(Using the image from the Ender's Game audio book since this cover is the one I originally read the novel with.) 

I just today saw the movie Ender’s Game. Few know that Ender’s Game started out as a novelette (very fun fact: which my agent, Ben Bova of the Barbara Bova Literary Agency, originally purchased from Orson Scott Card in the 1970s. Ben edited Analogmagazine from 1972 – 1978.) The novelette Ender’sGame first appeared in the August 1977 edition of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

The novel (longer length) was first published in 1985, with an updated version released in 1991.

I’ll have to talk about the movie in another post (short point: see it.) But one really strong sense I had from the movie, having read both the novelette and the novel of Ender’s Game, is that it adhered closely to the action present in the novelette. Much of what was added to make the novel was not part of the movie (e.g., the subplots related to Peter and Valentine back on earth.)


Could it be that short novels (however you call them – novelettes, novellas, blue blobs of ink on paper) offer some advantages to full length novels? And some advantages over short stories? Particularly when adapting to movies comes in? Evidence: I am Legend, the Will Smith vehicle from the 1954 novella of about 25,000 words. 

Most books are 250 or more pages. Most screenplays are in the 120 page range. Roughly half a book (yes, yes, formatting peculiarities make for some differences in actual length, but this rough guess of a screenplay being about half as much content as a book holds in general.)

Length estimates for short story/non-novel distinctions usually vary quite a lot, but I tend to use the designations Wikipedia lists. Good enough for me. Most recognize a break in the 17,000/18,000 word range, and a smaller one around 7 or 8 thousand.
ClassificationWord count
Novelover 40,000 words
Novella17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette7,500 to 17,500 words
Short storyunder 7,500 words


An additional point of evidence around novellas and other short novels/long short stories is the fact that independent publishing has removed conventional rules around story length. We writers are able to write to the length that stories take us to tell them. We don’t have to write longer because that’s more “marketable.” Who cares how long (or short) a story is?

So all this to say – what are you waiting for? Go forth and write shorter-than-novel length…somethings! There’s clearly a market for them both within the current professional fiction marketplace, as well as inside Hollywood.


  1. I can't wait to see this! Although clearly I can wait, since I haven't seen it yet. I'm feeling awfully sorry for myself about it though--can you believe they don't show opening nights on airplanes??? What kind of medieval society are we living in?

    This is such an interesting concept--the idea that novellas might make the best movie adaptations. It makes so much sense.

  2. Oh man, let me tell you, pro markets that accept stories of greater than 7,500 words are few and far between. I know this because my default story length is about 8 or 9,000 words.

    The next time I get a longer story that fits what Asimov's publishes, I'll be sure to give them a try though.

  3. I agree that novella's would translate much better to film. I'm always disappointed when a huge tomb of a novel that I love is reduced to 2 hours movie. They just don't have the space to do the story justice. Word around forums has always been that novella's are hard sells, but I've never looked into it personally to see if they are right or if it is just one of the myths floating around. I do think with self publishing and e-books that a lot more variety of stories, including length, will find success. It seems that publishers have put constraints on publishing that readers may not care about. So we'll see. :)

  4. Good point, Sabrina, that there are not as many markets that accept stories longer than about 7000, 8000 words. However, if you're open-minded about indie publishing, then in a way the novella path is a much more straightforward one than the path with a 4000 word short story that you could keep submitting to magazines over and over and over. Instead with a novella you can submit to the smaller number of possible markets, and when you've exhausted the markets for your genre, just publish the book yourself! Depending on length you can call it a "short novel" and charge as much as $2.99 for it.

    MaryAnn - you're right that with independent publishing, we have more freedom around length. Readers generally don't care about length, so long as they understand when they're buying a short story versus a novel (I've seen critical reviews on online platforms when an author doesn't clearly specify that a work is a short story/shorter work. Even when the price seems to indicate a shorter work! There's a glut of regular-length novels selling for 99c so you have to be quite clear in your product descriptions, I believe.)

    Now if only I could find a way to sneak some of my longer short stories into Hollywood...


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