One of the core skills of a writer is to be able to write to length. Sometimes this involves stretching the word-count to get to something credible without losing the plot. Often it means chopping back and back to remove all superfluous text and cut a rambling piece down to size. Sometimes it means complying with the word-maximum criteria of an editor, a writing competition or some other challenge.
Book-buyers may exercise their own, individual, rough and ready, on-the-spot judgement about value-for-money: The weighing of the number of pages of a novel against its cover-price; pound weight for pound cost.
How long is long enough? Does it really matter? It all depends.
There is no absolutely defined number of words that make up specific types of writing. At the same time, ‘How To’ books for writers have rarely shied away from giving their views on what might constitute ‘a proper length’ – always with the caveat that a good piece of writing can break any rules.
Books can be Volumes, and length has been put forward as an important quality of a novel – long enough for characters to develop fully, for plots to unfold, for the narrative to arc to a natural conclusion. It is variously put as somewhere between 40,000 and 175,000 words. There are no firm rules and there is an arbitrary division, at the lower end of the word count, between a novel (more than 40,000-60,000 words?) and a novella (maybe 15,000 to 50,000 words) and a novelette (maybe 6,000 to 17,000 words). Bringing up the rear is the short story (up to around 7,000 words?).
Non-fiction has its own ideas of length. When doing a doctorate I was given a word guideline of 80,000-100,000 words. Editors of factual magazines, manuals, guidebooks etc can each have their own very tight expectations and requirements.
One view regularly put forward is that readers these days have an increased need for text that can be more easily read in bite-sized chunks, in shorter times, to compete with others things seeking to grab the notice of people with ever-shorter attention spans. This may or may not be true, but is a reason put forward why shorter (and less demanding?) forms of fiction are gaining in popularity.
Within traditional printing and publishing only certain lengths were seen as commercially viable. New technologies alter the business models of writing, and publishing ebooks has enabled shorter and shorter works to be offered at commercial pricings. This gets round having to bundle a good story up with others to get a collection of the right length; or the stretching of an excellent 100 page novel into a weakened 300 page version. One version of the newer model is Amazon’s Kindle Singles: Typically pitched somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 words.
Where books have been specially written for e-readers there has been a tendency to increase the range of shorter reads: 30,000-50,000 words; and to offer these on a lower price-range. Published books have seen a similar trend, but in ways that extend the range of lengths and complexity available.
For some time, writers of short stories saw a steady reduction in outlets for publication. There has been a recent resurgence, however. More short stories have been offered as anthologies; more offered as quick-reads. It is not just that there is more appetite for short pieces of fiction; their rich uniqueness as a written form is back on the agenda as collections of short stories have begun to win prestigious awards. The 2009 Booker Prize was awarded to a collection of short stories and the same prize was won in 2013 by a work made up of writings that extend to just a few pages, or just a few sentences. They have still been seen as stories but also described as Miniatures, or Parables, or simply Texts.
Similarly there is a growing market for shorter versions of non-fiction: articles – especially the ‘Lists of …’, ‘How to …’ and ‘Top Tips …’ variety. The growth of these shorter forms, alongside full-length novels, has parallels with the massive growth of YouTube video clips alongside TV series and full-length films.
Where things were once judged on their length (Quality being in comparison to ‘War and Peace’?) there is now a fascination with brevity.
Very short fiction has a long history but ‘flash fiction’, as a form of writing of extreme brevity, is a fairly recent term (stemming from the 1992 collection ‘Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short stories’?). Again, there are no absolute upper or lower limits but flash fiction initially referred to anything as low as 200 words or as high as 1000 words. Micro-fiction has been used for pieces shorter than this, although many of the terms are used interchangeably.
Certainly the internet has opened up opportunities for putting this form of writing before a wide public, and has seen a popularity of the genre of telling a story in as few words as possible. Not that this is a new phenomenon. There is a (somewhat disputed) account that, for a bet, Hemingway wrote the shortest story he could that would make people cry – coming up with the six-word ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.’ What is new is the widespread publication of these very short fictions.
The internet is full of challenges to write Six Word Memoirs (Your life encapsulated in just 6 words); or jokes such as ‘Six words that will kill any date’ or ‘Six words to scare…’ or ‘Four words to end any marriage…’). There are Twitter challenges to tell a full story in 140 characters. Maybe this is fiction’s equivalent to poetry’s Haiku.
I was recently part of a flash fiction challenge with a particular angle. Under the title ‘Change the Ending – Stories that matter’ it was flash fiction about the future of public service life, grappling with the complex choices facing local government staff today. The challenge was to come up with a credible tale, offering those involved in the public sector a new perspective: one that describes a reimagined future, avoiding the doom and gloom realism that fills much current local authority outlook – and to do all this in exactly 350 words.
The outputs from forty-two contributors, writing in an eclectic range of styles and topics, were published in Oct 2014 by www.sharedpress.co.uk. ‘Change The Ending’ is available via Amazon.
My contribution, based on my own observations over forty years of City Council employment, centred around the idea of the personality of an organisation – and how there can be multiple views and overlapping expectations. The organisation can be regarded as having multiple personalities.
Certainly the city I know best has a strong sense of nostalgia for those late Nineteenth Century civic founding-fathers who established many of the things we now take for granted – better housing, sewerage systems, cleaner air, street lighting, free education…. These were visionaries with power. Mixed in with their legacy is a respect for those later civic leaders who built on their nonconformist religious beliefs to improve the lives of the poor through planning, regulation and welfare. Into the same mix gets layered the managerialism of leaders concerned with efficiencies, performance, design and delivery… up to the latest need for local authorities to act as advocates for citizens and commissioners of change, rather than providers of services. All of this has to be resolved if cities are to move on into the future and not get pinned by past attitudes. This is my contribution:
Change the ending: Subject K finds a new role in life
K is a complex case. We have had several sessions and it became clear, early on, that the subject combines four different personalities. These don’t take over. You wouldn’t know they were there, shaping and reshaping, silently constructing from within.
I take K’s words and deeds; forensically peeling thought processes; dissecting different influences; seeing what comes from these distinct beings.
The oldest one – Joe – is staid, strict; with immense reserves of energy, ambition and pride. He points to dynasties from which he inherited obligations and moral standards that no-one can ever live up to. Joe sits in stern judgement.
The youngest – Sue- feels at risk, to the point of paranoia; worried and uncertain, with occasional acts of self-harm. She deals with uncertainties through endless checklists and post-it plans. She spent in the past but now faces an empty purse.
The other two are male (making Sue feel even more vulnerable). Stanley, the older one, is Welsh, non-conformist: ‘rough-handed but smooth-talking’. He claims to be ex-army and onetime civil servant in India. He reflects a need for structures, commands, controls: the very stuff of empire.
Alan is an engineer: full of visions, missions and management-speak. Where Joe and Stanley are dedicated to creating, Alan is intent on running things: Extending the reach; Pushing the boundaries; Making the difference.
Every day K wrestles with these varying demands, without even recognising that they are there.
Today’s breakthrough for K was the realisation of a way forward. If there were a role that picked out the best of everyone then that would free up the spirit, refreshing a sense of purpose. The right role would give Joe no grounds for moral objection, would satisfy Stanley’s need for duty, would still allow Alan to make the difference, and would free Sue from worry.