Fifty thousand: the magic number. From a writer’s perspective, this number is luckier than seven, more infamous than thirteen, and deserves first place more than one does.
See, fifty thousand is the wordcount we all strive for. The one that we race toward every year for NaNoWriMo, the number that makes us get a little warm inside.
When our manuscript reaches that majestic number, we’ve written a novel.
On Wednesday, my current project hit 200,000 words. Yup. Agram Awakens is now only four thousand words shy of my target goal, with two and a half chapters left in the rough draft. I passed the magical “novel” number months and months ago.
But let’s look back, before Agram Awakens. I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo last year titled Barnslow Died. It’s on its third draft, now, and it’s hovering at 50,083 words.
Before that? I wrote a story that barely reached 39,300 words.
What happens when your story finished, but you’re only at 39,300 words? What if you’re at 42,000? 15,000? Do you just… stop? Give up, put the book down, walk away? Or do you stretch it out, pump an extra ten thousand words in just to push the story into the novel zone? I mean, is it a real story before then?
I say yes. Your manuscript is a story, no matter the wordcount. See, just because you can’t call it a “novel” doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.
Instead, you’ve written a novella.
And here’s why that’s okay:
The Truth About Numbers
In math, numbers are important. They’re the reason math is a thing. Even when advanced math trails off into x and y and z and tan(x) or f’(x,y) or some other function, they all came from numbers first. Without numbers, we wouldn’t have math.
You might say that numbers are vital.
What about in writing?
Turns out… you don’t need numbers to write. You can write a whole story without using a single number. It can even be a good story. Therefore, we can conclude that numbers are not vital to storytelling.
Including when it comes to word count.
You don’t have to surpass a certain number of words to tell a good story.
In fact, maybe you shouldn’t. I know a gentleman (he’s a judge, actually) who write flash fiction using as few words as possible. He can tell a story in under one hundred words. Can you imagine? Having to tell a story, create reader-character connection, set up conflict, carry through a plot, and resolve the whole thing in less than a hundred words?
Having read some of his flash fiction, I daresay some of them are better than entire novels I’ve read. A book that uses 80,000+ words to show me a story pales in comparison to a piece of fiction with only 82 words.
Why? Because story isn’t about the number of words or the number of pages. It’s about the emotion and the engagement you create with your reader.
Simplicity in Small Doses
The words themselves are more important than how many of them you use. If I were to take the short story I shared on Monday, Broken Snapshots, and double its word count, it would lose some of its power. A lot, actually. The story isn’t meant to be told in four thousand words, that would make it far, far too long. The pacing would be thrown off, the point-of-view would begin to feel dry, and the emotion would be strained to the point of disappearing.
Pumping a story full of words can make the story go stale. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, like eating an orange after brushing your teeth. You can’t name the taste, it’s just bad. The extra words feel forced as you read, and they probably felt forced to write as well.
So what do you do when your story falls short?
You call it a novella.
There are several ways to define novellas, I just like to call them “books with less than fifty thousand words”.
AKA, short novels.
“But Aidan, I want to publish my book!”
It may be true that some publishers will turn you down because your manuscript is too small, but there are novellas out there that are published. The most famous example may be The Old Man and the Sea, by Earnest Hemingway, which sits just around 30,000 words.
In addition, you may as well lump together all the elementary-level stories out there, because most of them aren’t near fifty thousand words (such as the Magic Treehouse series, the Hardy Boys books, and more).
Publishing shouldn’t be a problem when it comes to too few words. In fact, publishing shouldn’t be the point anyway. Telling a good story should.
My novella from 2014, The Elenivir has a target audience of 12-15. Based on that alone, its wordcount is almost perfect. And it’s not a novel.
Your story should only contain the number of words it takes to complete it.
Writing a Novella for You
Novellas have an advantage for you, the writer: they’re short. You don’t have to spend hours a day writing thousands of words to finish it. You can write a novella in a month, writing for an hour or less a day.
In fact, I recommend all writers write a novella at some point. Much as taking a break from novel writing to write short stories or poems can rejuvenate your creativity, so can writing a novella.
Novellas let you take a break from the big projects to renew your energy and concentration. When I wrote The Elenivir, I’d just come off writing a 90,000 word novel, Asher’s Song. The project I was looking to brainstorm was rather intimidating, because the more I developed it, the more Agram Awakens looked like a monstrosity.
I wasn’t ready to write it.
At the same time, however, I was high on the rush of emotions that comes with successfully finishing a story. I had to write something, because my hands and brain were itching to use that flood of success and emotion and creativity. So I dug through my novel ideas and found this silly little idea about these cat-sized dragons that gifted their owner with magical abilities.
Thus, The Elenivir was born. It gave me time to prepare for writing another novel while giving me an outlet for my creativity. I can’t claim that it’s any good (in fact, I don’t intend to let anyone read it until I’ve given it a thorough edit, if I ever manage to get around to it). The point isn’t the word count, and the point isn’t to create something worth publishing.
Write your novella for you, first and foremost.
Find a story you’ve always wanted to write, even if it’s a little cliché, a little silly, a little naïve. Let your imagination fill the pages of a shorter tale, let yourself be giddy at finally getting to write that story.
Give yourself that joy and that relaxation.
Without The Elenivir, I don’t know that I’d have started Agram Awakens when I did. I certainly wouldn’t be reaching 200,000 words. Not now, maybe not ever.