The Odd Border Between Novella and Novel

Posted: August 5, 2021 in Reflections, Writing

Lately, I’ve been contemplating word counts. Not mine personally, at least not only mine, but in general. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the difference between a novella and a novel.

Now, ask any publisher, agent, or writers advocacy group (go Horror Writers Association!), and they’ll have their own guidelines on what designation to give a story based on its length. Even other authors have their own ideas about when a short story becomes a novelette, a novelette becomes a novella, and a novella becomes a novel.*

For several years, I went with the following classification guide:

  • Flash fiction: 1-1000 words
  • Short stories: 1,001-10,000 words
  • Novelettes: 10,001-20,000 words
  • Novellas: 20,001-59,999 words
  • Novels: 60,000 words and up

But for the past couple of years, I’ve used the one used by the Horror Writers Association:

  • Flash fiction: 1-1000 words
  • Short stories: 1,001-7,500 words
  • Novelettes: 7,501-17,500 words
  • Novellas: 17,501-39,999 words
  • Novels: 40,000 words and up

While I use the system, however, I still find parts of this system odd. The changeover from short story to novelette and novelette to novella, I’m fine with. After all, it’s only a difference of 2,500 words from my old system. That’s not much in terms of fiction writing (especially when I write). And most publications set their short story limits at about five or seven thousand words, so it makes sense.

But the difference between novella and novel bothers me. It’s a difference of twenty thousand words, which is a lot no matter who’s writing. And perhaps because of that, forty thousand feels a bit short for me to be comfortable calling any story at forty to sixty thousand words a novel.

Especially when you consider some famous novellas are well above forty thousand words. My favorite novella by Stephen King, The Library Policeman, is over 77,000 words! That’s as long as the first Harry Potter novel, which is a novel by any definition. Other novellas by King, such as The Mist and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, are well over forty thousand words. Believe me, I checked.

Still not sure how this counts as a novella. At least by HWA standards.

I was so curious about this, I actually asked my followers on Twitter and the other members on the HWA Facebook page what they thought. And while I wouldn’t call this a scientific study by any means, the responses I’ve gotten so far have been illuminating. Over on Twitter, about 77% of respondents said a novella became a novel at fifty or sixty thousand words. Meanwhile, on the HWA Facebook page, the majority of my comrades said they felt a novella became a novel at forty thousand words. Sixty thousand was the minority opinion.

What does this all say? I don’t know. Maybe that these designations are pretty arbitrary and that calling a story a novel, a novella, or even a short novel, doesn’t really matter much. Unless you want to give editors, agents and the like an idea of what they’re getting into, or what category you’re submitting a story to for an award.

Or, if you’re like me, you want to cut a short novel to novella length:

One of the stories in the collection I was shopping around is actually technically a short novel. I wasn’t planning on editing it, but I decided to edit all the stories,** and I realized that this one not only needed another pass, but a big reduction in word count. I think it would be better off as part of a collection rather than as a standalone novel.

Problem is, it’s a lot of words to get through. And while I’ve reduced it by a lot already, it’s still got a long way till it’s novella length.

Then again, if King can put together a bunch of short and not-so-short novels and call them novellas, I guess I could put one short novel in a collection of short stories, novelettes and novellas.

Though I’ll still try to get it under forty thousand words while still being a good story. And believe me, there were places where the word count could be cut to make a better and more succinct flow.

Me trying to edit this story and get its word count down.

Anyway, thanks for reading, my Followers of Fear. I was trying to get my thoughts off my chest, so this post kind of turned into a ramble. And given how crazy this subject is, I’d love your thought on the subject. Where do novellas become novels? And does it really need to be defined? Or is it better for the story to be defined so you know what to do with it?

Until next time, my Followers of Fear, good night and pleasant nightmares!

*Not that the guidelines really make that big a difference. Even if there was some uniformity on the matter, magazines and publishers decide what word counts they’ll accept, such as “Only short stories under 2,000 words” or “novellas between 20,000 and 25,000 words.” Still, for contests and awards like the Bram Stoker Awards, it’s useful for figuring out which stories go into which categories.

**Good thing too. I realized one story needed to be edited a lot more till it was ready, and another was just crap. I’m taking them out and only shopping the first one once I know it’s of a better quality.

Comments
  1. I think horror novels work well shorter, so I’m totally okay with saying a novel is only 50k and a novella is up to 49k. But I don’t ponder too much on it because, like you said, publishers and awards have their own categories.

  2. I think it depends on genre. For instance I believe 40,000 is considered a novel for romance, but for high fantasy people can get sketchy if it’s under 100,000. I think Horror and romance are both considered the consumable type of books – where fans will devour one a day – and so short is acceptable, while fantasy, for instance, is typically for readers who take much longer to read the book, hence the longer preferred length. That’s just my opinion, of course, but it’s something I’ve observed over the years.

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