It depends. Although the question isn’t nearly as stupid as, say, “How tall is a battleship. True or False?”
In traditional publishing, manuscript length has some generally agreed upon standards. The most common of these are: short story, novelette, novella and novel. One could also add a couple more categories fore and aft: flash fiction and epic. For convenience sake, here’s a general guide:
- Flash fiction: 25-1,000 words
- Short story: 500-10,000 words
- Novelette: 7,500-20,000 words
- Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
- Novel: 50,000-120,000 words
- Epic: over 120,000 words
You’ll notice there’s some overlap. And, to be completely honest, the “limits” are fuzzy and vary by publisher. According to Wikipedia, the longest novel in a single volume (in English) is Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, first published in 1748. Penguin Classics produced a 1,534-page paperback version in 1986. It has an estimated word length of just under a million. (I haven’t read it, but I suspect Clarissa was a busy girl.)
When it comes to per word rates, flash fiction probably has the highest potential, especially since so-called “Pro” rates for short fiction are still under ten cents a word.
Short stories over 5K in length continue to be a tough sell, and God help you if you’re trying to sell something in the novelette range. They’re generally far too long for most magazines and far too short for traditional book publishers. If you’re lucky enough to have two or three of them handy, you could bundle them. Your best bet for this length is in ebooks. Many readers are looking for something they can zip through during a commute or two. If you self-publish, be sure your work is listed in the proper genre. Commuters can be a finicky lot. But they can also be loyal. Write good stuff, and they’ll come back for more.
Most writers I know have their sights set on writing novels (hence the title of this series). From my experience, the “desired” length for traditional publishers is in the 90-110K range. These make for great mass market paperbacks. The spines are big enough to see on a shelf, and yet they don’t take up too much space. They also command decent prices–all things which will warm a Harvard MBA’s heart (assuming they still have them; a fact not in evidence).
Full disclosure: my nephew is a Harvard MBA, but as far as I know, he’s not involved in the publishing industry, and I’m fairly certain he doesn’t follow my blog. And kindly don’t ask if he’s read my revolutionary war novel (Treason, Treason!) which should have been on his list of all-time faves. ‘Course, he has to read the damn thing first.
Anyway, there you have it. I’m guessing that unless you’re a world class, bestselling author, you probably oughta stick to lengths under a million words. Way under.
Companion question: how long is a chapter? Or a scene?
As long as it needs to be. I shoot for about 4K words per chapter, which I think is about the right amount to keep someone awake who’s reading in bed. Scene length? For me, the minimum is one sentence, more or less. Max? 4K, give or take, just like a chapter. Doncha just love coincidence?
In the long run, I don’t think chapter and/or scene length is important. Pace, however, is critical. If your scene lacks the proper pace, it won’t matter how long it is. We’ll take a look at that very soon.