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Authoring, Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my book lengths

Now that you’ve started on your journey to being an author, you’ve probably noticed that not all books are created equal. Some are short and others are long, some chapters stretch into the horizon and others you miss with a blink, some are in a series and others aren’t. Don’t get me started on the different genres (that’s farther down in this post).

Suffice to say, there are a ton of different kinds of books. I’ll go through a few of the differences in this post along with a couple of marketing tips for anyone eager to make a living on their writing skills.

First, the most obvious difference: length. Short stories, novellas, novels. The words get thrown around like a hot potato, but not as tasty, and there are many disagreements for their definitions. My solution? Don’t sweat it. Write the length your story demands and don’t care what anyone thinks. The only use lengths have is for marketing where an advertiser demands a certain length to post your book (like Bookbub). Each retailer calculates lengths differently, anyway, so no matter what page length you aim for they’ll all be different (iTunes and Amazon being the two obvious examples where a book might be 320 pages on Amazon and 250 on iTunes).

For anyone curious, though, I have compiled a brief list of the different book lengths (by total number of words).

  • Short: 1-5k
  • Novella: 6-20k
  • Short novel: 21-49k
  • Novel: 50k-499k
  • Tome: Tolstoy

But what about chapter lengths, you say? Readers don’t want to be a hundred before they get to the next chapter. Here’s my rule for chapters: if the scene changes, change the chapter. If X talks to someone and then goes and talks to someone else, then that should be two chapters (unless the conversations are short, then it’s one chapter. You didn’t think I was going to be consistent, did you?). Personally, I try to keep my chapter lengths between 1,500 to 2,000 words. Any shorter and I feel I’ve cheated the reader. Any longer and it feels like an eternity for me. However, keep your audience in mind when writing your own chapters. A sci-fi fan might be more comfortable reading a longer chapter than an erotica reader.

Now that we’re on the subject, let’s talk about your Audience (capitalized because they’re so important. Why else would you be writing if not for them?). Keep in mind your audience, otherwise you might lose your ‘voice’ for the story. The ‘voice’ is who your characters are. It’s how you write your characters so your Audience can relate to them (or hate them. The depth of the emotion is what’s important, and making sure it’s the right emotion to the right character). Does your Audience like first or third-person? Do they like sassy waitresses with purple hair, or a woman who wants to be dominated by her man? Always ask yourself what your Audience wants, and they’ll reward you by coming back for a second helping of your writing.

The Audience leads us into the genre in which you’re writing. There are some unwritten rules for some genres. For example, many romance readers prefer HEA (Happily Ever After) endings. For historical books, modern English is frowned upon (no contractions, or only for the lowly peasants). If you haven’t given your Audience what they want they won’t spare the rod in their reviews.

Now that you’ve pleased your Audience, how many books are you going to be writing? Will it be a serial, series or stand-alone? Stand-alones can be popular for one-nightstand reading, but a series can keep you going without straining your imagination through constant creation of a new world. Offering the first book of a series at a discount or for free can benefit both you and your Audience. You can even write a prequel to offer as the loss-leader (author-speak for offering a book as discounted or free to attract readers).

Here’s some general definitions of the various book groupings:

  • Series: there are typically at least 3 books in a series. Each book can stand on its own, but more is gained by reading all the books and usually in a set order. There can be multiple story arches within a single overarching storyline
  • Serial: a single story broken into chunks that usually can’t stand on their own such as single focused story arc. Television shows that have ever used ‘to be continued’ are a good example of this setup.
  • Stand-alone: a single book without a prequel or sequel. Many films fall into this category such as The King’s Speech, History of the World: Part 1, etc.
  • The hybrids: a series where the books can be read in any order, but they contain the same characters in different situations. The majority of television episodes fall into this category.

Now that we have the details of your book, Audience and genre down, go out into the world and write it!

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Mac Flynn
Mac Flynn