‘What are you writing?' can seem like quite a simple question until you consider the range of possibilities. I'm currently in the early stages of shaping a new story and I'm still not quite clear on exactly what it is 🙂 Will it be stand-alone, or the start of a new series? What word count should I aim for?
So in this article, I'll go through some of these distinctions. You can read more articles on writing fiction here.
Word count distinctions
You might start out with wanting to write ‘a novel,' or a ‘short story,' or you might just start with an idea and then figure out whether it's got enough in it for a longer work.
Regardless of how you start, it’s helpful to know how many words you are aiming for so you can calculate how long it will take to write that first draft. Here are some of the main options:
This is usually under 1,500 words and while difficult to sell for profit, it is certainly a great way to get your creative muscles working and to challenge yourself. It's also a way to get exposure to your work as you could give one or more of these stories away to build your mailing list or even circulate them in your author newsletter or on social media. Check twitter for #flashfiction to see some examples.
A short story is usually considered to be anything up to 7,500 words, or the length may be prescribed if you're writing for an anthology or a competition. You can definitely make money with short fiction, although the amount will depend on the markets for it, and your production schedule. For more on this:
- Tips on writing short stories that sell by award-winning author, Alan Baxter
- Making a living with short fiction by Dean Wesley Smith
- How to Make Money Writing Short Fiction with Douglas Smith
Short stories can be published on their own, or used to create anthologies in collaboration with other authors. Once you have a number of your short stories, you can combine them into your own anthology as I did with A Thousand Fiendish Angels, my three stories inspired by Dante’s Inferno.
Novellas usually range from around 17,000 through to 40,000 words. They are now very much back in fashion thanks to the ebook revolution. Even James Patterson has his own series of Bookshots, a rebranding of shorter works with the tagline,
“Life moves fast—books should too. Pulse-pounding thrillers under $5 and 150 pages or less.”
Many classic books from authors such as H.G. Wells or Hemingway were relatively short. The trend towards longer books happened because publishers wanted book spines to stand out in physical bookstores to attract more attention.
But with ebooks, the spine plays no part in a reader’s decision to purchase your book. You get the same amount of (digital) shelf space whether you are selling a short story, a novella or a novel.
Novellas are quicker to write because they are shorter and it’s easier to hold a story in your head for 30,000 words than for 90,000 words. If you don’t want to start out with a full-length novel, then write a novella. I find them easier than short stories as well. I currently have 3 novellas, the most recent being One Day in New York.
Novels need to be over 40,000 words and different genres have different expectations in terms of word count. A romance reader will be happy with 50,000 to 60,000 words. For thrillers it's 60,000 to 90,000, for example, a James Patterson novel is usually around 70,000.
Epic fantasy can have 120,000 words or even double that. Fantasy fiction readers often have an expectation of longer books because the worlds are so complex and there are lots of characters involved. The main takeaway from this is that your word count needs to bear some resemblance to reader expectation.
Once you have decided what type of book you are writing, which genre you are writing in and the approximate word count, you can then consider which of two ways you will approach your writing.
- Start with an idea, develop your story, and then see how many words it ends up being
- Decide to write a book of 70,000 words (or a short or whatever you decide). Then, calculate how many scenes you will need and fill in the ideas later. That is usually my approach. For my latest ARKANE thriller, End of Days, I knew I wanted to write around 65,000 words, so I planned to write 32 scenes of 2,000 words each and so I needed enough ideas to fill those scenes.
Standalone, Series or Serial?
The next question to consider is whether you are writing a standalone book, a series or a serial?
Let’s look at each of these as it will make a big difference for plotting, creating characters and deciding what you want to achieve with your books, assuming this is just the first of many.
The Standalone Novel
Within a standalone novel, all the story and character arcs are complete and there are no loose ends. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Stephen King’s It are two examples of this. The standalone is equivalent to a feature film. It has a final ending.
Could you revisit these characters again in a sequel? Possibly, but it would be unlikely that you would want to as the endings have been sewn up so neatly.
Standalones are generally more difficult to market, however you publish. Although again, this differs by genre.
Horror and literary fiction are often dominated by stand-alone books – although for different reasons.
Romance might feature a happy ending with one couple which wraps up their story, but many romance authors will have series around a family (e.g. Bella Andre's Sullivans series), or a specific place e.g. a small town, with more characters to work with.
If you get a traditional publishing deal, it's likely that it will be for two or three books, therefore you will have to write more stories to satisfy your readers anyway and this is definitely easier if it is a series.
Alternatively, if you self-publish, having a series is the best way to make more money per customer, and it’s much easier to market a series. If you look at many of the best-selling authors in the world, such as James Patterson or Nora Roberts, they usually produce books in a trilogy or longer series.
My dark fantasy novel, Risen Gods, co-written with J.Thorn, is a stand-alone book, although we've considered writing in a similar theme based around the myths of New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific. It is definitely more difficult to market because it's stand-alone. If you do choose to write stand-alones, then at least write them in the same genre so your readers might want to buy more.
There are two main options with a series:
- The main character continues from book to book in various different situations. Agatha Christie’s Poirot fits as a series character where the murder mystery is different every time. Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Ian Fleming's James Bond or Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan are other examples.
- The world remains the same and the characters come and go, but a complete story is told in each book. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett fits this model.
You can also combine the two. My ARKANE series (so far) has mainly featured Morgan Sierra as the protagonist alongside Jake Timber, as they solve supernatural mysteries around the globe and stop the bad guys from destroying the world!
However, One Day in New York features Jake Timber as the main character, teaming up with a new character, Naomi Locasto, and I'll be writing more with that pairing in my USA spin-off books (on the way!)
The main advantage with series is that once people are immersed in your world and involved with your characters, they are likely to buy all the books in that series and eagerly await new titles. Even if they discover you later in the series, they are likely to try the backlist.
It's also easier to get promotion and merchandising slots with BookBub, Kobo and iBooks if you have more books in a series as the return is likely to be greater.
Serials go in and out of fashion. When paper was expensive, people enjoyed stories published weekly in magazines rather than in books. Charles Dickens originally serialized The Pickwick Papers ,and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin was also serialized. These days we are more used to serials in TV format, where the story is told over multiple episodes. Westworld was a fantastic example of this recently, as the episodes were addictive viewing, but you didn't know what was really going on until the end.
A serial is different from a series in that each episode or part ends on a cliffhanger. You have to wait for the next book to find out what happens. This enrages some readers and pleases others, so be very clear if you're writing a serial in book format and ensure releases are close enough together to keep readers engaged.
Indie authors Sean Platt & David Wright tried the serial model for Yesterday's Gone back in 2011 and then sold Z2134, a zombie serial, to Amazon Publishing‘s 47 North imprint. Kindle Serials still has a page on Amazon.com but is no longer open for submission at the time of writing. The bestsellers on the Serial page are a few years old, so it looks like the ‘official' serial model has not proved as lucrative as expected.
However, it is widely acknowledged in the indie community that writing a series and putting out the books in a relatively close time frame e.g. within 90 days of each other, is the best way to attract readers and sell more books.
Over the course of your writing life, you are likely to try a number of these options but hopefully, these distinctions will help you if you're just getting started. If you know what you're aiming to write, it will help you move onto the next step, which is fleshing out your story.
If you’d like more help with writing your first novel, check out my course, How to Write a Novel: From Idea to Finished Manuscript.