Different lengths of story serve very different purposes. Partly this is about the art: how big is the idea you want to explore, and how many words will it take? But it’s also about your path as a writer. Different story lengths are useful in different ways.
Some older books on writing, especially in genres such as science fiction and fantasy, recommend starting out with shorts as a way to grow an audience. Sadly, this advice is now outdated, due to the shrinking of the short story market. But short stories can still be incredibly useful.
Creatively, short stories let you get practice at plotting and character development without committing to a long work. They let you write about ideas that won’t provide enough plot for a whole book. They force you to practice efficient writing, as there isn’t space for surplus words.
In developing your writing career, short stories are a calling card. Short story markets don’t get a lot of readers, but in many genres they include a disproportionate number of movers and shakers, both industry insiders and hard core fans. They can be a useful networking tool and a way of proving your talent.
The novella sits somewhere between the short story and the novel. Definitions of its length vary, but between 15,000 and 40,000 words fits most definitions of either a novella or a novelette.
Creatively, novellas are a useful step up from short stories, a way of practicing longer form fiction.
Unfortunately, they’re also very hard to get published. Too long for most magazines and too short for most readers browsing in a book store, they aren’t popular with large publishers. Indie presses will sometimes publish limited runs of novellas, again aimed at the core audience of dedicated fans. But mainstream publishers usually won’t touch them – in science fiction, for example, only Tor.com deal in this format, with varying success.
The backbone of the modern publishing industry, the novel is the format most people are familiar with. Many people define a decent length novel as 100,000 words and above, though you can go lower for certain genres or the right story.
If you want to get into the complexities of your characters and develop multiple plot threads then a novel is the way to go. It gives you space for long descriptions, complicated plots and substantial amounts of character growth. If you want to develop a whole community or world then you need its length.
Commercially, novels are also the easiest to sell. This is what mainstream publishers and most indies are looking for. If you want to self-publish, it’s what most of your readers will be after. If you hope to one day make a living off your stories, you can’t do that without novels.
Series of Novels
Some genres, such as literary fiction, like to see each novel as a stand-alone piece. Others encourage series, whether the epic fantasy tales of J R R Tolkien and George R R Martin or the loosely connected stories of some romance publishers.
Creatively, a series lets you get into even more depth and complexity than a single novel. You can continue to explore your characters, plot, world, or theme at greater length. You don’t have to reinvent all those things for each novel, making the planning smoother and more efficient.
As part of a writing career they are also incredibly useful if you’re writing in a series-oriented genre. Readers like to come back to familiar stories if they enjoy them. Publishers are aware of this, and will often look for a first book that can be enjoyed as a standalone while setting up a future series. If you want to self-publish then a series is the best way to get readers coming back for more, especially a series where they can join in at any point, like James Bond or The Dresden Files.
Whatever story you’re writing, think about what matters to you the most – the creative or the practical side. Then look at your options and pick a length of story that will suit you.