Does length matter?

I’m an erotic fiction writer, so it was inevitable I would get round to asking this question at some point. Does length matter?

Right, that’s the all-too-easy-to-make joke over and done with. Of course, what I’m talking about is story length. So to rephrase the question: does story length matter?

Short answer. No. If a story is compelling, or entertaining, and well-told, it should be as long as is necessary, and no longer. That could be anywhere from 1,000 words to 100,000 words, just so long as the words do the job they set out to.

I could (should?) stop there. I’ve answered the question. But I’m not going to, mostly because I find the topic interesting – specifically, in relation to the art of telling erotic stories, and even more specifically, regarding selling erotic stories.

Firstly, some terminology.

The divisions between short story, novella, and novel (plus a bunch of additional categories) are pretty blurry, depending on who you ask (or where you look on the internet). Here’s one set of definitions:

Flash fiction:               Up to 1,000 words

Short-short story:        Up to 3,500 words

Long-short story:        3,500 to 7,500 words

Novelette:                   7,500 to 17,500 words

Novella:                       17,500 to 40,000 words

Novel:                         40,000 words and over.

 

Some of these definitions are more variable than others. Not everyone uses novelette as a term – short stories might be as long as 20,000 words, and everything between 20,000 words and 50,000 words might be a novel. In fact, I’d say 50,000 words is a more widely used definition of novel, and in reality, commercial novels typically clock in at around 80,000 words.

Erotic fiction thrives on the shorter forms – novels are rare. Lots of stories in collections are often in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range. Unless you’re doing something unusual, this is probably about as short as a story can be and include a reasonably full sex scene. It leaves the bare minimum for setting up the scene and letting the reader get to know the characters. This is one of the differences between literary fiction (where 3,500 words for a short story is the norm) and erotic fiction – sex scenes can’t be glossed over. To set up a story and have a good sex scene takes up words.

I can’t do it. I struggle to write stories as short as that. Some writers can, and I’m jealous of them – getting everything into a story with so few words and making it a satisfying read takes some good, concise story-telling. It’s a real skill.

Short erotic stories work as a product because lots of readers are looking for a “one-sitting” read. From a commercial sense they work because of the existence of Kindle Unlimited: the length doesn’t matter as the reader is paying a fixed rate for as many stories as they can read in a month. Once they’ve read a short story, they just move onto the next one. To sell the story (as opposed to having it read in Kindle Unlimited) it probably helps if the story is a little longer than the minimum. As far as I’m aware, most erotic stories sold as stand-alone books on Amazon are rarely less than 5,000 words. Anything less doesn’t look like very much when read on a Kindle – to charge $0.99 or $2.99 for less runs the risk of it feeling “too short”. A more common length is maybe 6,000 to 8,000 words. Highly prolific authors (I’m not one) can write these fairly quickly, and maintain a high enough output to always be “visible” when readers are searching for books on Amazon. (In my experience, a book will stay highly visible for a week or two before getting buried by new books, will still be visible to readers who are searching diligently for a month or so, and will disappear completely after three months. The only way to maintain visibility for your back catalogue is to put out new books, which hopefully attract attention to the older ones as well).

I don’t think I can make any more generalizations than the ones above. There are erotica writers producing stories of every conceivable length, at vary frequencies. Even saying that short stories are popular is to ignore the large number of people writing novels – but if I was going to make one more generalization it would be that writers leaning more towards erotic romance tend to write the longer stories and novels.

I really should stop though – someone will be able to identify an exception to every statement I’ve made so far!

So as a non-prolific author who likes to tell stories that satisfy me (either by having detailed sex scenes or having complex characters who grow through the story, or both), what length are my stories?

My shortest stand-alone story is An American Affair. It is 7,739 words long. My longest in A Bit of Rough (77,149 words). So my shortest story is a novelette, and my longest is a novel. Penny Meets the Neighbors is also a novel, at 65,024 words.

Excluding the stories mentioned above, the rest of my stories can be divided into two groups.  I’ve got a lot of stories in the 11,000 to 14,000 word range (which makes them novelettes), and a similar number of stories in the 23,000 to 33,000 range (so they’re novellas).

The novelettes tend to be the “sex” stories, the ones I’d classify as erotica. If you’ve got a free hour or so, or an evening, they make hot, fun reads. They include Farmer’s Daughter Threesome (11,194) and Poolside Threesome (13,879) – notice the common theme! (1, Coverlid Place and Meaningless Masturbation? are the other two).

The novellas are more often the erotic romances, or the longer, more complex stories. They’re usually divided into parts or chapters to make reading them easier (they may not be one-sitting reads, but they’re easy to read in a couple of sittings, with obvious stopping places along the way). Islands (23,122) is the newest, and The Sin of Love the longest (33,335). The Other Side of Town and Horny Mandy are the other stories in this category.

To circle back to the start – does length matter? No, of course not! It’s about telling a good story, as well as possible. Whatever length the story needs to be will emerge in the writing. There is a readership for every type of story, whatever the length!

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