A while ago I counted up the number of short stories I had fed into the computer. I was surprised. At week 30 of that particular year, I had added 52!

Let’s not get too excited. They may not be any good, and most of them are less than a thousand words long. It’s that latter piece of information that interests me.

What if I were to make a graph of the stories, and their word lengths? Would it show that I was writing more, most in fact, within some fairly tight limits? My guess is that it would be somewhere between 650 and 900 words, and if that were true, would it suggest that I have some sort of creative pulse that generates stories that fit those limits? Or would it be the length of stories that limits the sort of stories I can write (hence those that need to be outside the limits!)?

The subject came up in discussion with a student, who said that most of his stories seem to fall around the 1500 word mark. He was asking, was that all right?

It raises the issue of story lengths, and the people whom that interests most are the people who are trying to fit stories into something. This might be columns, or pages for print, or screens, for e-zines, or minutes, for performers. That those people have those requirements may be a fact of their lives, but does that mean that we, as writers, have to stretch, or squash our creativity to coincide?

The easy answer is yes, if want them to ‘take us’. The less easy answer is, only to the extent that we want to engage with those people. The difficult answer, is no, which would rather throw the responsibility of engagement elsewhere: longer (or shorter) columns, more (or fewer) pages, more (or less) time.

The question you have to ask is whether what you are writing is for the service of the various publishers, or not. A question you might ask is, who is, or might be, or should be, if anyone, at your service?

There is also the issue of how many short stories, how many words, should we expect to generate within a given time? I have heard of writers knocking out one thousand, two thousand, three thousand or more, in a day. Do they do this every day? Do they do it five days a week? And how many weeks a year? If you are a ‘professional’ writer you might need to do it five days a week, week in week out. If you are an obsessive amateur, you might want to! Would we call James Joyce a professional? He certainly didn’t make a lot of money out it. He supported himself and his family by teaching, most of the time, and he got help from supporters that wasn’t really what you could call contractual.

Whatever we perceive as driving us to write, the amount is our business. I have a friend, who is a professional writer, who struggles to get a couple of hundred words out in a day. And there’s the matter of how much of it is good enough to publish, if that is an issue. I came across a Victorian artist’s sketchbook a few years ago. It has several exquisite vignettes, a few full page scenes, and a lot of half finished sketches. Do our disconnected paragraphs, false starts, and abandoned storyscapes count towards what we would recognise as our ‘word count’? I think so.

I wrote this article about a year and a half ago, and it’s lain fallow since. I came back to it today, looking for something to put on the blog, and realising perhaps, that I wasn’t going to send it elsewhere. I find I’m still working mainly close to those same parameters. In the intervening months I’ve had a 3,000 word story (The Sweetest Sound) taken for performance, and you can see it on YouTube using the link on the left of the page. Three thousand is still relatively long for me, but I suspect the average has crept up a little, despite a flurry of flash fictions generated by National Flash Fiction Day! This morning I copied up and re-drafted, from a notebook, a story just over 500 words long, and wrote another of just over 800, but the last two or three taken for publication that weren’t flash fictions have been around the 1000-1200 mark.

I have to confess though, I haven’t yet taken the time out to actually construct that graph!

Advertisements