The Killer Yarn

I’ve just passed the 100,000 words mark with the fantasy novel I’m currently working on. Strange how we note these round numbers, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually matter how big it is, after all, does it? I mean, for example, who cares about the word length of, say, this paragraph?

It’s the age of the ebook, when every individual book (and every book added together and everyone’s completely library) weighs between 170 to 290 grams, surely the terms ‘short story’, ‘novella’, ‘novelette’ and ‘novel’ aren’t as useful as they once were.

After all, ‘novel’, and all the lengths that have that as the root, means ‘new’ and they’ve been around for a while now.

The Hugos define them thus:

• Short story: Less than 7,500 words.
• Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500.
• Novella: 17,500 to 40,000.
• Novel: over 40,000 words.

We can go slightly further than this: Flash Fiction is between 300 to 1,000 words. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, see (the second paragraph of the History section is the important one). A ‘dribble’, therefore, has been defined as 50 words.

It’s all nicely quaint, although shouldn’t a Novella be a female novel? (By the same token, a more female ‘Barbara’ would be ‘Barbarella’, someone with another female chromosome making her XXX.)

No-one completely agrees, of course. Novel-in-90 goes for 67,500 words. NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, defines a novel as anything above 50,000 words. (So a careful crafted Hugo winner could be disallowed by those knock out first drafts in 30 days.)

It all has the same feel as the yards and furlongs of old imperial measurements. If you pour a US gallon into a good old British and Commonwealth English Imperial gallon, how many pints have you been short changed by?
Isn’t it about time for a metric system of writing?

Might I suggest the ‘yarn’ as the steel ruler in the French National Archives along with the second and the Kelvin.

A yarn thus is – by definition – 50 words. This is a dribble, the length of an anecdote, enough to tell a story, just about. For example, my opening paragraph is exactly a yarn or 1 y. This blog, 12.9 y.

If we subdivide this, then a centiyarn is 5 words or the length of a sentence clause. This could be a useful subdivision for discussing prose as I can say that the previous, rather awkward sentence, is 3.4 cy. Readability indexes would be well to use the centiyarn. A milliyarn is half a word or about syllable. (On average there are 0.6 syllables per word, which is an allowable smidge over the milliyarn, I’m sure you’ll agree.) So the measurement system is convenient for words.

Going the other way, the 100 yarn dash is 5,000 words, which is the length of an average (using the word rather sloppily) short story or the chapter of a novel. The novel becomes anything that’s a 1,000 yarns or 1 kiloyarn or above. (NaNoWriMo becomes Inkywrimo, the International Kiloyarn Writing Month.)


• Flash fiction: up to 10 y. (1-500 words.)
• Short fiction: 10 – 100 y. (500-5,000 words.)
• Medium fiction: 100 – 1,000 y. (5,000-50,000 words.)
• Long form: 1 ky and above. (More than 50,000 words.)

Novels do become really easy to talk about. You can instantly compare the sizes of say, War and Peace (1.2 ky), Fahrenheit 451 (0.9 ky) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3.8 ky). My last book, The Derring-Do and the Year of the Chrononauts is finally comparable to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (that’s 2.0 ky as opposed to 9.2 ky). The Guinness World Record Holder for the Longest Novel is À la recherche du temps perdu coming in at a whopping 25 ky.

So, my fantasy work in progress just passed the 2 ky threshold – woo hoo!


One thought on “The Killer Yarn

  1. A wonderful idea! Gone with the Wind is approximately 7 ky, and the silly thing I’m working on comes out at about 10 ky for the whole thing, which is a nice length for a mainstream novel.

    I will adopt the notation forthwith.

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