Size And Scope Matter: Is Your Idea Is Big Enough For A Novel?

Whether you want to write a novel, novella, or short story usually depends on what you love to read. But it's also about your story idea.

Some ideas spark enough conflict and create enough questions to fill a novel or perhaps a series of them.

Others lend themselves to a quicker resolution. If you try to force one of those into a novel it feels like you're doing exactly that–forcing. Or stretching, filling, or padding, none of which makes for compelling reading.

How do you tell the difference?


All the points here cover what's typical, which means there are exceptions to every rule.

Keeping that in mind, a short story typically runs 1,000 to 5,000 words but can be as long as 20,000. Novels for adults are usually at least 45,000 or 50,000 words or more, with fantasy novels often above 100,000 words.

In between short stories and novels are novellas. Below 1,000 words usually is thought of as flash fiction.


  • Focus

Most short stories delve deeply into the life/mind/heart of one main character.

There simply isn't space in 5,000 words to develop more than one in enough detail to capture readers attention. The other characters' actions and words are relevant only to the extent they directly impact that main character.

In contrast, while a novel nearly always has only one protagonist, quite a few characters' lives are explored.

Some characters have their own stories that intersect with the protagonist's, but perhaps only in peripheral way. Readers often become great fans of side characters and may read the book as much to see what happens to them as to the protagonist.

  •  Number

The number of characters in a short story is usually limited to a few or a handful. Or perhaps only one.

If you try to use twenty named characters in a short story, it's likely your reader will be confused or you'll find yourself expanding into a novel or at least a novella.

Some novels have a fairly small cast of characters as well, so this factor isn't a black and white answer. But if you have only a few characters, it weighs on the short story side of the scale.

  • Growth

Good stories, whatever the length, feature character growth.

Ask yourself how dramatically your character must grow or change by the end of your story. If you want to show a complete turnaround, a novel will likely give you the space and time to make that believable.

It's not impossible to show dramatic change in a short story. Your main character can have an epiphany that causes a significant character development.

But in the flip of the number of characters factor, a tremendous amount of character growth typically weighs on the side of a novel.


Most short stories have one plot and only one plot. There are no subplots about the main character or about side characters. There simply isn't room.

Novels, in contrast, almost always feature a subplot or several subplots.

For instance, in The Girl On The Train, the main plot is solving the crime the protagonist believes she's witnessed. Subplots include her relationships with her ex-husband and the friend she's staying with, as well as her self-esteem issues and struggle with alcohol.

As another example, the plot in Pride and Prejudice follows protagonist Elizabeth and her relationship with Darcy.

A very well-developed subplot, though, occurs between Eliza's sister Jane and Bingley. That subplot gets almost as much space in the novel as the main plot. The novel also features subplots about Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia, her father's realizations about himself, and her friend Charlotte.


Short stories usually take place in a short timeframe.

That timeframe could be anything from hours to days or weeks, but is rarely longer.

Novels, on the other hand, can span decades or generations.

That's not to say a novel can't take place in a shorter timeframe. Right now I'm working on one (The Charming Man) that occurs within less than twenty-four hours. But as I'm doing it, I've realized a few times what a challenge it is to compress so much into a short timeframe.


As with timeframe, a short story often features only one or two settings. Otherwise, the need to describe each setting alone can stretch the narrative beyond the common length of a short story.

In contrast, novels often range across the world (or more than one world).

Point Of View

Most writers tell their short stories using only one point of view. That keeps the reader focused and engaged and keeps the scope of the story narrow.

Some novels also are told from only one point of view, that of the main character.

Private eye novels are often a good example of this approach. But novels allow for exploring multiple characters' viewpoints because you have enough space to transition the reader from one character's world to another's.

If you prefer to tell the story from more than one person's viewpoint, or if your story demands the reader see through more than one character's eyes, your idea probably is best suited to become a novel.


None of these factors presents an open and shut case for what type of story you're writing. But the number of points-of-view, storylines, characters, and settings you need, and the timeframe and character growth required, provide good guides for whether your idea will work best in a long or short form.

If you're still unsure, though, experiment.

If you start what you think is a novel and discover your conflict resolves within a chapter or two, you can always go back and simplify whatever you need to so that it works as a short story.

If you're up to 20,000 words in your “short story” and you're introducing a new character vital to the plot or you've embarked on a subplot that absolutely needs to be there, congratulations, you're probably writing a novel.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel

The Zero DraftAt a Sell More Books Show Summit I attended author Rachael Herron used a term I hadn't heard before: the zero draft.

By this, she meant the initial very rough draft–so rough you'll never show it to anyone–of a novel.

That phrase fits my first draft of a novel perfectly.

My zero drafts:

  • ramble
  • include storylines that trail off to nowhere and others that start mid-stream
  • include incorrect character names and characters who disappear
  • are filled with errors.

And that's the good parts.

For me, though, starting with a zero draft is the most effective way to get a novel written.

What works for me may not work for you, but if you'd like to write faster or are having trouble finishing your novel, why not give it a try.

The Zero Draft Frees You

Though I didn't use the phrase Zero Draft, for all the books I've published, both fiction and non-fiction, it's exactly what I write first. (Typically I do a rough outline before the draft, but you can write the zero draft on the fly if you'd rather.)

Allowing yourself to write a draft that makes no sense and has all the faults I mentioned above shuts off the editor side of your brain.

It's the best way I've found to write and finish fast because you know the draft will be bad and unreadable. You know you won't show it to anyone. Ever.

So there's no reason to go back and fix anything as you write. And there's no reason not to keep writing all the way to the end.

Plot And The Zero Draft

For me, the zero draft revolves around the plot. I want to get my story on paper so I can see how well it works and improve it later.

This draft is where I see if my rough outline truly works.

Usually the first half follows the outline very well, though I often realize there are gaps I need to fill in so that it makes sense. The climax also usually remains as I expected, at least from a big picture sense.

I know who wins and who loses, so to speak, and often where the climax will happen.

Typically I change what happens from the mid-point to the three-quarter point. Sometimes that's because my feel for the story and characters changes as I write. Or I realize what I thought would be a dramatic turn doesn't truly grow out of what came before it or feels dull–like merely more of the same.

On the fly, I try out a new three-quarter turn, making notes in brackets about what might need to change in the pages before.

Because of these changes, the last third of the zero draft is often what I think of as thinner than the first two-thirds.

But that's okay.

Later I'll rearrange and expand. My changes to the first two-thirds when I rewrite almost always require that and guide me when I revise the last third.

What Not To Worry About In Your Zero Draft

You can write the zero draft fast because there are a whole host of things that usually slow the writing process that you can ignore:

  • Continuity

This is a big one.

When I write the zero draft, I don't worry about changing a plot line in the middle of the book. If I'm concerned I'll be confused later I write a note in brackets and bold, something like: [change so Cyril stalks Tara before she meets him].

This approach saves you from going back and revising the early chapters, or perhaps the first half, of your novel each time you have a new idea.

Skipping those on-going revisions saves you a lot of time if you reach the end and realize you don't need that character after all, or you're dropping that sub-plot that seemed so brilliant when you were halfway through.

  • Character Development

To love your story, your reader needs to be engaged with your characters. But the zero draft isn't the time to worry about that.

If I know the character well and the words flow about that person, I include as much about the character as I want.

But if I simply need a character to fill a certain role–sidekick to the antagonist, alternate suspect in a suspense novel, protagonist's boss–and I haven't worked out who that person is, I simply write that character doing whatever it is I need the character to do.

Some characters don't even get names.

I just finished a zero draft of The Charming Man, Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series, and I've got characters “named” Neighbor1 and Neighbor2.

  • Line Editing

Now and then in a zero draft I'll craft a sentence or paragraph that does exactly what I need and has a nice ring. Those sometimes survive to the final novel.

Most of the time, though, the lines will be rewritten for one reason or another. Many of them will be cut.

So as long as you've got what you need so that you understand it, don't worry about things like perfect grammar, ideal sentence construction, or using the same word too often.

Just write.

After The Zero Draft

Once you have your zero draft on paper, you'll probably feel two things:

(1) Happy you finished (so celebrate!)

(2) Overwhelmed about what to do next

Rachael Herron suggests going through the zero draft and writing one sentence on an index card or sticky note for each scene. (You can also do this using Scrivener or some other software that allows you to write the digital equivalent of index cards or post its.)

This process gives you an overview of your plot.

I love this method, as it gives me a chance to see the gaps, the disconnections, and the lack of logic. (Did I mention my zero drafts are awful?)

I then rearrange and make notes on what I need to add.

After that, I revise the zero draft, again focusing mainly on plot but also on adding the characters I need and dropping the ones I don't. I don't try to write in depth scenes. My goal is for the story and the cast of characters to make sense.

Once that's done, I set the book aside for at least a week before I start the real revision process.

Which is a subject for a future article.

Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the five-point plot structure I use, or want to try applying it to an outline or rewrite of your novel, download these Free Story Structure Worksheets.

Writing A Flagship Series (And Why You Should)

Last weekend I attended the Sell More Books Show Summit. In the first presentation, Author Chris Fox talked about how and why to write a flagship series.

As I listened, I realized that without knowing it I’d started what I hope will be a flagship series. The talk helped me hone in on how best to build that series (my Q.C. Davis mystery/suspense series).

If you’re hoping to make a living writing–or you want to develop long-term fans–writing this type of series can help.

The information below comes mainly from Fox’s talk, but it includes my own thoughts as well. So any errors (or inept explanations) are mine.

What Is A Flagship Series?

A flagship series is one that readers and fans (and often non-readers) know by name. Such a series is as well known as, if not more known than, its author.

Many fans read or follow only that series and not the author’s other works.

Think about the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

Most people know the name of the series even if they don’t recall the author.

Devoted fans not only read everything about Harry Potter and any related characters, many will buy Harry Potter merchandise, post about the world on social media, and see all the movies.

A lot of these fans, however, do not cross over to read Rowling’s mystery series (written under pen name Robert Galbraith), which I love just as much.

Another very well known example of a flagship series is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Each mystery features her private eye Kinsey Milhone and begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, starting with A is for Alibi.

Elements Of A Flagship Series

Flagship series should be:

  • Well Branded

The brand should be easy to identify, as in the examples above.

Two other well-branded series are John Sandford’s “Prey” novels (each includes the word Prey in the title) and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series. Either the titles or the characters make it easy to identify that each new book belongs to the series.

This requirement is one reason my Awakening series doesn’t qualify.

While the titles are somewhat similar (The Awakening, The Unbelievers, The Conflagration, and The Illumination), I took the name from the first book in the series. I include it in sub-titles, but it isn't otherwise recognizable the way Sandford's Prey novels are.

Also, The Awakening is a title that’s been used far too often for other books and movies, so it's unlikely readers will associate it only with my supernatural thrillers.

  • Long 

Fox suggests the series ultimately should include at least 1 million words. If your novels are 80,000 words long, which is about average, that would be 12.5 novels.

The idea is that the reader should become lost in the world of the books.

I think it also helps to write an open-ended series. That way you can always write another book in it if you want to.

Mystery and suspense novels focused on the same protagonist have this advantage, which is part of why I started my Q.C. Davis series. If it goes well and I still enjoy it, I can just keep writing it.

  • Designed To Create Loyal Readers

These readers not only buy each book but often publicize a flagship series for the author. They might post on social media, tell friends, buy and display merchandise, or write fan fiction.

Pluses And Minuses Of A Flagship Series

If you successfully create a flagship series, you’ll have lifelong fans.

When you write a new book in the series, readers will be eager for it and excited about it, something most authors dream of. They may even write you to hurry you on.

This demand for additional books will occur without the need to do a tremendous amount of marketing. Built-in demand makes it far easier to earn a living as a writer.

As an example, though not quite a flagship series, I did build some following for my Awakening series.

When I set the fourth and final book for preorder a month before release, I had 50 times the number of preorders as I got for The Worried Man, the first book in my new series.

The only downside I can see of a flagship series is that authors sometimes end up feeling trapped by it or get tired of writing it.

They may want to write about a different character or different world but find that readers are primarily interested only in the flagship series. Also, the longer the series runs, the more limitations there are on what they can do with the characters.

For most of us who are working on establishing and growing an author career, though, the idea of having those types of problems sounds very appealing.

Creating Reader Loyalty Through A Flagship Series

Creating a flagship series means including certain elements that help readers become and stay engaged with the series.

  • Open Loops

Open loops are questions you raise at the beginning of the series that aren’t resolved in the first book or the second or the third….

Wanting the answers keeps readers eagerly picking up the next book despite that the main plot in the current book resolves.

Fox gave the example of the television show Lost which raised numerous questions in the very first episode.

Book 1 in The Awakening Series

Many audience members watched the entire series in the hope of getting answers to those questions. (I personally felt the series didn’t resolve enough of them, but I watched faithfully the entire time.)

Another TV example of an open loop is Fox Mulder’s on-going quest to find out what happened to his sister in The X-Files.

In my Awakening Series, an open question from Book 1 was what originally caused my main character Tara’s supernatural pregnancy. That question isn’t answered until the fourth and final book.

  • Narrative Drive

Narrative drive encompasses the running plots woven throughout the series.

For example, in each of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels, the crime is solved. But Stephanie's romantic relationships remain a running subplot. For many books, she wavers between a policeman boyfriend and a strong and somewhat shady private security guy.

Wanting to see what happens next in her relationship is part of what draws readers from book to book.

  • Character Growth

Significant changes in the characters keep readers engaged.

In Harry Potter, we see Harry and his friends struggle to learn how to harness their powers. We also watch them grow from children to adolescents to young adults.

Fox noted that all the characters in a flagship series should change dramatically throughout. So the protagonist, antagonist, and side characters should all experience significant character growth.

In some series readers become nearly as invested in the side characters as they are in the protagonist. Think about the hugely successful Twilight series. Readers were Team Jacob or Team Edward.

Likewise, in the Hunger Games Trilogy, Peeta goes through radical changes in his personality, his view of the world, and his feelings for Katniss.

So what are your favorite flagship series to read?

Are you writing one yourself?

Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

Should You Use A Pen Name?

I recently got a question from a new author about whether or not to use a pen name.

The closest I’ve come to a pen name is that on this site and on my non-fiction books, I use initials. So I’m L.M. Lilly.

My fiction is all under my full name—Lisa M. Lilly.

(I was once asked why the “M.” Basically because otherwise my name sounds a little too much like a romance writer—or an exotic dancer as my godmother once said. As I write mystery, occult, suspense, and thrillers, I thought that might confuse potential readers.)

Why Use A Pen Name

Here are a few reasons authors use pen names:


  • To keep writing separate from other professional pursuits

If you have a job or profession where you fear your writing might affect how colleagues, bosses, clients, or others see you, a pen name can be a good option.

Writers who cover potentially controversial material or otherwise write something that they don’t necessarily want business associates to connect with them often use pen names.

If you’re a professor and you write erotica, for instance, you might prefer your students not to know you wrote the steamy book they’re reading.

Also, you may worry that your boss or clients will think you’re not focusing on their work/business/issues if they know you’re also pursuing another goal.

As someone who wrote while also running a successful and busy law practice for many years, I think there’s no reason you can’t do both.

But that may not be everyone’s view, so you need to weigh whether that’s a concern.

  • To stay anonymous among family and friends

Similarly, some authors don’t want family and friends to know what they’re writing.

If you’re writing political thrillers or essays that espouse a certain point of view and it differs from your family’s, you may not want to get embroiled in the political discussions you could otherwise sidestep.

If as you write you’re thinking about people you know reading your words, that could inhibit your creative process. A pen name is a way to avoid that feeling.

It also avoids friends and family (and enemies–but you don't have any, right?) trying to figure out if characters are based on them.

  • Separating genres for readers

I use initials for non-fiction to make it easier for readers to find my other similar books.

If you read Super Simple Story Structure that doesn’t mean you’ll be interested in my Awakening supernatural thriller series or my new Q.C. Davis mystery series.

And the converse is likely to be even more true.

So I prefer that when a reader of The Worried Man clicks on my author name, the books that display are my other novels.

Likewise, when a reader of one of my Writing As A Second Career books clicks on L.M. Lilly, that person will see my non-fiction.

Pen names also can be handy for different types of fiction.

If you write both hard science fiction and romance, you may want to write one under your actual name and one under a pen name. That way, readers of one genre will more easily find the type of book they like.

  • Separating genres for algorithms

From what I’ve read, Amazon’s algorithms also try to match readers with authors.

Using different names for different types of writing helps the algorithm send readers to the “right” books.

The Downsides Of Pen Names

Using a pen name–or more than one of them–has downsides.

  • More names = more work

If you are writing under more than one name and you want to publicize your work, you’ll need to spend more time building your pen name’s identity.

You will likely want to create social media accounts for each name, as well as author profiles, websites, and printed materials.

  • You won’t be able to leverage existing social contacts

If you truly want to keep your pen name separate or anonymous, you won’t be able to use your existing social and work connections to help market your book.

If you don’t want to stay anonymous and are using a pen name for other reasons, you’ll still be adding a hurdle to people learning that you're an author.

As I noted in The Top 5 Reasons Your Friends Won’t Read Your Book And What You Can Do About It, often friends and family aren’t the best source of sales or support for your author career.

But some of your connections will be.

I published the first two books in my Awakening series while still running a busy law practice. I was regularly in touch with hundreds of lawyers all over the country.

Because I published under my own name, it was easier to let them know about the books and for them to find them organically.

Some have bought the entire series.

Others have told friends and colleagues about it, and some connected me with other professionals (such as graphic designers and other writers).

Using a pen name would have added a layer before my business colleagues could find me. It also would make it more difficult to connect with them on social media.

  • True anonymity is hard to find

Staying truly anonymous can be a challenge in today’s world.

Author’s notes, biographies, and comments on social media all give clues to your real identity. Ensuring that doesn’t happen takes extra time and effort that you could devote to your writing instead.

And no matter how much you do, readers may still figure it out.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to stay anonymous if it’s important to you. Just know that you may put in that effort and still find you can’t really be anonymous.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few pros and cons, so feel free to share in the comments.

Also, if you have a question please send me an email at [email protected] and I'll do my best to answer in a future article.

Until next Friday—

L.M. Lilly