When beginning your “great American novel”, you need to consider word count. Is your piece flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, novel, or saga (epic)? The size of the piece will dictate your publishing strategy. Some publishers have standards they use when deciding if a piece is publishable.
Flash fiction is a piece that is 1000 words or less. It encompasses one thought or event. Flash fiction pieces were born out of writing contests. Institutions that have frequent writing contests will generally have a flash fiction category or the entire contest will be flash fiction.
Short stories are usually 1000 – 7500 words. Just like flash fiction, they usually only cover one idea or event. Short stories were a favorite of readers in the 1700s due to authors putting on paper the stories that had been orally told for years. Publishers aren’t fond of publishing short stories unless it’s a “collection of”. Like flash fiction, these are better as eBooks.
Novelettes (7500 – 20000 words) and Novellas (20000 – 50000 words) usually contain more character development and have more than one idea or event yet they’re looked upon the same as flash fiction and short stories by publishers. They’re harder to get published than their larger counterparts so eBooks would be the best publishing route for these as well.
Novels are usually 50000 – 110000 words. A lot of publishers would like to see 70000 – 80000 words as a base but getting a 50000 word novel published is doable.
Epics (sagas) have more than 110000 words. A piece this long usually has two or three books within the piece. Publishers and editors will normally advise the author to split the piece into two or three books and expound upon each one to make each one an individual piece. This is done for everyone: the reader gets a smaller, more readable book, the publishers save money on publishing costs, and the author gets more money than just selling one book. Make sure to add cliffhangers to the first two to draw the reader in.
No matter the size, all should be written using the same formula for your particular genre. In fiction there should be full plot, character, and setting development and writing should be consistent. How much you write or how long your book, you should have the final decision. Remember, there would never have been “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, or “Gone With the Wind” if there were no epics.