How long should your novel be?

This blog post isn’t about string but it is about length. How long ‘should’ your writing be? This is something I’ve been wrestling with for years since I’m a chronic over-writer and I’m usually editing like mad to get something down to the ‘right’ length. But what is the ‘right’ length? A quick google comes up with the following guidelines which I’ve compiled from various sources (a few of the links are the bottom of this post):

TypeWord Count
Microfictionup to 100
Flash fiction100-1000
Short story1000-7500
Children's book100-25K*
Novelette7,500-17K
Novella17K-40K
Middle grade fiction20-55K
Western45-75K
Young Adult55-70K
Memoir80-90K
Romance80-100K
Commercial/Literary80-100K
Thriller90-100K
SciFi/Fantasy/Historical100-120K
Epicover 110K

* Depends on age. A board book can have as few as 100 words.

Of course there are lots of books that break these guidelines and are much longer, such as Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Other are much shorter, for example ‘Animal Farm’. However, there may be good reasons to stick to the word-length guidelines, especially if you hope to be published traditionally.

  1. If your book is a vast tome, an agent or publisher with a ton of other manuscripts to get through might not have the time to read it.I recently read a blog by an agent in which she said ‘her heart sank’ when confronted with a long manuscript. On the other hand, If your book is ‘too short’ an agent or publisher may wonder if there’s enough in it to attract a reader. A busy agent or publisher may be looking for reasons to reject your book. An unusual word length for your genre might be a one reason.
  2. Excessive length may indicate that your work needs a lot of editing, an expense normally borne by the traditional publisher.
  3. The longer/bigger the book the higher the production cost.

Remember that these are guidelines, not rules. If your book is strong enough it will get published, no matter how long or short.

Self-publishing

The guidelines in the table above come from the world of traditional publishing but if you’re self-publishing do you need to stick to them? Well, no, you don’t. You can self-publish any length of book, from the very short (a short story – been there, done that) up to the enormous tome that editor or publisher rejected. But there are reasons why you might want to think about keeping your WIP at roughly the ‘correct’ length.

  1. Genre expectation – your audience will have a certain expectation about the length of your novel depending on what genre you’re writing in.
  2. Editing – if your novel is much longer than the guidelines (my hand going up here) maybe, just maybe, it needs more editing. If it’s shorter than the guidelines is there something missing? Of course if you’ve already edited the hell out of your MS and it’s perfect, not a word too many or too few, then go for it. It’s your book.
  3. Professional editing and proof-reading – are you going to send your MS off for developmental or copy-editing? If you’ve looked into this you’ll already know that the cost is on a per-word basis. I recently worked out that a developmental edit of my current work in progress by the same company I used for the first would be in excess of £1,200. This, to me, is an eye-watering amount of money, and a reason for me to think about reducing my word-count as much as I can.
  4. The cost of a self-published paperback will depend on the number of pages and thus the number of words. The longer your book the more you’ll need to charge to make a profit and you might end up going over the limit of what people are willing to pay. The minimum print cost doesn’t apply to e-books so you can offer these for a more reasonable sum and this might be the best route to publish a long book.

How to shorten your book

  1. Micro-editing. This is looking at the small details of your book on a word-by-word basis. Do you really need that word, that dialogue tag, that bit of dialogue, that description? Can you use contractions, such as changing he had to he’d? I can generally lose 5-10% of my manuscript by micro-editing.
  2. Scene edits. Do you really need that particular scene? What is its function? If it’s doing more than one thing, such as introducing a new character and moving the plot on and explaining a bit of backstory you probably need it, but if it’s a filler scene maybe you don’t. Whole scenes can be reduced to a paragraph. I know; I’ve done it.
  3. POV edits. Do you have multiple points of view? (Holds hand up here.) Do you need them all? You might think that describing some piece of action from one point of view rather than another shouldn’t make your novel any longer but my novel went from 120K to 150K when I did this. Inevitably there is some narrative overlap.
  4. Subplot edits. I’m a bit of a sucker for a subplot and having introduced multiple points of view my subplots are more detailed. When I sent off my first book to a professional editor I was advised to cut out some of the subplots. I was very reluctant to do this but I did it and now I can’t even remember what the original subplots were. Clearly, I didn’t need them.
  5. Theme edits – this is big-picture stuff and something I’m still wrestling with. Do you know what the theme of your novel is? If so, do your scenes, points of view and subplots all serve this theme? If you don’t know what your theme is or you think it’s one theme when it’s really another you may be including material that isn’t really necessary.

How to lengthen your book

This has never been a problem for me! So I’m just going to throw down a few random thoughts since I can’t speak from experience.

  1. Have you fully described your world? This applies particularly to science fiction, fantasy or historical novels.
  2. Is your pace too fast? If you jump from one action sequence to the next, it might be worth inserting a scene with a slower pace. This is often an opportunity to introduce (in a subtle way, not an info-dump) some background you might have glossed over, or have your characters reflect on what just happened.
  3. Are there enough challenges for your main character to overcome in your book?
  4. Does he/she have more than one goal? An additional, possibly contradictory, goal might open up a subplot to explore.
  5. Do you have an interesting side-character you can give a sub-plot to?

I’m going to end this post with some thoughts about my own writing. As I’ve already said, I tend to overwrite. But when I started writing short-stories and entering them into competitions or sending them off to magazines, I was up against word counts I had to get below. So I learned to edit. The shortest of my short stories is 1000 words, the longest 5000. The shortest was published and the longest won first prize in a competition. Most of my stories are 2000-3000 words long in order to meet competition word-count limits and about half have won competitions and/or been published. Sticking to a length guideline worked for my short-stories.

So why can’t I do this with my novels? Partly it’s because I’m writing the story I want to read and I like to read long complicated novels set in unfamiliar worlds. Many of the novels I love are in excess of 150K words. The first draft of my first book was a staggering 230K and I actually sent it off to an agent who actually read the whole MS in 3 weeks. (That wouldn’t happen today!) She didn’t specifically say it was too long but that was the subtext of her rejection. I later cut it down to 150K and sent it to a developmental editor who said ‘it wasn’t too long’ (hurrah!) but that it was ‘a very leisurely read’ and recommended cutting out quite a lot. I did and managed to get it down to 120K, but it’s crept back up again (see above). So, is it too long? Hmmn, not sure, and if I’m not sure I suspect that means it is. So I need to cut my novel down, not because I want to fit it to some arbitrary industry guideline but because I know it will be a better novel if it is. And that, in the end, is all that matters.

Further reading

kidlit.com/2009/11/13/manuscript-length

blog.reedsy.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel

standoutbooks.com/how-long-book

(Image credit Pixabay)

 

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