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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Writing tips - Size isn’t everything

“How many words are right for my novel?” That’s a familiar question raised by beginners. There will be as many answers as there are words, I imagine. My take on it follows.

We’re talking novels here – not novellas, novelettes, or long short stories.

A novel tells a story and you should use as many words as it takes to tell the story well. That’s the basic, rather glib answer, but it’s also valid, too. To tell the story properly, you need characterisation, a sense of place, imagery that immerses the reader into the fictional world, conflict, a beginning, a middle and an end. Usually, some change has to occur, whether in the protagonist’s life or worldview or in other characters’ lives.

Most publishers’ websites provide a useful guide to the word-count they’re looking for, and really you should attempt to comply with their requirements if you’re aiming for those publishers. Don’t try to be the exception.

Chuck Sambuchino talks at length about writers trying to ‘be the exception’. Truth is, there are a good number of authors who are the exception to ‘the rule’. But there are thousands of unpublished authors who thought their lengthy tomes were the exception too, and they’re still unpublished… The article is here.

Chuck provides a guide to the desired length of commercial and literary adult novels – say, 80,000 to 110,000 word might pass muster, anything longer might not. Certain genre fiction might differ – westerns, crime and sci-fi/fantasy, for example. Young adult seems to fit into the 55,000-70,000 bracket. Note the word 'might'...

At the outset, unless you’re aiming at a specified word-count required by a publisher, I feel that you shouldn’t unduly concern yourself with the number of words. Write the story, get the pacing and all the other aspects right, finish the novel, then self-edit, self-edit and self-edit to make each word and each scene count. When the writing does exactly what you want it to do and creates images in the mind’s eye, grabs your emotions, and doesn’t take forever to end, you’re probably ready to review the word-count. If it falls short of a publisher’s minimum requirement, examine each scene – have you wrung every ounce of emotion and drama from it? If the book is still too long by their requirements, put it aside for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes (meanwhile, work on your next book); if those fresh eyes still can’t see any non-essential scenes and repetitive dialogue, then search for another publisher that might fit better – or send it off anyway. Truth is, a book is never finished, it’s abandoned. The knack is not to abandon it too soon; be honest with yourself and be sure that you have honed it as well as  you are able.
The gate-keepers – agents and publishers – don’t know what they’re looking for with regard to content. They want to be lost in a story – whether that’s an engaging character or two, a believable created world or an absorbing theme that won’t let go. Truly, the word-count shouldn’t matter if you can supply what they want. Yet experience tells them that invariably, a long book usually means it hasn’t been edited adequately.

My wife Jennifer’s (as yet unpublished) romantic suspense novel The Wells Are Dry is 150,000-words long, even after much heart-searching editing and cutting down; yet its narrative flow doesn’t feel like it’s a long book. The same can be said of books by George R.R. Martin and Ken Follett, for example; they write hefty tomes, yet they’ve mastered narrative flow, keeping the story moving for the myriad characters, so it doesn’t seem like those 1,000-plus pages are long.
If you honestly feel you can’t cut another scene or word and you reckon the reader will lose herself in the work, then you’re in with a chance of acceptance, no matter what the word-count. Having said that, if you stick to the publisher’s requirements, you improve your chance of acceptance.
Some examples

49,000 words
52,000 words                  80,000 words
81,000 words




Kathleen Janz-Anderson said...

You always have such great tips. We hear about cutting back on words, but if it seems impossible to do, I wonder if the solution may be to turn the book into two. I looked up The Wells Are dry, but couldn't find.

Nik said...

Thanks, Kathleen. My mistake, now corrected - Jen's book is currently 'unpublished' - whether that's due to its length or other factors, not known! It was suggested that she break it down into two books but the storyline didn't lend itself to that approach. Some stories take as long as they need. :)