Sunday 5 May 2019

Writers’ Questions: How long should my novel be?

I’ve been blogging about books written or set in the nineteenth century for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, set in the 1840s, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’ll use my new series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today I tackle one of the top questions I hear from aspiring writers: how long should a novel be?

If you’re new to novel writing, there’s one big adjustment you need to make upfront. Readers think and talk in pages, while writers obsess over word count. Why? Formatting and content make a huge difference when it comes to determining how many pages a finished book will be. Larger fonts and margins will lead to more pages, and dialogue-heavy scenes will take up a lot of paper too, especially if you have a pithy back and forth between characters. Word count is thus the industry standard.

If you want some readerly reference points though, you can find the word counts of many famous books online and compare these to the editions you own. Google tells me for instance that Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is just shy of 88,000 words. The copy I own from Oxford World Classics clocks in at around 200 pages.

Ok, so we’re now thinking in word count. How many words then should a novel be? First, you need to determine who you’re writing for. I’ll be going into more detail about the differences between fiction written for middle grade, young adult and adult audiences in a future post, but, simply put, children and teenage readers have shorter attention spans and tend to read shorter novels. Middle grade novels can vary massively in terms of length, depending on content, but aiming for around 50,000 words is a good place to start. For YA you’ll find lots of popular outliers on the longer end, but around 70,000 words is safe.

I write for adults, so have a little more personal experience here. The organisation behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which happens each November, defines a novel as having a minimum of 50,000 words, but this is pretty misleading for the adult market. Most sources online cite 80,000-100,000 words as the sweet spot for adult fiction, with a couple of important genre exceptions. Romance novels, for example, can be closer in length to young adult fiction, while fantasy (especially high fantasy) writers have more leeway to move into six-figure word counts.

In all of this, I’m speaking about averages. There are of course plenty of exceptions to these guidelines. The later Harry Potter books grew to word counts that would be highly unusual for a debut young adult writer. Tolstoy didn’t pump the breaks and shorten War and Peace (1865-7), which is an incredible 590,000 words.

But if your word count is at either end of the bell curve you might want to consider the following questions:

1. Very long books take up more paper and are more expensive to print but readers resent paying more for them. Do you want to put off agents and potential publishers (or eat into your profits if you choose to self-publish)? Conversely, how much do you think readers would be prepared to pay for a super slim book?

2. Has your desire to write ‘The End’ led you to rush to the finish line and come up short?

3. Does your word count reveal features of your writing? For example, I tend to ‘underwrite’ my first drafts. Through the revision/editing process I have to add more—more description, more details, sometimes additional scenes. Maybe you do too? Other writers have the opposite tendency. They over-explain and repeat themselves. Is it time to get out the proverbial or actual red pen and make some cuts?

4. Did you start your novel in the right place? If it takes three chapters for anything to happen or for us to even meet your main character you may have started too early and increased your word count. Backstory is important for you to know, but readers want to start at the ‘interesting bits’.

5. Should you add a sub-plot? If you’re under word count one possibility is that your story is too simple. Adding another narrative arc could grow it to novel proportions.

6. Is your idea really a novel? If you’re struggling to get anywhere near novel length maybe your idea is best suited to a short story format. And that’s totally fine. You might also have heard of novellas (stories of around 20,000 to 40,000 words). There are many respected and loved novellas but tread carefully here, especially if you wish to be traditionally published. It is very hard for an unknown writer to have a novella acquired.

I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with novel word counts. And if you have any topics you’d love me to cover as part of my Writers’ Questions series then please let me know. You can always reach me here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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