TL; DR: What is the right size for your novel?
How long should your story be? The usual answers (‘how long is a piece of string?’ or ‘however long it needs to be’) are not always helpful. Sure, a story should be the size it needs to be, but by what magical instinct are we to tell what size that is?
In most of the writing I’ve done in the last decade I have been writing to set limits; 80,000 words for a doctoral thesis, 15 pages for a coursework submission, 1500 words for a short story competition. I resented this at first – how could they presume to restrict my genius? Later I came to accept it as a necessary evil for the sanity of the markers (something I appreciated much more when I was marking graduate scripts). Eventually, I began to appreciate that the discipline was making me a better writer.
Perhaps this was because I was studying law. Precision is vital in legal writing. Poorly drafted documents lead to legal action; poorly written claims cause legal actions to fail. This leads some lawyers into unfortunate redundancy and unnecessary complexity, as they try to cover their bases by using more and more words to try and say exactly what they mean. But this can make the document hard to read and even create contradictions make it less rather than more precise.*
Great legal writers learn to be both precise and concise. I once saw a defence barrister demolish the prosecution case with two sentences and a hand gesture. If it hadn’t been so inappropriate I would have applauded. To say exactly what you need to say and then sit down again is hugely impressive. Don’t imagine for a moment that this is easy. There is a reason why lawyers who can do this are highly sought after and highly remunerated*. Because when you get it right it is magnificent.
So how much is enough? If you have a word limit this is easy: if the limit is 1500 words then you need 1500 words. But you write more than that. You should finish with 1500 words but your first draft should be closer to 2500 words. Stephen King says that he always looks to cut 10% out of his word count, but he’s a better writer than me and has less rubbish in his first drafts. And we want rid of the rubbish.
The essential point is that you should only speak when you have something to say, and do so in as few words as possible; by overwriting and then cutting back, you are forced to keep only the stuff that is really good. If you find you are struggling even to reach the world limit then you either need more content, which means more research or more subplot, or your story isn’t big enough for the medium you’ve chosen.
It is pretty common to see people on writing forums asking how long their novel should be. Broadly, 20,000 words is a novella, 50,000 words is enough for a paperback Romance novel, 80,000 words is a standard book while 120,000 perfectly normal for a fantasy epic. If you think that 250 is roughly a page then you have the idea – 80,000 words is 320 pages.
The size of a book makes a significant difference to marketing. My wife doesn’t like to read books that won’t fit in her bag to read on the metro***. Luckily for her, French literary fiction tends to come short, punchy and in “livre de poche” (pocket book) format; luckily for me as well, because while I like my pretentious high concept writing if it gets passed 200 pages I’ve had enough. On the other hand, if I finish a high fantasy novel before 400 pages I feel cheated. And in the kindle age bigger books apparently sell better (in the absence of other measures of quality, more pages for the pound seems as good as any other).
Now if you’re working for a contract or for a set target, you’ll have an idea how big it needs to be. But knowing that you need around 80,000 words for a normal novel can actually be unhelpful. It can give you an idea of whether there is enough in your story to make it all the way to GRR Martin territory, but it might also encourage you to blather and stuff your book with filler. And if, like the mediocre lawyer, you repeat yourself and fill your text with unnecessary words then you will confuse the reader and the important stuff will lose its impact.
What about sub-targets? You could do worse than building a novel around thirty 2,500 word/10 page chapters. Ten pages makes for nice, punchy chapters that you can think about as mini short-stories****. This might get you started if you’re blocked by the question of size. Longer chapters slow down the pace (not always a bad thing), while shorter chapters deliver a blizzard of blows that may leave your reader out of breath. You can use chapter size to control the flow of the story.
But as an overall strategy basing chapters on preset word lengths is a pretty restrictive way of doing things. If you’ve not got enough things happening to piece together thirty interesting events then you may not have enough material for a novel. But it may be better to let your story breathe and go where it needs to go. If you have interesting characters they may well find trouble where you didn’t imagine it would be.
When you come back to edit you can look at the size of the chapters. The longer a chapter, the more likely the reader will get lost or get bored. The shorter a chapter the more likely the story will become choppy and jarring. If the chapter is too short for the pace, then there is not enough happening for it to be a chapter and you either need more content or it needs to be combined with another chapter. Go away and get more stuff until it is too long. Remember that you always want to be cutting back because the process ensures that you only keep the best bits. Your chapter needs to have been through being too long before it can be the right size.
Now that your chapter is too long it is time to make cuts. In particular, consider the following three steps:
Step 1: Don’t repeat yourself: In general it is better to use one word than three. Did you notice that it was kind of annoying earlier when I used “unfortunate redundancy and unnecessary complexity” when talking about bad legal writing? Might it have been better if I had just said “unnecessary complexity”?
Step 2: Don’t over-explain. Readers generally like to figure things out for themselves. They don’t need the whole conversation. If you’ve already shown me that Jane is sad, there’s no need to do it again.
Step 3: Don’t indulge yourself. It’s great that you wrote a thousand words on the village where Jane grew up, or that you researched the mating habits of the wallaby. But if it doesn’t actively drive the plot at this point, cut it.
None of these things should stop you enjoying your writing, or stop you from keeping the writing that you love. Nor does it mean that there is no room for poetry and florid prose – but it must serve the story.
Long before you start worrying about how long the story is the first thing you should be doing is packing it with incident, adventure and action; if you need a preset word limit to help you get going, then pick one, but otherwise just write.
Then, once your first draft is done, take a look at it and ask where it fits with what you want it to be. When it comes to that final question, when you ask yourself “how long should it be?”, the correct answer will normally be “about 10-20% shorter than it is right now.”
*Not always. Sometimes you really do need all those words. Just because you don’t understand them doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
**Well, not so much criminal barristers. Did you know that a new criminal barrister in London will earn around 10k in his first year, out of which he has to pay his own expenses?
*** Which is pretty optimistic of her, as the days in the year when you can sit on the Paris metro on the way to work can be counted on one hand.
**** You may quite legitimately think 10 pages is too short. Good for you. It’s your book, write it your way.
Picture: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22809952@N03/5216043845/”>Terry McCombs</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>