As with last week’s post, I draw my inspiration for this post from several questions and comments we received from readers dealing with novel length. In fact, this is something that I’m asked about quite a bit on my personal blogs and at my web site, and most of the questions sound a bit like this: Writing a novel is difficult enough; how am I supposed to write my book to a specific length? How do I know before I start writing whether my book is going to be 90,000 words long or 175,000 words long?
These are important questions, particularly in today’s market, where book length has once again become an important issue for new authors and experienced ones alike.
Let me begin with an anecdote from early in my career. I was fortunate enough to contract my first novel on the basis of five completed chapters and an outline laying out the rest of the novel. When the contract for the first novel arrived I read through it and laughed at the clause stipulating that upon completion the book contain “approximately 100,000 words.” I passed 100,000 words in chapter ten of a book that was more than twenty chapters long. I barely paused to wave at 100,000 words as I cruised past on my way to 200,000+.
When I finally sent my editor the completed first draft of the novel, it was 206,000 words long — well over 800 manuscript pages. He contacted me immediately to say that he had started reading it and it seemed pretty good, but that I should expect to have to cut the thing by approximately one third. Now, it turned out that the first draft had some serious flaws and I had to do extensive rewrites, but all of them had the effect of lengthening the book, not shortening it. Later in the process, when I asked my editor about those cuts he had mentioned, he said that he hadn’t seen anywhere to make significant cuts and we’d go to press at its current length. The finished book came in at just under 211,000 words.
That was only a dozen or so years ago, but in terms of the evolution of the market, it might as well have been a century. Unless your name is George R. R. Martin, you probably aren’t going to be publishing too many 200,000+ word novels anymore, particularly if you’re a first-time author. Bricks and mortar bookstores want shorter novels for a number of reasons — limited shelf space, a desire for lower price points, concerns about shipping costs, to name just a few. Standard lengths for epic fantasy are now closer to 120,000 words. For urban fantasy the number is closer to 100,000. The third book in my Blood of the Southlands series came in at 140,000. The book I just wrote for my new project, which is not quite epic fantasy, but not quite urban either, came in at 107,000.
So, if you’re wanting to get published for the first time, those are the numbers you probably want to be shooting for. As the example of my first book shows, editors will be flexible if they feel that a book works at a greater length, but those instances are the exceptions, and if you try to pitch a manuscript that’s 225,000 words, you’re going to have a hard time even getting someone to read it.
Okay, so how do you write a novel to a certain length? (And please, let’s keep in mind that all these numbers are meant to be approximate — you should aim to get within five to ten thousand words of these numbers. You don’t have to hit them dead on.) There are two answers to this. The first is, “You don’t.” After thirteen novels, I’ve gotten to the point where I can write to a certain length and pretty much get there as planned. But I couldn’t do it early in my career, and really there was no need for me to. The easiest way to get your novel to a desired length is to write the novel as it needs to be written first. Don’t worry about length. Just write your book. Get it finished and then edit for length.
Let’s work with some hypothetical numbers. Let’s say your epic fantasy comes in at 180,000 words. Ouch. That’s about 60,000 words longer than you want it to be, or half again too long. So you need to cut your book by one third. Looked at another way, if your book has, say, twenty-five chapters (yes, this is another way in which dividing your book into chapters helps), you need to cut 2,400 words from each chapter. At 250 words per double-spaced manuscript page, that’s about nine pages per chapter that you need to cut. Daunting, yes, but not impossible. Okay, maybe impossible. But let’s say you do your best and you manage to cut five pages or 1,200 words per chapter. That’s certainly manageable, and you’ll get your word count down to 150,000 words. Not ideal, but certainly better than 180K. At least now you’re far closer to the target length than you are to 200,000 words. More to the point, you’ll probably improve your manuscript in the process. Cutting your word count can force you to find more concise ways to say what you want to say. Or . . . Cutting your word count can force you to be more concise. I just saved eight words.
Going back to that question again — “How do you write a novel to a certain length?” — the second answer is, “You don’t.” Okay, now I’m getting annoying, I know. But what you do is you write your chapters to a certain length, and you plan out your novel so that you have the right number of chapters. It’s much easier to write a shorter piece to a certain length. If someone tells you to write something that’s 120,000 words long, you’ll laugh in his or face; if someone asks you to write something that’s 5,000 words — well, that’s easy, right? Twenty-four chapters at 5,000 words comes to 120,000 words. You prefer shorter chapters? Fine, write 3,500 word chapters — about thirty-five of them. And if in actually writing your novel you find that you need one or two extra chapters (or one or two fewer) you’ll be all right — if your 120,000 word novel comes in at 127,000 or even 132,000 no one is going to mind.
“But I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer!” you say. “I can’t plan out my 35 chapters or my 25 chapters or even my next chapter!” Well, at the beginning of your career, as you’re trying to get that first novel published, you might need to try. I started out as a dedicated outliner; now I’m morphing into something of a “Pantser,” as seat-of-the-pants writers are sometimes called. You can change, and if you’re finding yourself writing novels that are forty or fifty thousand words too long, you might want to consider a new approach.
Even as I’ve come to rely less on outlines, I continue to use the chapter by chapter approach to estimating book lengths. I said from the outset that I wanted my Blood of the Southlands books to come in at around 140,000 words each, and I got there by planning each book at about twenty-five chapters. My chapters were coming out between twenty and twenty-five pages long. So if you do the math, 25 chapters times an average of 22 to 23 pages, times 250 words per page, equals about 140,000 words.
This isn’t a very romantic notion, I suppose: We like to think that books just flow from a writer’s imagination, word counts and chapter numbers be damned. But the fact is that we are not only artists, but also business people. Our art is subject to the limits and trends of the market. I love to write, and I want to continue to sell books. So I do what I can to make my books as marketable as possible, including writing my books to specific approximate lengths.
The first five books I published were all over 200,000 words long. The next book I sell to a publisher will be slightly over half that length. And it is probably the best thing I’ve ever written. If I can learn to write shorter, more marketable books, so can you.
David B. Coe