Russel D McLean put up a thoughtful post on today’s Do Some Damage blogspot. It concerned the length of novels, with a side conversation about pricing relative to length. The length part was what caught my eye, though. I’ve had all kinds of problems with this.

My first published novel, The Take, will be coming out in 2010, but that was not the first novel I had written. There were several others, the first two of which exceeded 100,000 words. One of those weighed in at 180,000 words before I called it a day, although subsequent drafts eventually “slimmed” it down to about 130,000.

After those two efforts, I never again came close to those numbers. Probably because they weren’t crime novels, and everything I’ve written after that has been in the crime genre. The Take, mentioned above, topped out at 51,000 words. My others are in the same ballpark, only one of them exceeding 60,000 words, and that just barely. My latest one, which I’ve just finished, limped across the finish line at 39,000! A second going-over added about another 2000 words, but it still sits at a paltry 41,000.

I don’t know what my problem is. These stories play themselves out in a natural fashion, and in my opinion, they don’t feel at all rushed. The 41,000-word novel is even a slightly bigger story than the others and fairly begs for more words (like twice as many), but I just can’t find them to put in there. I don’t plan it this way. It’s just that when the story is about to wind up, the word count is pathetically low.

Adding clunky subplots just for the sake of piling on the words is not an option for me. I hate books that do that. These novels of mine are not overblown short stories, either. They’re fully-developed novels in every sense of the word. Every sense, that is, except length.

Anybody got any ideas? Anything I can grab onto?

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8 Responses to HOW LONG, BABY, HOW LONG?

  1. Books and novels have a life of their own. If the author is not following that, the plot will seem forced and artificial. I understand your agony. I am going through that myself in the process of publishing Better Than Cured, my first non-fiction book. I have changed the format so many times. My ideas are still evolving. I could not agree more with your thought, that of practicing until we learn how to listen to our creative ideas, not the other way around. My humble advice: follow your bliss, allow your books to evolve on their own right, and turn off the word counter. I wish you best of luck.

  2. You have got that right, Christine. Books and novels do indeed have a life of their own, taking you wherever they feel like taking you. Thanks for the good word.

  3. I understand what you mean. My novels come in around twice as long as yours, but that’s about how long it took me to tell those stories. As a reader, I like a quicker read, so long as everything is there. I don;t want to feel something has been left out, or that there’s padding. If 40,000 words is what it takes, good. I read Ken Bruen’s LONDON BOULEVARD last week. 250 pages and a lot of white space, and I didn’t feel cheated at all. I only wished it was longer because I enjoyed reading ti so much, which is a great way to get me coming back for more.

  4. Dana, it’s good to know there are people like yourself out there who can say you don’t feel cheated by a short book if you enjoyed the read.

    I read a Harry Whittington noir paperback from the 1950s a couple of weeks ago that had to have fewer than 30,000 words and it felt like the whole story was there.

  5. What ever happened to the novella?

  6. Minerva–
    I’m editing it now, and waiting for my beta reader to get done with some pressing business.

  7. David Vineyard

    I wish I agreed with everyone, but the fact it writing is a business, and in the business as it stands there is little market for books under 90,000 words.

    I happen to think the novella is the ideal length for crime and detective stories, but the novella has no market. Art is fine, but it is a shame to waste talent writing at a length almost no one will accept.

    Most writers overwrite and have to cut. My first book ran close to 300,000 words and had to be cut by more than half.

    But the sad fact is that publishers just aren’t going to take manuscripts under 50,000 words seriously unless you are already a ‘name,’ and you are probably better to work toward 90,000 at a minimum.

    I have a friend who is trying to sell his successful e-books to publisher, he even has an agent, but the publishers aren’t interested at the 60,000 word length he wrote them out.

    Sad to say this is a business as much as an art, and right now there is little or no market for tightly written books in 60,000 word range. As any professional writer will tell you sometimes the business end trumps the art.

  8. Unfortunately, David, you’re probably right. Especially when you say there’s no significant market for the novella. I’m just going to have to figure out how to tell these stories with more words, and without making it look like padding.

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