Does Length Matter?

As December and the holidays firmly take hold, the authors who did NaNoWriMo tend to either wander off to nurse their wounds and take some well-deserved time off or dive right back into trying to finish their novels (if 50k words wasn’t the end of their story) and/or edit some sense into the words they managed to churn out over the month.

I, personally, am doing my best to finish up the tail end of my NaNoWriMo project and it’s seeming the novel will likely be topping off around 75k words–a little shorter than I was hoping, but respectable all the same.

For you see, though it is called National Novel Writing Month, the 50k word goal of NaNoWriMo often leaves authors in the odd nether-space when it comes to the work they end up with (if authors stop at the 50k word mark). While 50k words is long for a novella, it’s not really considered a novel by many publishers.

Looking at the Wiki article on word count, it is listed there:

Classification Word count
Novel over 40,000 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story under 7,500 words

 

 

So what am I on about? 50k is certainly over 40k words. That makes a 50k word book a novel! When you start looking around at submission guidelines however you start finding things like:

“Preferred word counts are between 75,000 and 120,000.”

or

“We rarely publish anything under 80,000 words.”

And so, with a 50k word novel, many authors find themselves too short by a third to have many traditional print publisher take their works seriously. And that can feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth.

So what should you do? Try to whittle the story down into a novella? Beef it up into a novel? Well, there are a few things to consider.

1. EDIT.

This should be a no-brainer, but it is undoubtedly a bad idea to take any first draft you have written (especially one written in a month), pop together a query letter, and start sending it out to agents/publishers. It’s a bad idea to even think that your first draft will be exactly what you’ll have once you’ve gone through and edited. Perhaps there are useless scenes you’ve thrown in just to keep writing that you’ll chop lowering the word count over all. Perhaps you’ll realize there was an entire subplot you never fleshed out and add several thousand more words to your novel working that out. Don’t assume 50k is the office length your manuscript will be when you start shopping around. (And please, please, please don’t throw your new NaNo out into the world without edits. Publishers and agents will thank you)

2. Look into standards for your genre.

Yes, many publisher don’t really like to look at things that are under 70k words or so, but there are some genres where 50k is exactly in line with what publishers want (for example, mid-grade fiction and Romance novels). Don’t read this blog post and automatically start beefing up your story because you think you need to. You might have written something in a genre that doesn’t want long stories.

3. Consider your publishing goals.

So you’re writing in a genre that does want something longer than 50k (Fantasy, for example, is notorious for wanting longer manuscripts). Consider if those are the presses you want to go after. Want to go after big-name publishers/agents and fight for that big advance and first run? Conforming to industry standards will definitely make it a little easier for you along a undoubtedly hard trail. Planning on self-publishing, or even going after small/e-presses? You might not have to. Many e-presses quite like shorter books (even some big presses are doing e-imprints now) and small presses aren’t under the same pressure to look for things that only fit with what is out there already. If you’re happy with your manuscript as it is, look for places that won’t punt it because of word count.

4. Consider subplot

So you want to beef up a story but it really seems like your story tapped itself out at 50k. Consider if there are any subplots you want to add. When I first started writing short stories (after starting off as a novelist) I was told the main thing to keep in mind is that short stories tend to follow one or two characters from A to B and that is the end. Novels, on the other hand, have a full range of characters, and don’t have to only tell A to B. A to B can be the most important part of the story, but other things can be happening at the same time. Often there is a romantic subplot in stories (characters are going from A to B, but Male Main Character [MMC] and Female Main Character [FMC] are also falling in love) but there is no reason a subplot couldn’t be something entirely different. The characters are going from A to B, but MMC is also dealing with a severe illness. They’re going from A to B, but FMC is also doing her best to get into a good college. Think about the world around your characters and see if there is something that can be added that builds the story up.

5. Add descriptions/dialogue.

If you’re like me and tend to write large amounts of dialogue, go through your novel and look for places where you can add more description. What does the room they’re sitting in look like? What are your characters seeing? Don’t overdo it, but there should be plenty of places to build up your world while also increasing word count.

Alternatively, if you are primarily a narration writer, look at where you can add dialogue. More than once while editing I have come across something along the lines of “He told them about X” in a narration-heavy piece of writing. If the reader already knows about X, there’s no reason to rehash it, but if it’s the first time it has been mentioned, why not expand it into actual dialogue? Not only will you expand word count, you’ll also move from telling your reader about what’s happening to showing them.

6. DON’T add in meaningless filler.

Adding a subplot does not mean adding “filler” There shouldn’t be scenes that don’t have some purpose (slowing down the main story to show two characters grocery shopping just to add words is not a good idea). Likewise, adding description/dialogue does not mean throwing in walls of text/meaningless dialogue just to make a piece longer. Tolkien may have been able to get away with it, but taking three pages to wax poetic about a tree is a good way to have readers stop reading. And there is only so long readers will read seemingly meaningless dialogue before they put the book down. If your story is tight and flows well as it is, don’t sink it just for word count. Quality is still more important than quantity.

———————————————————————

Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Does Length Matter?

  1. Arphaxad says:

    Well said. I’m in a similar place as you. NaNoWriMo’s 50k was not enough to tell me story and I am working to put the finishing touches on it. I am around 95k, it looks to go to around 100k to finish, and I am hoping that is enough.

    I am going to guess that after editing though I will be around where I finish. All though I will certainly add description and dialogue that will beef the word count, there are more than likely a ton of stuff that is useless and will get cut. But that will be for next year.

  2. Martin Dumiso Dubre says:

    My story of 52k looked great to me until i read Jessica’s advice on cutting off the excessive weight. I have asked myself that i can weigh a 1000 kgs but is it realy necessary for my health? I found it’s a big NO. I’ve got to start cutting down the excess weight to look great before my readers eyes!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s