Chapter Length

This blog post comes by request: “I currently have a chapter that is only about seven sentences. Is that too short? How many words do there need to be to make a chapter a chapter?

The simple answer to those question would be: “No, that’s not too short” and “One, if that” but let’s dig into that a little further.

When it comes to chapter breaks, there aren’t any true rules. They can be as long or short as you want. In fact, you don’t even have to have chapters if you don’t wish to. It all comes down to what is right for your manuscript.

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In my own writing, I don’t bother with chapter breaks in my first draft. Since I tend to write out of order, it doesn’t make much sense to try to put them in on the first go around. Even if I am writing in order, I know enough will likely change come edits that entire chapters might go after the fact (In my latest novel, Raining Embers, what would have originally been the first three chapters were condensed to one, for example). Because of those overhauls, I personally just put in scene breaks when originally writing. Once I have a somewhat solid draft, I then go in and find scene breaks that work well as chapter breaks each about ten pages from the last.

Personally, I stick to relatively even chapters. Chapters, after all, are there to give readers periodic breaks. How you chose to do place your breaks, however, can affect your manuscripts quite a bit.

  • Steady, even chapters. My personal choice, mostly because even chapters of medium length (generally around 2,000 – 4,000 words or so) tend to draw the least amount of attention to themselves. Readers expect to find chapters, and quickly fall into a rhythm, so tend to read the story without too much thought given to the chapters. If you don’t want much attention drawn to chapter breaks, try this method.
  • Quick chapters. Quick chapters (generally under 2,000 words or so. Sometimes much shorter) are great for keeping pacing up. Thrillers and horror novels often keep their chapters on the shorter side of things to keep readers feeling like they’re flying through the action. Sometimes chapters will drop down to only a couple of pages (or even less) to achieve that goal. When mixed with medium-length or long chapters, they can also be used draw attention to something strange or especially shocking. If you want a sudden impact, a very short chapter in the middle of long and/or steady ones can be very effective. Note: Because it is shocking, however, use with caution. You will be drawing the reader’s attention to the chapter break along with the narrative which can backfire if not done well.
  • Long chapters. Long chapters (over 4,000 words or so. Sometimes much longer) tend to have the opposite effect of short ones. The reader gets a grand, sweeping sensation that often suits grandiose scenes or narratives. When mixed with shorter chapters, long chapters can also give a feel of a “continuous take” camera shot in a movie, where there’s not meant to be any sort of break in the action/visual for thematic reasons. Less shocking than a quick chapter in the middle of longer chapters, it is easier to slip in without drawing large amounts of reader attention, but changing to a long chapter tends to work best when there is tension building or some other sort of scene that should really draw the reader in.

As with all choices when it comes to writing, it really is a matter of what you are attempting to accomplish in your manuscript. It is also possible to try a few ways out and then change them if they don’t seem to be working after the fact. Just always consider what you mean to do when making these sorts of choices for your manuscript to have the best effect.

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.

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Word Limits

Today’s post: Word Limits or: Why won’t they publish my 300,000 word novel?

People write some long novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is 145,469 words long. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead 311,596. And, of course, as the king of long novels, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287. With most novels clocking in around 100,000 words (give or take 20,000), Tolstoy has arguably written six books in one, and Rand a one-book trilogy (with the shorter of her two most famous works).

Word counts can be funny things. Interestingly enough, I seem to have some sort of power over my novels. If I’m aiming for a 80,000 word book, I tend to get one somewhere within that range give or take 5,000. My first NaNoWriMo novel, which had the goal of 50,000 words, wrapped up at around 50,500. Aiming for 80,000 with my latest project The Copper Witch (which has just moved into the submission stage) I finished up around 86,000.

Continuously managing to write a story within a general word count, though (be it through subconscious tinkering, or anything else) , doesn’t seem to be a universal trait amongst writers. And that’s something I completely understand. A story has a natural progression. It’s done when it’s done.

So what is there to be done when how long (or short) your novel is seems to be what’s keeping it from being published? Aren’t the word counts they give generally arbitrary anyway? As one NaNoWriMo Forum poster puts it:

I’ve read somewhere that 120 K is the upper limit for a new fantasy writer, which seems really… short for a fantasy novel…I still can’t believe it’s set as the upper limit.”

Now, first, I’d like to say I’ve never found 120,000 words short. My fantasy novels tend to be around 80,000, but perhaps that’s because I don’t write Tolkien-style epics.

Second, as the earlier books I’ve listed in this blog show, it’s possible to get a book published that is more than 120,000 words. You should never say “can’t” when it comes to publishing. Doing certain things can make it harder to get published, but nothing I have yet seen makes it impossible to get a book published.

But why do publishers even care about word counts? Sure, if the story drags on and on, that’s a problem, but if it’s action-packed and engaging for those 200,000 words, what’s the problem?

Having worked on both sides of publishing–as a writer and as someone working at a publishers–I can only point to one fact that is all to easy to forget as a writer. Your manuscript might be your baby as an author, but as a publisher, the manuscript is a product. Writing might be art to you, but writing is business to a publisher. Unless writing is your only source of income, money is something that might just be an added perk to us writers that coincides with seeing our books in print. To a publisher, however, those books are all business. It’s an added plus sometimes to give a first time novelist a shot at their big break, but if even a book you love isn’t likely to make a profit, it just isn’t something a publisher with a good business plan will take on.

So why does a publisher keep putting out the same generic vampire books? Because they sell. Why doesn’t a publisher put out any more vampire books? Because the market seems oversaturated and they aren’t as likely to sell (or the acquisition editor is sick to death of them).

And word counts come from this same need to mitigate risk and maximize profits. Beyond the fact that it’s likely many long manuscripts could do with a harsh paring down, there are two big problems with books over 120,000-150,000 words:

1. The longer the book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Unless you are going through a vanity publisher (and thus paying the press to put your book out) the general rule is money flows to the author, not from. A reputable publisher will pay for formatting, cover art, editing…and just about every other “start-up” cost there is to putting out a book. Focusing on the editing aspect of that, the longer your book is, the more they’re going to end up paying there editors. After all, there’s a reason I charge more editing a 200,000-word book than a 10,000-word one. The longer the book is, the longer it will take to edit. Especially edit well. If you’re paying an editor per project, you’re going to be paying for them more for a long project. If you’re paying an editor hourly, they’re going to have to take much more time to edit a long book. Even if you’re paying an editor a set salary, they may only be able to get one book done when  they generally would have three ready to go. Since most publishers worried about quality have at least three rounds of edits, that can add up to a lot of extra man-hours.

And then, of course, there’s just the production cost in general. With ebooks it’s changing a little, but as long as print books are popular, the longer a book is the more it will cost to print (ink, paper, etc.) Printing an initial run of 1,000 300,000-word books basically uses the same amount of supplies as 3,000 100,000-word books.

2. The longer a book is, the harder it is to sell. Now, this isn’t a “people don’t like reading long books” point. Obviously people are willing to read books that are longer than “average”. Going back to the fact that the larger a (print) book is, the more paper is needed to print it–the more paper in a book means the more it will cost to ship, and the more shelf space it takes up. Most bookstores prefer to have a range of books out, and thus don’t like taking many thick books, especially ones by unknown authors.

Likewise, with shipping and printing costs quite a bit higher for long books versus short ones, to make money off longer books they need to be priced higher. Now, not only do you have  to sell the story to someone (since not all plots are loved by all people) but you have to find someone who is willing to foot the cost of all that extra time and material. Someone who’s willing to pay for a book at $14.99 might not be so willing to by it at $24.99. There’s a psychology to marketing, and how you’re able to price things is a big part of that.

Add the fact that you have fewer books in general to sell in one run to the fewer buyers, and publishers see a lot of warning lights going off.

With the growing popularity of ebooks, perhaps the word count barriers will start to come down. The cost of pixels doesn’t go up with how long a book is. Even if you can’t decrease editing costs, you at least would be able to save money on printing and be able to price a long book close to a shorter book. But for now, limits on length when it comes to submissions makes complete sense to me.

Limits might be annoying to writers, but publishing isn’t about pleasing writers. You want the authors you work  with to be happy with edits, and cover art, and all of that stuff. But as a publisher, how the book sells dictates whether or not you get a raise, get promoted, or heck, even still have a job next month.

And so, with the surplus of manuscripts floating around out there, publishers can be picky about where they spend their time and money. While anything can happen based on whose desk a manuscript comes across, things that pose a financial risk (too long a book, an unknown author, a plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit any one genre) are often looked at critically.

After all, a book is art to an author, but business to a publisher.

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