Does Size Matter?

Status
Not open for further replies.

Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Joined
Jun 20, 2015
Location
Cornwall, UK
The length of a manuscript influences whether it will be published traditionally. This is particularly true for new authors. I made a beginner's mistake by not considering this when I wrote my first novel The Perfect Murderer. If I'd seen any advice about how long genre novels should be, my brain glossed over the figures.

I wasn't consciously aiming for any particular length, for though I had a rough structure for the storyline I write in an organic way, allowing the action to evolve through what the characters would do in the circumstances. Sometimes they did things that I hadn't anticipated, but it felt right to stay true to their natures.

I had a brief frisson of achievement when I passed the 100,000 word count, anticipating that I'd be finished at about 130,000 words. I was correct, though after reading through the manuscript several times, then leaving it alone for a week, a nagging feeling arose that it felt distinctly unfinished.

This was mainly because there were so many questions left unanswered, to do with the fates of my two killers and their victims. I've read thousands of cop stories, mysteries and thrillers in the last fifty years, and it's always rather bothered me when I find myself thinking “but what happened to?” at the end of a story. There can be good reasons for leaving things unresolved, of course, such as the planned reappearance of a character in a sequel. Sometimes vagueness is a result of savage editing, or even forgetfulness. Raymond Chandler forgot to identify who'd killed a character in The Big Sleep.

The end of my novel felt snapped-off, full of rough edges, so I smoothed things off by writing an afterword, explaining what became of the corpses of my goodies, innocents and baddies. I also set my lead detective up for a sequel, while not ruling out that the serial killer hadn't perished and could return. This took my manuscript up to 160,000 words.

My beta-reader, who's just finished reading the novel, loved that I'd written an afterword, and that there was a feeling of optimism after what had been a rather harrowing tale. But the length of my novel is a no-no for a first thriller by an unknown author, as the guideline is 80,000 to 100,000, with most published first books being at the lower end of those figures. Other genres vary in what is expected for a word count, with science-fiction and fantasy novels the longest at up to 150,000 words, followed by historical at 100,000+ and bringing up the rear are westerns, which can be as short as 45,000 words.

I expect that we've all read novels much longer than this. I forced myself through the 1,267,069 words of Marcel Proust's A La Rechcherche Du Temps Perdu, as a teenager – I didn't have a social life! The last 69 words were the best... I've since read many other long novels by Thomas Wolfe, Iris Murdoch, John Irving, Victor Hugo and Tolstoy, enjoying them all. Sometimes it takes that long to narrate a story, and also there's a challenge to the reader to last the course. Hence the phrase “I like a nice long read.”

It's been said that 2015 is going to turn out to be the year of the long novel. After the success of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch at 784 pages and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries at 864 pages, which became the longest novel to win the Booker Prize, several other novelists have cracked the 1,000 page barrier. See – http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/year-of-the-very-long-novel.html

I'm not going to rewrite my novel, as taking an editorial chainsaw to it to halve its length would be a travesty. I don't expect a literary agent, or publisher with an open submission policy, to take the risk of publishing something that long by an unknown author, but that's OK. One needs to be an established and successful writer to have long novels accepted. It's amazing to me that J.K. Rowling got away with such lengthy books, particularly as they were aimed at young readers who supposedly have limited attention spans. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was 896 pages and 257,045 words! Something tells me that her publisher didn't want to edit the goose that was laying so many golden eggs…

I am going to write a prequel to The Perfect Murderer, which will introduce my detective and forensic pathologist characters. This second first novel will be a doddle, limiting it to 80,000 words, and I've got the enthralling sequel all lined up to publish afterwards – hurrah!

How long are your novels? Have any of you experienced similar problems of conforming to what is expected for word counts? Or have you had the opposite problem of feeling like you're padding the narrative out to reach a nice size? I must admit that I've had the wicked thought of doing this with a couple of my novellas, which are about 30,000 words long.
 
You've all heard about the "traditional fantasy/historical fantasy/magic realism" book I'm trying to agent, at about 265,000 words — The First Vision. What was originally one book I split into two, and book two is about 237,000 words. The epic fantasy specialist publishers go up to 150k. I know I'm going to have one hell of a hard time. But that's how long the story was. I could probably reduce it by 20-30%, but not 58%.

A book I wrote... the summer of 2006, or 2007, was 565k, longer than War and Peace and about 1,500 pages. I did four other books in that series before dropping it, and all of th others were nearly as log. But I was still learning and that whole series was worthless. Or at least I feel now that it is.
 
I actually have the opposite problem. My thrillers are usually on the short side. My first one is finished at just over 75K and my second one is at 72K right now. I came from writing short stories first, so that may contribute but my personal style is to write short and action/dialogue based rather than description.

That being said, I'm not worried about my lengths being a problem, but going over is a big no-no. Most agents won't even look at your manuscript if it's too long.
 
I've been wondering about self-publishing my novel online, as a serial of two to three chapters in each section. This was how I sent it to my beta reader. It's how Charles Dicken launched several of his novels, including The Old Curiosity Shop, before they were bound together in book form. More recently, Michael Chabon and Tom Wolf serialised their upcoming novels in Rolling Stone and the NYT magazine. Stephen King issued his unfinished novel The Plant online in parts, and then as an ebook.
This way of trickle-feeding a novel to readers would fit in with what has been said is the trend for bite-sized chunks of writing that can be read on the move, and might be a good way of enticing them to the rest of my books.
 
My market is MG which means I have to keep my stories about 20 - 40k. I get past this by creating it as a series. But in truth I can't really say if it has affected my writing until I have had a stab at submitting to at least 12 agents. Depending in what they say or not as the common case maybe I won't know if it's exactly what they are after.

Currently my series is around 30k for first book and am writing the second currently with third and fourth synopses penned down.
 
The finished one was 250 k at first draft. Sophie Hannah read it, very kind of her indeed, and suggested that while it was an unusual specimen of the specie, I should probably aim at literary agents looking for crime stories.

It's 85 k now, and I don't think I could in honesty present it as crime; though maybe a case could be made. The MC is a policeman with unfinished personal business. It's a standalone but there's potential for a sequel.

I dispensed with sub-plots, pretty much. They're darlings that have got to pull a lorryload of weight, or go.
 
Last edited:
In a word, yes, size does matter. If you're going to be professional about this you need to be able to write to a word count.

@Paul Whybrow you should be able to edit 160K down quite easily. The things to look out for are chunks of exposition, too much detailed description and scenes that, although fun to write, don't actually move the story forwards. Be ruthless. Kill your darlings. If you're struggling, and most new writers do, then I suggest you put up the first couple of chapters in the houses. There are several published authors on this site and if you ask nicely I'm sure they will be happy to take a look and give you some pointers.

265K @Jason Byrne is, I'm afraid rather too long. My advice to you would be to take everything you've learned from writing it and channel that into a new project, keeping the final word count in mind as you go. Do you know what is making it so big? Do you have a lot of sub-plots? Could you cut any of them out and use them in something else instead? Were you writing to a plan or did it grow organically?

I hope this helps.
 
In a word, yes, size does matter. If you're going to be professional about this you need to be able to write to a word count.

@Paul Whybrow you should be able to edit 160K down quite easily. The things to look out for are chunks of exposition, too much detailed description and scenes that, although fun to write, don't actually move the story forwards. Be ruthless. Kill your darlings. If you're struggling, and most new writers do, then I suggest you put up the first couple of chapters in the houses. There are several published authors on this site and if you ask nicely I'm sure they will be happy to take a look and give you some pointers.

265K @Jason Byrne is, I'm afraid rather too long. My advice to you would be to take everything you've learned from writing it and channel that into a new project, keeping the final word count in mind as you go. Do you know what is making it so big? Do you have a lot of sub-plots? Could you cut any of them out and use them in something else instead? Were you writing to a plan or did it grow organically?

I hope this helps.
I've heard this as well. Maybe your first published book should be one easier to market.

It is awash in subplots, I think... There are so many interrelated strands, spanning over the course of five books of similar size, that setting up and maintaining all of them becomes nigh-acrobatic.

The thing is, I have a couple much smaller, more straightforward projects, that I had been working on about six years ago and set aside to begin this one. I've been torn about whether to once again stop mid-project, and pick them back up, or spend another five years to see this series through.
 
@Jason Byrne Why not give this a try then:

Copy the document into a new file so that you don't touch the original version.
  • Identify the main character and main plot.
  • Identify no more than four or five sub plots that are all key to the main plot.
  • Identify any characters or sub-plots that can be merged or attributed to the same character.
  • Start editing. Cut out all the other sub plots and remove/merge excess characters.
  • Be ruthless.
See what you end up with. With luck it will be a tighter more focussed novel. If it doesn't work then you can go back to the original and think again.

You might find doing an edit like this is a lot of fun. A bit carving a lump of wood to get at the sculpture underneath.
 
@Jason Byrne Why not give this a try then:

Copy the document into a new file so that you don't touch the original version.
  • Identify the main character and main plot.
  • Identify no more than four or five sub plots that are all key to the main plot.
  • Identify any characters or sub-plots that can be merged or attributed to the same character.
  • Start editing. Cut out all the other sub plots and remove/merge excess characters.
  • Be ruthless.
See what you end up with. With luck it will be a tighter more focussed novel. If it doesn't work then you can go back to the original and think again.

You might find doing an edit like this is a lot of fun. A bit carving a lump of wood to get at the sculpture underneath.
Yeah... my "editing," rather than excision, has often been to add in something else, to correct the part that needed editing, rather than removing the offending section. That's a good idea, Kitty, thank you very much!
 
I struggle to write my poultry 30k words...how do you guys do it. Mind you I've probably deleted as many words as i write too!
I have no idea, but usually I get close to 100k with each novel, except the last one which was only 77k. Admittedly I usually trim 1 - 1.5k off them later ;)
 
I used to turn them out in 3 months, but the last one took 7 months, but then admittedly I was editing several other novels during that period, repeatedly. So I guess I'm getting slower. I just hope, that at the same time I am getting better!!?!! lol
 
I used to turn them out in 3 months, but the last one took 7 months, but then admittedly I was editing several other novels during that period, repeatedly. So I guess I'm getting slower. I just hope, that at the same time I am getting better!!?!! lol

Wow...I salute you sire....[I intentionally kept the typo as I thought it apt for your book ;)]
 
I struggle to write my poultry 30k words...how do you guys do it. Mind you I've probably deleted as many words as i write too!

My first novel was a pain in the butt to get to 75K. When I first wrote it, it was 57K and I had to pull teeth to get it longer. With practice, I was able to get my second novel to 71K on the first pass. Practice, practice, practice.
 
In a word, yes, size does matter. If you're going to be professional about this you need to be able to write to a word count.

@Paul Whybrow you should be able to edit 160K down quite easily. The things to look out for are chunks of exposition, too much detailed description and scenes that, although fun to write, don't actually move the story forwards. Be ruthless. Kill your darlings. If you're struggling, and most new writers do, then I suggest you put up the first couple of chapters in the houses. There are several published authors on this site and if you ask nicely I'm sure they will be happy to take a look and give you some pointers.

265K @Jason Byrne is, I'm afraid rather too long. My advice to you would be to take everything you've learned from writing it and channel that into a new project, keeping the final word count in mind as you go. Do you know what is making it so big? Do you have a lot of sub-plots? Could you cut any of them out and use them in something else instead? Were you writing to a plan or did it grow organically?

I hope this helps.
I thank you for your encouragement. I have no doubt that I could edit my 160,000 words down to, say, 100,000 words - I have a background in editing, making catalogue entries, report and precis writing. I'm aware though that by my open nature, I have a tendency to over explain things sometimes through wanting to be sure that the person I'm talking to has understood a situation, so it's something that I am watchful for when writing. Apart from adding unneeded length, verbosity can spoil a story for the reader, taking away their pleasure in wondering about plot developments.
There's a certain amount of historical context in my psychological thriller, used to explain the character of the serial killer and how he was affected by war atrocities. As I originally intended to publish the novel online, I used the desirable hyperlink feature of ebooks to highlight words, so that a reader could find out more about a subject if they chose. I fretted a bit when I saw the word count, and wondered if I'd been carried away by adding unnecessary descriptive details prompted by what I'd read online to do with war crimes and the whole Serb-Croat enmity. I tried highlighting these sections, then doing a word count in my writing software. It only came to about 1,500 words, and I decided that removing them would detract from my intention of having a villain with a more nuanced character than is found in many serial killers novels, where the bogeyman is bad because he's evil because he's frightening, and that's just about all the reader knows of him.
With any editing, there has to come a point where one asks 'am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater?' A Sunday roast meal could be turned into a burger in a bun, but much would be lost. I once cut and shut an accident-damaged Mini, making it into a drivable two seater. It was fun, but more of a novelty or toy than a real car.
I'm kicking against the traces a bit, I know, but I get annoyed at what are seen to be the acceptable lengths for genre writing. There's a snooty separation over what is termed a literary novel and a thriller, romance, sci-fi or fantasy story. Of all genres, the historical has gained some credibility when it comes to the rarified world of book awards, thanks largely to Hilary Mantel. Literary novels are almost expected to be long, whereas genre stories have to conform to weight categories like so many boxers. Just as comedies rarely win any Oscars, so it is with literary awards where anything that could be called as fitting a specific genre becomes invisible. It doesn't matter how well written or readable it is, or even that it has outsold a highly praised novel by Jonathan Franzen ten to one.
Any genre has writers of different styles, which affects how long their books are. Elmore Leonard is a master of the pared-down laconic way of telling stories, much different to the beautiful descriptions of landscape and ruminations on places and people that James Lee Burke makes. Leonard's Rum Punch is 3o4 pages long, but the formatting is designed to expand the book to that length, whereas with Burke's Black Cherry Blues its 366 pages look like they've been densely compacted to reduce their bulk.
 
The word count guidelines are there as a general rule for new writers or unknown writers unless we are exceptional in some way. Exceptions would include a large enough fan base that are hooked regardless.

Of course the only to get around this is self-publishing and build a following that way.

I like your mini conversion @Paul Whybrow . My dad introduced me to kit cars and ever since I've always wanted to build my own car..alas I'm more theory than practical.
 
@Paul Whybrow No-one is under any compulsion to listen to or act upon the advice offered in these forums, but if you ask a question we will try to help.

If you are hoping to follow the traditional route then it's a good idea to pay attention to the preferred word counts etc. Its tough enough to get a book deal without making things harder for yourself. Also be aware that editors and agents quite often ask for extensive revisions and you have to be prepared to compromise.

However if you are opting to self publish none of this matters and you can do whatever you like.
 
@Paul Whybrow No-one is under any compulsion to listen to or act upon the advice offered in these forums, but if you ask a question we will try to help.

If you are hoping to follow the traditional route then it's a good idea to pay attention to the preferred word counts etc. Its tough enough to get a book deal without making things harder for yourself. Also be aware that editors and agents quite often ask for extensive revisions and you have to be prepared to compromise.

However if you are opting to self publish none of this matters and you can do whatever you like.
Kitty, I agree with what you advised. How can I not, for it's how the publishing industry runs. I'm being a bit of a grumpy lion in what I've said. Also, I despise that way that everything, including books is becoming formulised - which leads to homogenisation with no variety. It's true that self-publishing offers the chance to be different, as well as the strengths of being able to modify a story quickly, even responding to feedback, but there's the massive problem of how to raise one's profile to market the books.
Conforming to guidelines about what is foolproof, whether they come from computers or humans, is flawed. There's a story about a would-be author on one literary agent's blog, where he angrily replied to the rejection letter that he'd received. He pointed out that he'd plotted the key characteristics of 100 best-selling detective stories, laying them out on a graph, and that his novel included all of them and that they took place at exactly the right time in the plot. The agent had another look at the manuscript, and sure enough he recognised many of the twists from other books, albeit altered to disguise their similarity. But there were too many of them, and the inexperienced author had failed to create any characters that a reader could empathise with.
Writing has conventions that need to be adhered to, but it's finding ways of expressing the differences that makes an author's voice unique.
 
Kitty, I agree with what you advised. How can I not, for it's how the publishing industry runs. I'm being a bit of a grumpy lion in what I've said. Also, I despise that way that everything, including books is becoming formulised - which leads to homogenisation with no variety. It's true that self-publishing offers the chance to be different, as well as the strengths of being able to modify a story quickly, even responding to feedback, but there's the massive problem of how to raise one's profile to market the books.
Conforming to guidelines about what is foolproof, whether they come from computers or humans, is flawed. There's a story about a would-be author on one literary agent's blog, where he angrily replied to the rejection letter that he'd received. He pointed out that he'd plotted the key characteristics of 100 best-selling detective stories, laying them out on a graph, and that his novel included all of them and that they took place at exactly the right time in the plot. The agent had another look at the manuscript, and sure enough he recognised many of the twists from other books, albeit altered to disguise their similarity. But there were too many of them, and the inexperienced author had failed to create any characters that a reader could empathise with.
Writing has conventions that need to be adhered to, but it's finding ways of expressing the differences that makes an author's voice unique.

But in giving that example doesn't that show that writing is not formulated? (Incidentally I did read that anecdote somewhere too...just the other day..except in my reading it was 10 bestsellers not 100...can't put my finger on where though.)

One only has to visit the local bookshop to see this demonstrated. In my experience I find that there is a lot of variety out there. Word counts rules are for general guidelines but the content is free reign.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Back
Top