10.10.2012

Let's Talk About Length

An accurate illustration of the length of Stephen King's The Stand
I mean book length, you pervs.

So, how long is your book? At what point do you start to have an idea for how many words something is going to be? Do you have a word count "goal" in mind for your books?

There is a long held school of thought that length doesn't matter. That the length of your story is the length of your story, and you shouldn't even think about it when you're writing.

Well, that's nice and all, and it does make sense from a purely artistic perspective, but people who say this likely haven't spent much time in the publishing world, where length in fact DOES matter, whether you're submitting short stories to magazines or novels to publishers. It doesn't matter as much in the indie/e-publishing world, but I'll get to that. In the traditional publishing world, depending on your genre, if your book doesn't reach a certain minimum, or if it exceeds a certain maximum, it will either be considered a novella (which a lot of traditional publishers won't publish), or it will result in a costly tree holocaust that might scare some publishers away.

I have learned over time that if you're writing books for kids, it's okay to have a short book. Between 50K and 70K is probably standard from what I've seen, especially for debut titles. There are exceptions, of course, but if your YA book is 53K, it's probably not as much a reason to panic than it might be if your YA book was supposed to be adult fantasy, sci-fi, or pretty much any other genre. In those cases, it's not a bad idea to shoot for somewhere between 75K and 95K (again, if you're a "new" author). Adults are, theoretically, supposed to have wider attention spans and the ability to read thicker books, and certain fans of certain genres demand them. There is a sweet spot a lot of publishers do like to see. Something that doesn't send their print costs soaring too high and that will be appealing to most mainstream readers. If it's super long, you usually need to have a proven track record before they'll print your ginormous doorstop.

For what it's worth, when it comes to novels, I do write with a word count goal in mind, taking into account the genre and the audience for said book. Having the goal also helps to ensure that I'm able to properly stretch my wings and let the story breathe. I'm a notorious under-writer, meaning I tend to cut corners on a first draft in order to get it done, and therefore my books tend to be a lot shorter than I originally intend, which forces me to go back and expand certain sections. Which is annoying and tedious and kind of sucks the joy out of the process. And probably makes the book not as good as it could have been.

I would love for STRINGS to be around 90K words. I want a hefty tome, but not so hefty it makes a publisher wince. I want it to be one of those books that someone in a store picks up, reads the description, and goes "Hell yeah. This'll be be one hell of a ride." Instead of, "Who's got time for this shit?" and putting it down. And then calling their doctor because they threw out their back in the process.

No one would be illiterate or hungry with books like this
No offense to anyone who writes books that long. I think, again, it comes down to audience. Fans of high fantasy and Tom Clancy would expect nothing less than something as thick as a New York deli pastrami on rye. And personally, I like longer books from my favorite authors. If there is a Stephen King book under 300 pages, I already feel a pang of sadness before I open the damn cover.

E-publishing has really relaxed these standards, though. That's because regardless of how long or short your story is, a Kindle still weighs the same. And no matter how long it is, you will still have readers who will complain that something is too short. Regardless, because you won't have to appease a business owner's optimal print cost/shipping/shelf stocking formula, the girth of your book really only needs to please you, and you can rest assured knowing that because your book is over 40,000 words, your 47K word book still qualifies as a novel in some circles (like the SFWA), and you can then market it as such.

But going back to the first argument about how length should be a non-factor in storytelling, there is some truth there. You don't want your obsession with an arbitrary number forcing you to pad the living shit out of your book, adding things that make it feel stuffed and stilted when it could very well be that you've written a novella and you should be happy with that. And you don't want to cut out the huge pieces of your epic that made it interesting, all because you don't want it to be "too long" for a publisher's consideration. If your book qualifies as a novel, and if after editing the hell out of it and getting input from other readers you truly believe it is just long enough, submit it and see what the publisher says. They've been known to make exceptions from time to time, especially for potential bestsellers.