Sunday, February 24, 2008

Size Matters

I've had this conversation three times in two weeks, so I figure it's worth a blog post.

You've just written a novel. That long hard slog is over, and now you're ready for the next stage: agents and publishers.

Size is different when you're writing. I spend my first draft in three stages:

1. Do I have enough here for a novel?

2. Will this damn thing never end?

3. Aargh, everything's happening so fast! I hope it doesn't end too soon!

Writing, your novel is an artistic creation. Written, it's a product. And to sell your product, it needs to be 70,000 to 120,000 words. Oh, and those are outer limits. The closer you get to 85-100,000 words, the better your chances.

Why? Imagine you're a reader, shopping in a bookstore: A title by an unknown author catches your eye. You pick it up off the shelf.

If the book is 120 pages, with blank sheets between chapters and REALLY BIG PRINT, you're not going to pay full price for it.

If the book by the newbie is 790 pages of tiny dense type, with a sticker price twice the titles around it, you'll probably pass.

Fact is, most readers will only take a punt on a new author if the book is a respectable 250-350 pages, and the price is in line with other titles on the shelf. There are other reasons relating to printing costs and such, but it all boils down to publishers wanting to entice our future fans and make a few dollars for themselves and you in the process.

Length varies a bit by genre, too. Fantasy and historical fiction are generally more sympathetic to the high end of the spectrum, crime and thrillers to the low end. And yeah, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions, but you're more likely to be published if you don't run around forcing people to make an exception for you.

So your work doesn't fit? Have no fear, Full Throttle help is here!

Too short? Your grand novel ends at just over 40,000 words? You can't chop it into a short story and the market for novellas is dry, dry dry?

Don't Pad: The first impulse is usually to pad your story out. You know, introduce some worthy thoughts and musings from your viewpoint character, maybe a little philosophy, or a lecture on the inner workings of the four-barrel carburator from the friendly mechanic.

Do. Not. Do. This. Padding always smells like padding, and it don't smell good. No no no nononono. No.


Reread your work. Have you gone from scene to sequel, scene to sequel? Have you given each their proper due? You may find that by the time you give these elements their proper due, you're up to a reasonable length. You may also find yourself plugging some plot holes.

Consider a subplot. Especially one that relates to the main plot. Say your marshall has to make the decision to face the gang of outlaws coming on the noon train. Why not introduce a deputy who should probably stand with him but makes a different decision, turning coward instead? Why not look at the outlaw's old girlfriend and the decision *she* makes?

You can do it!

More likely, your brand new magnum opus is a gentle giant. My first, 'training', novel (a pretty straightforward thriller) wandered out of its first draft at 160,000 words! My first cruel edit reduced this to 140,000, but eventual diet and exercise got that tale down to a lean 92,000.

How do you do it?


That. Most unnecessary bloody word in English. Do a global delete of every 'that' in your document and then add the three or four that absolutely need to be there back in.

Said. ANYWHERE the reader has a good idea who's talking, wipe out dialogue attribution. The savings can be mighty.

Then. I beg your pardon. That is *not* the most unnecessary word in English. Then is.

Up and Down. Again, useless. 'He looked at her' is just as good as 'He looked down at her.'

For more takeaways, read this post on unnecessary language, and this advice from lean style-master Elmore Leonard.

Long description. Long explanation. Any of those long bits readers tend to skim. If you write sf/f, consider deleting those 'world-explanations'. Just drop your reader in the world and let them pick it up as the tale rolls. Jim Butcher, Charles DeLint, CJ Cherryh and Neil Gaiman all rock at this.

Done all that and you're still too long? Put on your aprons and goggles, dear writer. It starts to get bloody...

Amputate. Take a good look at your subplots. Say goodbye to one. Slice it out. No one but you will know...

Split. Maybe you have two stories. Or three. Or six. Just make sure the first one stands alone.

When he first wrote LA Confidential, James Ellroy had a few modest-selling titles to his credit. He turned in a manuscript that was insanely long. So long that his publisher wouldn't touch it. Everyone agreed it was a good story, but they'd have gone broken printing it.

Arguments ensued. At one point, Ellroy says to his agent, "What's he want me to do, take out all the 'a's, 'the's, and 'but's? That'd shorten it up."

Lightbulb: on. Ellroy's style: born. Final book: 512 pages.


cs harris said...

Good post. I personally stay away from books much longer than 400 pages, unless they're from the likes of Dorothy Dunnett or Alexander Dumas. I know from experience I never finish the things. I've learned a lot about cutting by watching what my French and Italian editions cut to shorten my own books. I hate it, but it's been very educational.

Lana Gramlich said...

Good points, even if I'm not a writer. :)

SQT said...

Fabulous post. I have to admit, I don't pick up weighty books by first time authors unless there is a lot of good buzz about it and a sequel on the shelf.

I tend to be on the short side-- all action, little filler. So the subplot advice is excellent for me. Heck, all of the advice is good for me.

Steve Malley said...

Glad y'all liked it.

I seem to fall on both sides in my own work: Every edit, I find dead wood needs cutting and other bits that run too fast, with too little flesh.

Unknown said...

Timely post....thanks :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Great advice here. Possibly because I started out writing short stories, my first novels turned out to be quite short, around 65,000 to 70,000 words. That's actually about the length I like to read, though. I started out this year with a goal to read some bigger books. I tried two of them and just faded in the last third and have gone back to shorter books again. If I had time to read big chunks of a 50 to 100 pages at a time I could handle big books, but when I'm trapped in work hell and can only do 5 to 10 a night a big book just becomes interminable.

Shauna Roberts said...

Good advice.

Personally, I like to read long books with multiple subplots and lots of characters and points of view. But my tastes seem to be the exception nowadays.

AvDB said...

I'm currently embroiled in the hacking (goggles and butcher's apron on, of course). I dropped thirty-thousand words the first two go-rounds, seven the next. I'm on number three, and still at 149,000. It's annoying me to no end.

I'm with Shauna. I don't like investing in characters when the book is over in three hundred pages. And I'm usually let down by series. I like one big chunky book with many characters and multiple subplots--a predilection that has apparently bitten me in the ass.

Steve Malley said...

Liz, like I said, I kept having this conversation. It must be the right time...

Charles, you're not the only one pressed for reading time. I think that's the reason James Patterson has those two and three page chapters!

Shauna, you're not alone either. Plenty of big heavy doorstops out there. Just, not so many of them by authorial virgins. Even Harry Potter came out in a couple of quick reads before JK Rowling went full throttle on her publishers!

Avery, I feel for ya. Just think: at least you get to keep 80% of the current edit...

I can almost hear the meat saw!

SzélsőFa said...

A very useful post, as usually.
I've been practising the art of reduction via short story contests, where word count matters.
I suffered the first time, found it useful the second, and to my own advantage the third...and so on.
Now, I'm cutting down on words I'm using when commenting as well.
The less means sometimes more.

SzélsőFa said...

Yet I share my taste for books with Shauna and Avery - isn't it strange?

Bernita said...

Take out "down?"
Not if you want to empahsize he's a big, tall bugger, like you said a while back...
Now I feel guilty the few times I used "then."

I'm with SQT, I also write short, but the subplot advice will help,that, and finding plot holes.