Novel lengths

In a cafe finding reasons not to be productive, and I think doing a blog post could be a really good one!

After a relatively long period of relatively high writing productivity, my mind flits back to the length of what I’m writing (in blog terms, it’s not so far back I was thinking of this). Now ‘the novel’ is up to 96,000 words and I estimate I’ve got about 30% left to write, so the final, unedited first draft will probably be about 130K words. As I have, at various points, thought it would be a 1000-word flash story, a 14K-word short story, a 40K novella, and 80K shortish novel and a 100K-word novel, I’m now wondering: i) Is 130K appropriate, and ii) How much editing do I need to do to get it within acceptable bounds?

Here’s a good blog that gives the reasons why knowing and hitting the appropriate length is important (and here’s another with a similar view). In short, firstly, it’s a throwback to when all books were published on paper and had to be wide enough that the information of the spine could be seen but not so wide as to take up too much space or cost too much money to produce. More importantly, though, people judge & choose the books they buy by how long they are.

Mine is somewhere between general, mystery and science fiction, so appropriate lengths are:

  • General Fiction – 75,000 – 100,000
  • Mystery – 75,000 – 90,000
  • Science Fiction– 90,000 – 120,000

So, 75-120K is the range, but ideal should be towards the lower end of that, and, really, anything over 100K must be well justified.

Drat! I’m going to have to do some hardcore editing for length!

It interested me to see the list of lengths of well-known novels in that first blog. Here are a few that stood out to me, plus a few more I added:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 561,304 words — I read this years ago and it took AGES!
  • Ulysses by James Joyce – 262,869 words (source) — This is sitting on my shelf at home, but I haven’t read it yet… because it looks too long!
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling – 257,045 words — The longest of the Potters… though it was a breeze to read.
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King — 152,270 words — I just re-read this last month and it was so easy to read that it felt much shorter.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – 95,356 words — I’ve always thought of this as a really short book, contrasted with Brave New World, for example, which felt really long to me, but is only 65K.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 85,141 words
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 76,944 words — The first two Potter novels, both around the 80K recommended length, and, interestingly, already showing the trend of getting longer with subsequent novels.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – 64,531 words
  • Carrie by Stephen King — 60,718 words — Far shorter than is typical for King, but it was his first published one.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – 46,333 words — Gosh! So short for a sci-fi!
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell – 29,966 words — Such a surprise that this is so short. I used to recommend this to my English (as a foreign language) students because it’s easy to read but with a tremendous story.

Looking at lengths of famous books, the thing that strikes me is that some of the shorter books that I didn’t enjoy much (Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby) felt longer than longer ones I did (The Hobbit, The Dead Zone, Harry Potter). I guess it is important to write well!

I’m also surprised that my story has already gone beyond a standard first novel length. I never thought it would be a long book… there’s a lesson in brevity to be learnt here.

To conclude, I’m going to avoid concluding and leave myself a link to another page by the same blogger that provides a checklist of things to consider while editing your book.

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