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.

Collecting robot stories

I love robot stories (as you might gather from some of the things I’ve had published). The other week I was in the local bookshop after a robot book and found a collection of classic A.I. short stories. Unfortunately for the publishers, it struck me it would be cheaper to take a picture of the contents page then look them up myself, so here we go (along with some others I’ve dug up in the process):


Drunk & divine

Here’s a small update on a story I got accepted last year: it’s just been officially published, and is available on Amazon here.

I’m kind of unsure what this means, as the story has been available on their website since it was accepted last year, but navigating their website is rather a confusing affair, but I’ve received an email with a link to the latest issue, and this is easy to follow (the email contained 9 different ways to navigate to the story, but gave the impression of trying to fish a fragment of eggshell out of the egg white).

In a related note, the version I sent had fun little paragraph numbers in square brackets to make it look more Biblical, but they don’t show on the published version. I guess they thought I left them there as a mistake. Please imagine you see them.

Finding a motivational daily word count

I read Stephen King’s On Writing a couple of Christmases ago, which included the recommendation to write daily (good advice), with a good starting quantity being 1000 words per day.

Last year I spent primarily doing short stories and flash, with that 1000 wpd idea constantly in mind. I found two things: i) I’m a slow writer; ii) setting goals you can’t achieve leads to minor failings, which lead to long periods of inactivity.

Towards the end of last year, I shifted to writing a long story (originally intended to be 1000 words–one day!–now at 70,000), and so keeping track of words per day became easier, as there’s less switching between ideas, writing and editing. After that, I managed two weeks of aiming for 1000 wpd, achieving it around 50 per cent of the time. Following that, my daily word count slipped and I subconsciously resigned myself to goallessness (oddly satisfying word to write).

Roll on this year, a resolution to get the book finished, and a revised daily word count goal to help see me through. Now it is at 500 words. A little calculation told me that this isn’t too bad: 80,000 words divided by 500 wpd means a full novel could be written in a little under half a year (160 days).

I have 1-1.5 hours in the mornings for writing, and an indeterminate and fluctuating amount in the evenings, and that is about enough for me to always achieve the wpd goal, and frequently go above and beyond. Here’s my recent wpd graph (because I obsess over this):

Total vs. Date

Green’s what I did, red’s predicted total words assuming 500 wpd. The long, flat period covers the time when I gave up on 1000 words per day, and also when I excused myself to mess around with some short stories instead.

So, in short, unachievable goals lead to demoralisation and sub-par performance; achievable goals lead to eagerness and above-par performance. Who woulda thunk it?

Perhaps no matter when we start, or what we do, we trail behind the times. There’s something beyond our grasp which is the place… the place where things are happening. If we could knock in the right way, tap tap tap, we’d be in, and it would be easy.

In my search for places to submit, I came across Medium. I think I’m not so young any more, because just trying to work out how to use it is a challenge. It’s made by one of the same people who made Twitter (which, though I fitter with, I have never quite got the spirit of).

So, this post is to say that I’ve just published something on Medium… and it was kind of by accident, and it isn’t a story I really have any faith in. But Medium states that it only takes 4 minutes to read, so here is Dr Lotty Lovelock.

‘make’ing it better

Towards the end of last year, as I was making my way through some blogs that had been made to help writers make their writing better, I made a discovery. Apparently, the verb ‘make’ makes more appearances than it should. This made me think. I made some attempts to remove my makes, and I must say,  it made a difference. Phrases with make do make the phrase less impactful.  Consider:

  • it made a difference –> it changed things
  • I made it –> I succeeded
  • it made me think –> it forced me to think
  • she made her way to town –> she went to town

Right now, I’m making some changes to (editing) the first part of a story I (made) wrote, and find myself searching for exciting equivalents to my makes. I thought I’d share a few.

  1. ‘soulful eyes that made him a popular lover and leader’ –> ‘soulful eyes that endeared him as lover and leader’ (struggling with this was what made me think to write a blog… not sure I’ve hit on the best option, or made the right choice)
  2. ‘and he’d done his best to live up to the promises his eyes made’ –> ‘…his eyes delivered’ (in the same damned sentence!!!)

Now, I can definitively state that I’d changed a few makes before I decided to write this (and I can’t be bothered to go back and find them), but I’ve just reached the end of the piece without finding another, so I guess my conscious tweaking over the last couple of months has reached my subconscious. Great for me, not so great for this blog post though!

To punctuate that failure with another, I thought I’d share a few links where others discuss removing ‘make’, but have completely failed to find any. It seems removing makes isn’t as hot a style topic as I’d thought. However, removing ‘be’ verbs has many hits, so for the sake of sharing, and to give me something to click on and read tomorrow, here’s one of those links.

Year end

As it’s the end of my first year submitting stories, I decided to compile everything I managed to finish into a single collection. This has got me thinking about stats, so I thought I’d tap down a quick update.

My 2018 collection contains 29 stories, 120 pages (Times New Roman, single-spaced!) and 53,143 words–enough for a short novel. It is broken down into three sections: Good stuff (15 stories), Not so good  (9 stories), and Stuff I wrote before 2018 but scrubbed up this year (5 stories). It was an useful process deciding which of my works were not so good, and has led to me retiring 8 pieces. I should really be even more remorseless with this, as resubmitting rejected stories is rather time consuming.

On top of that there’s the approximately 40,000 words of the first novel, which I think is around 60 per cent finished. I think it’ll take till summer next year to get the first draft done.

Moving on to submission stats, and grabbing these from Submission Grinder:

– Stories: 30
– Submissions: 118
– Rejections: 84
– Acceptances: 6
– Pending Submissions: 19
– Lifetime Earnings: $53.89

Happy or not? Dunno. But it gives me something to compare to in December 2019.

A story I wish I’d written

Following the theme of my previous post… a few months ago I read an article  in Nature about the morality of driverless cars and decided I’d like to write a story about it.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of attempts, but not yet come upon a good plot.

Today, I stumbled across this marvellously clever story on just that topic. It’s also a fine example of interactive fiction, with the real meat of the story being provided via footnotes and editor comments.

Time to revise my goals

Yesterday marked the first official/proper publication of one of my stories. That’s ten months since I started to try writing as more than just a bit of fun, so I thought I’d talk a bit about how it’s been so far and what comes next.

As with so many people, I’d like to write a novel. I’ve had the same story growing in the back, and front, of my mind for a good number of years now, but turning that idea into the final product always seemed too daunting. In fact, even getting started seemed too daunting. So, at the start of the year, when I finally kicked myself up the butt, I began reading around how to write, and one bit of advice that resonated was that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) expect to jump right in without first learning the tricks of the trade, and a great way to do this was by short story writing. And so it was that the novel got put on hold before it’d really been taken off hold (sniff of fear and procrastination, maybe?) and I began scribing short stories.

I set myself the goal of getting some (clearly defined goal if ever I saw one) stories published in decent markets by the end of the year, and quietly expected to do this quite easily. It isn’t easy! I wrote a lot and started submitting to carefully chosen markets, and got rejected. This was disappointing, but I selected another market and tried again. Important lesson here: focus on quality when you’re writing, but when it comes to submitting, go for quantity—good markets reject even good stories, so chances are slim. Maximise your chances by submitting more. Along the way I also learned about the less favourable markets that are only there to mess you around (Avid Writers, who were the source of this excited post, then disappeared before publishing anything).

I set myself the goal of 1000 words a day, which seemed reasonable and was recommended by some authors I’d researched. Here is something I still have to work on. I’m a slow writer. Really slow. I worry about every word, sentence, paragraph and page. I go back over them, and try to pick the perfect expression first time. I’m quite aware that a far better way to do things is just splurge it all down then edit it, and I think I’m pretty good on the editing side. Nevertheless, I’m still facing this problem of slow writing—something I need to work on.

Another goal I had which has proven hard to achieve is creating more than I edit. This was easy at the beginning, when I had less content. Now, with 27 pieces logged in The Submission Grinder, and about an equal number in various states of construction, repair or disrepair, it’s pretty hard to find any time to write new things due to all the editing and submitting rejected pieces to new markets. Something I’ve recently tried is realising when a piece actually isn’t that great, and so sending it to less picky markets (with the goal of getting it out of the way quicker). I’ve also retired a couple of stories that I am unsure are worth the effort.

Going back to that initial goal of improving my writing, though, I am happy to say that I really have done this. Well, maybe. I’ve learned a lot, mostly about what not to do, and I’m now better able to look at my work and think ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing something I shouldn’t be again.’ Anyway, I do feel that my dialogue, pace, removal of waffle, simplicity of language, character development, inclusion of interesting conflict, etc has improved a lot. Learning these things has been my favourite part of the process so far.

To finish off for today, I’m going to give my new goals. I’m feeling tired of writing super short stories , and also think it’s time to face the difficulty that is planning and holding together a longer work. That’s why, from now on, I’m shifting my focus to novelettes and novellas—still not too long (Novelette = 7,500-20,000 words; Novella = 20,000-50,000 words), but long enough to require a plan. And, in the meantime, I’ve got two or three of my short stories that I still think are really good, and still hope to find a top-tier home for.