Sunday, February 28, 2016

How Many Words? How long should a novel be?

I find myself at the moment in the midst of writing the next novel in the Charlie Fox series. The action for this book starts directly where the last instalment – the novella ABSENCE OF LIGHT – left off. At the start of this next one, Charlie even still carries the injuries she sustained during the course of A.O.L.’s storyline.

The previous full-length novel – DIE EASY – was number 10 in the series. Now I’m faced with the question of do I call this latest book number 11 or 12?

ABSENCE OF LIGHT could rightfully be called book 11, although labelling it as a novella was a deliberate decision on my part. It finished up at almost 60,000 words, which would make it a novel to many. But, the other Charlie Fox books ranged between 92,000 and 128,000 and I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed to suddenly find this one shorter.

As far as I know, nobody’s complained that it’s longer than they expected.

I’m a great believer in writing to the end of the story, then making at least one pass through to see how many extraneous words I can cut out. I’ve usually aimed roughly for 100,000 +/-10%, but I know some crime authors who rarely write past 50,000, and others who do at least 130,000 every time.

Equally, I’ve come across readers who are put off by weighty tomes, and others who, if they’re stuck between a choice of two books for a holiday read, will measure the width of the spine and go for the thickest.

Personally, if I’m enjoying being immersed in the world the writer has created, the more of it the better. Especially now I tend to do a lot more reading in digital format. It’s easier on the hands and – if I’m reading last thing at night – I know if I nod off with the ebook in my hands the device will eventually just switch itself off. There are no end of times I’ve fallen asleep reading a paper book and lost my place as it’s slipped from my hands.

But, there are general guidelines on the length of various different types of fiction, and I suppose it’s as well to know what the rules are before you decide to break them.

Of course, when I say ‘general guidelines’ these do vary enormously. Some have the length of a novel starting from as little as 40,000 words. Others specify a mystery novel as 60,000-80,000, with thrillers up to 100,000.

Below a novel comes the novella at 17,500-40,000; the novelette at 7,500-17,500; and anything below 7,500 counting as a short story.

Or does it?

The digital publishing revolution has caused a mix-up. When Kindle introduced their Kindle Single, they specified a work of fiction with a word count between 5,000 and 30,000, straddling short story/novelette/novella territory.

New writers who go straight into the indie market tend to want to build up their bookshelf space as quickly as possible, and there can be a tendency to put out several novelettes or novellas rather than a full-length novel. One just has to be aware of the old ‘quality before quantity’ maxim, but I can well understand the pressure to be more successful simply by publishing more work.

If a new writer is going down the traditional route into publishing, many agents and publishers prefer that their work falls into generally accepted word counts for the market they wish to enter. There’s nothing to say a debut crime novel of 150,000 words will fail to find a publisher purely because of its length, but busy editors do look for the obvious ways first to trim down their reading list, and cutting out a submission simply because it is too big is a danger, no matter how brilliant it might be.

So, I find myself left with more questions than answers. Does the length of a book have any effect on your reading choices? Are you reading longer or shorter books than you used to, or has there been no change?

Has the way you read changed the length of books you go for? Do you tend to read longer books in digital format because they’re lighter and easier to carry around with you for that spare five minutes in the dentist’s waiting room?

Do you read more short stories than you used to, purely because they’re now available more widely on line rather than in anthologies? Do you yearn for a return to more regulated sizes of novel, or do the new freedoms inspire you to try new works of varying lengths by your favourite authors?

This week’s Word of the Week is prolegomenon, meaning a preface to a longer work, usually a formal essay or critical discussion. The plural is prolegomena. It comes from the Greek verb prolegein, meaning ‘to say beforehand’.


  1. Interesting discussion, Zoe. Our debut novel was 135,000 words and we expected the editor to be horrified and want it cut down. She didn't bat an eyelash. Since then book contracts have specified "around 100,000 words" and lately "around 80,000 words" but the editors never see to really care.

    1. Interesting, Michael. I would have thought they'd stick to the length of the original as setting the bar for the rest. Incidentally, how long have the later books been?

  2. Actually, I was thinking recently that novels seem to be getting longer and longer - at least the 'literary', prize-winning ones in recent memory, like The Goldfinch, A Little Life, A Brief History of Seven Killings and so on. And, in some cases, I wish they had been more 'edited' (and shortened), but on the whole a story is as long as it takes to tell the story. I don't mind committing to a longer read, but sadly I know plenty of people who balk at reading anything over 400 pages. So that's why publishers are probably demanding lower wordcounts.

    1. Hi Marina

      I think I'm with you -- the books should be as long as the story requires, ruthless editing notwithstanding.

      I find it's not the number of pages that might make me balk so much as the size of the type. Regardless of the state of your eyesight, small type is more tiring to read.

  3. 60,000 "used to be" the standard length for a novel, back in the days when the damn things had to be banged out on a fingertip bruising typewriter that required the force of small pile-driver to activate each stroke and a couple of reams of paper just to find your way through the first chapter.

    As computers and word-processors started replacing typewriters and paper, the lengths of novels rapidly started increasing, which is why the new "standard length" is closer to 90,000-100,000 words.

    As for my tastes, I really don't pay too much attention to the length. If it's a good story I'll read the damn thing start to finish and maybe even start over (I read Lord of the Rings three times in high school... which may explain a few things). I don't enjoy short stories much at all, and while I occasionally read novellas, I much prefer full-length novels: if I'm going to invest time and energy into getting to know the characters, I want to spend some QUALITY time with them, not just say "Hi" and "Bye" like two people passing each other in the hallway.

    As for your series numbering issue, I'd probably vote for numbering AoL as #11. In some other author's series, I've seen them number shorter works that take place between novels as 7.5 or some such, but in the case of AoL, all indications are that it IS #11, even if it's length is "less than average."

    1. Hi EvKa

      I wrote my very first novel longhand, and gave myself severe writer's cramp in the process. Perhaps that's why I didn't attempt another until I had my first Amstrad word processor and had learned to touch-type.

      I too prefer novels to novellas for the reason you mention. And because the length of a novella seems to be so elastic these days some of them are almost long short stories rather than short novels.

      I didn't start AoL with a fixed length in mind, but simply kept writing to the end of the story. It was a nice feeling, then, not to have to stretch or pad it into full-length novel size.

  4. You were very much missed at Left Coast Crime, especially by ME! And Barbara. :)

    Glad you spent the time getting this most helpful post together. The last time I discussed the length of my work with my publisher I was told 60,000-80,000 words was the optimum range, and I've always come in on the high side of that. My new one though, coming in September, exceeds that upper limit by 10%.

    1. I missed being at LCC, Jeff. Please give Barbara a hug for me.

      I was once asked by a publisher if I could shorten future books in the Charlie Fox series to around 80,000 words "so we could have them more often". I wasn't keen to go for that ...

      I think all word-count stipulations come with the +/- 10% clause attached, don't they?

      Back when I was writing for magazines, the word-count had to be fairly strictly adhered to, and one overseas magazine gave me a character-count instead, presumably because that gave them a better idea of the final length of the piece once it was translated.

    2. Barbara and I are still hugging in accordance with your suggestion, but there will aways be room for you.:) My contract makes no mention of length, but the submission requirements listed on the Poisoned Pen Press website call for between 60,000-90,000 words.

  5. To the nearest thousand, they were 139k, 131k, 107k, 106k, 91k. So I guess there is a trend...

    1. And what do you think it's done to the storytelling, if anything?

    2. Good question. The best answer I can give is that I think if we wrote the first two books now, they would be shorter.

  6. Zoe, thank you for yet another great subject to ponder. Mine have gone from 109K to 93K to 78K to 73K. Sometime between City of Silver in 2009 and Blood Tango in 2013, my publisher decided to limit the number of words--I guess to save production, shipping and storage costs. My new publisher/editor looked at the upcoming Idol of Mombasa, the second in my African series, and told me she could see the result of enforced brevity in the way I had told the new story. She asked me to add words for the sake of rounding out the characters' responses to the events. She wants the book to be longer. Instead of terse, just long enough to tell the story well. Hooray for that: the only criterion that really matters!

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. What an enlightened publisher/editor you have now. Makes me look forward to IDOL OF MOMBASA even more!

  7. Oh, for shorter books and larger fonts! Yes!

    I also request paragraphs on each page. I just opened up a book where several pages have only one paragraph! I got eyestrain and a headache at the thought.