September 4th, 2021

Storm Chaser Shorts

How Long Should a Novel Be? No, Really?

Writing instructors, editors, publishers, they all say the same thing: When writing a piece of fiction, start at the beginning; go to the end; then stop.

Don't pad it. Don't be too sparse. Just make your story as long as it needs to be, no longer. It's good advice.

It's also wrong.

What do these works have in common? That's right: They're too short.

I got lucky with my early books, because my publishers weren't that picky about word count. My novels tended to weight in at around 55,000 words, which sounds like a lot, but it's at the lower edge for fiction. The first science fiction novel I tried to sell clocked in at around 62,000 words. I reevaluated it, added some new and expanded scenes, and got it up to 68,000. That was it. The whole story.
Now, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is only 46,000 words long ... but that's Ray Bradbury. Stephen King wrote The Stand, which is half a million words and thus far over the norm for any book. But he's frakking Stephen King. Believe me, a new author will get nowhere by whining that, well, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling write long!
"When millions of people know you by your initials, get back to us." 
Many publishers won't even glance at your work if you don't go through a literary agent, so although they aren't strictly necessary, they can be great door openers. But after Beowulf: In Harm's Way got several rejections, one agent decided to level with me:
"I'm afraid this isn't right for me, but beyond that I'm also concerned that your word count of 68,000 is on the low end for Science Fiction."


What ... this is it? Did you consider putting in more dog scenes?"

 According to my research, people in publishing think the right word count for a science fiction novel is around 80-120,000 words. It varies for other genres: For instance, romance novels can commonly be as low as 50-55,000 words, which is how I got away with my romantic comedies. But it's possible some of the agent rejections for Beowulf: In Harm's Way were as much because of its length as anything else.

This really rubbed me the wrong way. We get lectured over and over: Never pad your story! It should be as long as it needs to be, and no more! Cut the fat! So if the story is perfect at 68,000 words ... what the heck?

I struggled with this for some time: If I wanted my story to come out at the low end of the proper length, I'd have to add at least 12,000 words. Of course, I could self publish it at whatever length I wanted, but I really wanted this story to have a chance with a big publisher, and even be the beginning of a series. But ... 12,000 words ...

Luckily, a solution was already right there, on my hard drive.

"Check this out: I'm putting in a prologue! That'll show 'em."

When my first novel, Storm Chaser, was picked up by a publisher, I thought it would be fun to promote it by writing short stories about the characters, to give away as a way to get readers interested. My publisher jumped on that, and the collected stories became my second book, the collection Storm Chaser Shorts. I liked writing about the characters so much that I'd already decided to do the same with Beowulf: In  Harm's Way. In fact, I'd already written five short stories in that universe.

Three of them were fun but silly little pieces that I didn't feel belonged in the novel's narrative. The other two were longer, and took place at the beginning of the story. They became chapters one and two, and I wrote a prologue that led right into them. (Prologues are another controversy. I like 'em, if they have a point.) By the time I'd added some connective material and looked through the manuscript for thin areas that could be expanded ...

Ta Da! 84,000 words, and none of it padding. I don't think.

I can't really complain, because after I put it all together, revised, polished, and read it again ... the manuscript was better than the shorter version. (Well, I think so. What do I know? I should ask some beta readers to check it out.)

How do you feel about word counts? Do you care, or is a long book intimidating, or does a short one seem too lightweight? It seems strange to me that novels seem to be getting longer, even as potential readers are accused of having shorter attention spans.