How Long Should Your Novel Be? What’s Too Short … and What’s Too Long?

 

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For some writers, “how long should a novel be?” sounds a bit like “how long is a piece of string?” They feel that their novel should be long enough to get the job done – even if that means it falls outside the bounds of what readers and publishers might normally expect.

The truth is that, while there’s not necessarily a “right” answer to this question, you do need to stick to industry norms if you’re aiming for traditional publication … and if you’re planning to self-publish, you’ll want to make sure that readers aren’t being put off by a too-short or too-long book.

Where does the word count of your piece fall?

Novel: Over 40,000 words. 80,000 – 90,000 is considered the sweet spot; under 70,000 or over 100,00 will be hard to sell to an agent/publisher.

Novella: 17,000 – 40,000 words. (Longer than 40,000 is generally considered a “short novel”.)

Novelette: 7,500 – 17,000 words. (Rarely-used term; most people would call this a “long short story”.)

Short story: Under 7,500 words. (If it’s under 1,000, then it might be called “flash fiction”.)

The novella form has been around for centuries, and there are plenty of classic novels that are novella-length. For instance:

  • The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) – a shade over standard novella length at 42,000 words.
  • Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) – 38,000 words.
  • A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) – 29,000 words.

jf-penn-novellaWith the rise of e-readers, novellas have had a resurgence in popularity: they’re quick to get into and read, and they can be priced very cheaply. Some authors, like J.F. Penn, use a free novella to promote their email list – you can see a screenshot of her Day of the Vikings offer to the right (sign up and get your own copy here).

Print publishers tend to be reluctant to take on novellas, though, because they’re uneconomical to print.

So, if you’ve written a short novel, you may struggle to get a traditional deal … but it could work well for you as a self-publisher.

Marketing Your Short Novel or Novella

In general, you can market a short novel or novella in just the same way as you’d market a full-length one! These are just a few key things to keep in mind:

If you’ve written a 30-40,000 word book, don’t describe it as a “novel” in your sale material: readers may feel cheated! You might want to do what J.F. Penn does and use “book” rather than “novel”.  Phrases like “quick read” or “pacy read” can clue readers into the length (not all readers will necessarily be familiar with the fairly technical term “novella”).

You’ll also want to consider pricing, especially if you also have novels out. For instance, you might price your ebooks at $2.99 for your novels and $1.99 for novellas. Not unreasonably, most readers will expect short novels to cost less than full-length ones.

You might also want to consider using it as a cheap or free entry-point for readers new to your work (for instance, you could put it on Kindle Unlimited for free, run periodic giveaways, or use it as a permanently free incentive to get people to sign up for your mailing list).

Should You Cut Down a Long Novel?

Whether you’re seeking a traditional deal or publishing independently, a too-long novel is a problem.

Novels that top 100,000 words often have more words than they need: most authors over-write, at least a bit, and cutting 105,000 words to 95,000 could make for a tighter, better-paced novel.

(On – excellent – editorial advice, I cut my novel Lycopolis down from 135,000 words to 85,000 – it was a much better novel for it!)

Also, readers have certain expectations of novels. Many of these are structural (e.g. the novel will have an ending, major plot points will be resolved, the protagonist will grow/change in some way) … but one fairly basic expectation is how long the novel will be.

Even if you’ve written a well-paced novel that’s not too wordy, it may not go down well with readers if it’s considerably longer than what they’d normally expect.

In some genres, of course (fantasy and science-fiction especially), novels tend to run long. But in others (romances and Westerns), readers will normally expect shorter books.

Ultimately, you’ll have to decide if your novel really needs to be long – you can’t do justice to the story and characters otherwise – or if you’ve written more words than necessary. You may want to get beta-readers, or a professional editor, involved at this stage.

 

While I can’t give you the “right” answer to the question of your novel’s length, I can offer a quick rule of thumb. Here it is:

Aim for 75 – 95,000 words. This is a “normal” novel length in almost every genre; it’ll work fine whether you’re seeking traditional publication or whether you’re self-publishing.

write-publish-novel-2-yearsAnother big advantage to keeping your novel to a standard length is that it won’t take you a huge amount of time to write. You can complete a 75,000 – 80,000 word novel in two years – from initial idea to publication (or sending out queries) – by working for just 30 minutes every day. Here’s my full plan for doing just that.

Got questions? Disagree with me about how long novels should be – or whether it matters? Drop a comment below!

Should You Write Faster? Here’s What Four Indie Authors Do (Plus My Take)

 

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By a lot of people’s standards, I’m a pretty fast writer. For the last 12 years or so, I’ve been able to comfortably produce 1,000 words an hour (sometimes to the envy of writing group peers). I write most days – though I don’t always spend as much time on my fiction as I’d like.

In the indie-author world, though, I’m not exactly what you’d call fast. Lots of indie authors produce multiple books per year (and many imply, if not outright state, that this is necessary if you want to build a successful indie career).

Let’s take a look at what four different indie authors – all excellent ones – say about writing fast.

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What Should You Pay for When You Self-Publish a Novel?

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One reader asked me to write about, “Self-publishing, whether to use editors, cover designers etc and how much is a reasonable amount to pay them.”

This is a big and important question, and one I wanted to tackle on the blog. (I normally run reader questions in the weekly newsletter – if you’re not already receiving that, and the various bonuses that go with it, get on board here.)

Here’s the quick answer to the question – one that virtually everyone writing about self-publishing will agree with:

  • If you’re going to self-publish, you should definitely use an editor.
  • If you’re going to self-publish, you should definitely use a cover designer.

Let’s dig a little deeper into that, though.

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Your Two-Year Plan for Writing, Editing and Publishing Your Novel (However Busy You Are)

Have you ever told yourself something like this:

  • “Once I have a bit more time, I’ll start work on that novel.”
  • “Once life is less manic, I’ll get back to my novel.”
  • “If only I could take a year off work, I could finally write my novel.”

A novel is a major undertaking. But it’s also one that can fit around a busy life.

You don’t need all day, every day, to write.

If you can find just 30 minutes each day, you could finish a novel (to the point where you’re sending it out to agents, or self-publishing) in just two years.

If, like me, you know some super-prolific novelists (like Joanna Penn and Johnny B. Truant), one novel in two years might sound a bit slow.

But … one novel in two years is definitely better than no novels at all.

The Quick Version

If you want the quick version of the “novel in two years” plan, plus simple tips on making it work, here it is in a slideshow format:

In case you have a particular aversion to slides, or want to see everything in one place, the rest of this post covers the same ground but with a lot more explanation.

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Want to Write a Novel? Here’s How to Get Started

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You’d like to write a novel … but how do you even begin?

I’m not thinking here about ways to write a great opening (if that’s what you’re after, check out this excellent article from The Write Practice). The issue of “getting started” deals with more fundamental questions like:

  • How do you come up with a novel-worthy idea – one you want to work on for months, possibly years?
  • How do you grow that idea into an actual story – with a setting, plot and characters?
  • How do you find the courage (and the time!) to sit down and start writing?

I imagine that if you spoke to a dozen different novelists, you’d find their novels had a dozen very different starting points. You’d probably find that some of those seemed unpromising or simply odd.

Chances are, though, you’d also find some common ground between those starting points. Here are some potential ways in which novels can begin

#1: With an image. C.S. Lewis’ famously said that The Chronicles of Narnia “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Perhaps you have a particular scene, or part of a scene in your head. Like Lewis, you might have carried that image with you for years, even decades.

#2: As a short story. The second novel I attempted began in this way (and the short story, as I recall, began with an image). I finished the short story, then realised there was a lot of backstory to it that I wanted to write about.

#3: From a prompt. My very first novel, when I was 14, started in response to a competition entry … and kept going. If you’re coming fairly new to creative writing, try spending a few weeks playing around with prompts and trying out some freewriting – you might find that a particular idea catches hold.

#4: With a concept. My novel Lycopolis began with one clear concept: “a group of online roleplayers summon an evil demon into their game … and into the world”. A ton of things changed from planning to drafting to second draft, but that core idea is still central to the novel.

#5: With a character. Some authors come up with a compelling character then develop a story around them. If you enjoy character-driven fiction, this could be a good way to make it work. (Most often, though, you’ll probably find that a character comes to you along with a concept or an image.)

#6: From other art. (“Art” here including literature, music, etc, not just what you’d find in an art gallery.)  Perhaps something you’re reading inspires you – it could be a particular character, a plot point, or even a single line of dialogue. Maybe the lyrics in a piece of music speak to you, or there’s a photograph or painting that you keep returning to. A novel could grow from that seed.

(If you want to read several authors’ descriptions of where their novels began, check out What Inspires Authors to Write Their Novels? on the Huffington Post.)

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Are You Too Old (or Too Young) to Become a Writer?

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One lovely reader wrote to me a few weeks ago. The subject of her email was “Am I too old to become a writer?”

I opened it up, assuming she was in her 70s or 80s.

No.

She was 37.

Here’s part of my reply to her:

Plenty of people wait till they’re retired — heck, I’m sure to a lot of just-getting-started writers, you’re young. Hurrah for you getting on with the novel now!

But whatever her age, my answer would’ve been the same: you’re not too old. Keep writing.

Because you’re never too old to become a writer.

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How to Fall in Love with Writing All Over Again

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Quick request: I’m running a survey about the Aliventures blog and email newsletter to help me plan for the next few months (I want to make sure my posts are as useful to you as possible). I’d be really grateful if you could take a couple of minutes to fill out the survey here:

Aliventures Survey (February 2016)

All the questions are optional, most are multiple choice, and everyone who fills it in will receive an exclusive .pdf guide on whatever topic/question ends up being the most popular. Thanks!

Does writing ever (or often) feel like just another thing on your to-do list?

If you’ve been writing for years, it can sometimes be tough to remember just why you wanted to write in the first place.

Perhaps your work-in-progress has been in progress for longer than you care to admit.

Perhaps your blog seems to eat up hours of your time for very little reward.

Perhaps you’ve sent out your latest short story a dozen times – and had it rejected again and again.

If you’re tempted to quit, or if you just wish you could enjoy writing again, here’s how to fall back in love. (And, while these are writing tips, you can probably apply them to your partner or kids too…)

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Stylised Talk: Writing Great Dialogue [With Examples]

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Image from Flickr by procsilas

If you’re a fiction writer – unless you’re writing a very short story or something decidedly experimental – you’re going to have to write dialogue.

For some writers (me included), dialogue comes easily. It may even be a little too easy – sometimes, the first words you think of aren’t necessarily the best. Other writers don’t like dialogue, but they recognise it’s an essential part of their story.

Great dialogue can immerse the reader in your book, your world, and most especially your characters.

Poor dialogue jars the reader, and may even see them put the book down in frustration.

If you need a quick refresher on the basics of dialogue before we get going, here are a couple of links. They’ll open in a new tab so you don’t lose your place here:

Here, I want to dig deep into what makes for great dialogue … and what holds writers back.

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Making Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

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Image from Flickr by Denise P.S.

Kudos to LycoRogue for inspiring this one.

Do you have a hard time hurting your characters?

Maybe it’s pretty easy with some of them. (For me, villains are fair game, and Woobies seem to invite a fair amount of suffering.)

But chances are, you’ve either got characters who you hate to hurt, or you struggle to let anyone get seriously hurt – whether that’s physically or emotionally.

And yet, as a writer, there are going to be times when you need to cause your characters pain.

They need to fail. They need to be scared, upset, hurt, injured.

Because if the stakes don’t feel real, if all the conflict in your novel is easily and painlessly resolved, then readers just aren’t going to be as attached to the narrative as they should be.

Plus, you’ll miss out on handy opportunities to complicate the plot. Maybe your protagonist is sailing through every challenge with ease … but a broken leg will slow him down (and perhaps move him along his character arc of becoming less stubbornly self-reliant).

It’s one thing to know all this.

It’s quite another to bring yourself to cause your characters actual harm.

Let’s deal first with a couple of key worries:

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