My weekend, and novel length

I had a nice weekend. The wife was out volunteering at a local art festival, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with the kids. I did get some writing done, though. Nothing to brag about, but enough that I don’t feel like a complete slacker.

A writer friend of mine saw my progress meter, and was wondering why I was aiming for 60,000 words. In reality, I’m not actually aiming for that. I just have to have a goal number or the bars don’t work. I’m not experienced enough with writing novels to be able to accurately gauge how long my story will be in terms of words. So for now, The Apprentice will be however long it is when it’s done. If it’s slightly more than novella length, I’ll cut it down. If it’s slightly less than true novel length, I’ll beef it up.

“Novel length” has always been a subjective measurement. It’s really a combination of the editor/publisher’s and writer’s tastes. And it’s been inflating steadily since the 70s. These days, a lot of publishers won’t look at a manuscript that’s less than 90-100,000 words. That’s in the 300-400 page paperback range. Nothing wrong with a book of that length. But a lot of my favorite books are quite a bit shorter than that. Roger Zelazny, for example, wrote a lot of 200-300 page books that blow the doors off a larger book that is full of filler.

Why is that the case? One explanation I’ve read is that book production and storage costs (you know, the ones that are unimportant when discussing why eBooks cost the same as paper) set a minimum price-per-book that won’t be paid for a 200 page book. Another reason is surely the popularity of books like the Wheel of Time series, with their massive page counts. That must be what people want!

Either way, I miss those shorter books. They were nimble and focused, and packed a lot of meaning into a shorter length.

I had a brief exchange on Twitter the other day with Tobias Bucknell about this. He echoed the same sentiments that I have expressed above. We also mentioned the rise of the smell-press, independent and self-published book. Some of those outfits are more comfortable with shorter length novels, or even novellas. eBooks allow you to avoid that lower-limit point of diminishing returns from manufacturing. I find it heartening. I can buy a shorter story now than I could find five or six years ago, and not feel like I’ve overpaid because $6.99 is the rock bottom price for a mass-market paperback. Without that ability, I’d have missed out on some very good short novels and novellas, and even a couple of low-volume short story collections.

Do you have a favorite story length? What  is too long, or too short? Let me know in the comments.

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3 Responses to “My weekend, and novel length”

  1. Mris Says:

    It’s funny that you should mention Zelazny’s short novels and filler. If you read the Amber books all at once, like an ill-advised college student doing shots…not that I have done this…the Amber books I mean, as I actually *haven’t* done shots in this fashion…you will find that they actually *do* contain a lot of repetitive filler. The fact that the story was broken up into ten volumes means that Zelazny had to spend a lot of time catching you up on where we had been before, what was going on, and who everybody was. If you were reading them as they came out, this was probably far less noticeable. If you have the books as a single-volume omnibus and are a fast reader, though, it really sticks out. If he had done them as, say, four books instead of ten, they would not have to be four behemoths, because a *lot* of stuff could be cut.

    Obviously this is not true of all of Zelazny’s books–some of them stand alone at their shorter length. But while I wish that it was more possible to sell 40K and 60K novels now, I think it’s entirely possible to have bloat and filler at those lengths. I think you can have filler at 900 words or a 130K novel that is tightly written and needs every paragraph. That’s why I don’t have a favorite length–I end up with ideas at all different lengths, and I want to make sure I don’t end up married to any one length as the right length for *a* story–just the right length for *this* story.

    • Eric H. Says:

      Well, if I mention Zelazny about something without citing a specific book, you can usually take it as given that I *don’t* mean Amber. 🙂

      I also didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t have the situations you describe. I’ve absolutely read shorter novels that would have made good novelettes, and longer books that were packed full of story.

      I was just thinking that I miss the reading experience of the shorter length. Part of this is likely due to the fact that it’s how I cut my SF teeth, borrowing my dad’s favorite paperbacks. I had also noticed that some of the smaller presses were offering stand-alone novellas and shorter novels. Then we had our email exchange, and I saw Bucknell’s comment on Twitter, and it was all very timely.

      • Mris Says:

        Oh, definitely. I very much hope that the ebook market nudges publishing back to a market where there isn’t a wasteland between 5K and 90K, because it’s very difficult to sell even novelettes and novellas in traditional large markets, much less short novels. When 80K is the right length for a book, nobody should have to tack on a subplot that doesn’t work or add a “bonus introductory” novelette or anything weird like that. I just think that the old stuff gets credit for being a lot more taut than it actually is.


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