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.