Right-sizing your novel

Let’s call today “topical Tuesday,” and get right into it! My initial goal was to post around three to four times a week, now I’m scaling back to two, with on the spot updates as opportunity arrives.

Between tl;dr and brevity being the soul of wit, there’s a proper length for everything, from blog entries to listicles, from serial stories to traditional novels. In our modern society, where mass consumption and getting to the point often seems to be favored over a full-course meal and taking time to explore and develop ideas, I wonder if we’ll ever see a counter-movement from Tweets and reblogs back to engagement through discourse again.

Still, there is an optimal length for just about every message you’re seeking to convey, and it’s important to select the right tool for the story you’re trying to tell.

Conventional wisdom holds that novels ought to be around 100k-175k words, but it breaks down in trying to pinpoint the difference between a novel and a novella. National Novel Writing Month, in which I’ve been a participant since 2002, sets the bar for a novel at 50k or greater.

As a writer, most of my stories tend to be longer, with a slow burn relationship that unfolds over the course of the work. I like to show who the characters are separately before I throw them into a new dynamic that will hopefully reveal even more about them as people. On that basis, my novels tend to start at 50k and go on up. Sometimes, way up.

I find it really difficult to tell a complete story, plot and relationship arcs, and any important sub-plots, in 50,000 words maximum – that’s why that range tends to be my starting point rather than the end goal. Signal to Noise, one of my most tightly-plotted works to date, is 65k.

From the Inside Out, at 165k, falls in that “standard” range for a novel mentioned above, but one of the frequent critiques from readers is that it’s too long, and should have been edited more tightly. I could probably agree with that, but it also raises the question, what’s too long for a relationship story that starts from the ground up, and has its own plots and sub-plots, supporting characters playing important roles and standing on their own as characters, and the logical progression of a first-time relationship?

Appetite, compiled in its full weighty glory, is 192k words. And I really don’t think I could have told the story and done it justice and pared out any more than I did. (As it is, I trimmed out about 20k and added some new material at my editor’s direction.)

Conversely, when I try to keep a story down to brass tacks, I received an editorial opinion that, rather than trying to cut The More Plausible Evil below 50k, I ought to expand it by an additional 20k-30k to better flesh out and develop the characters and their relationship. Every story is different. And that made me pull my hair out, because the one time I tried to keep it lean and mean, that worked against it!

I’m going by my own stories as example because it all boils down to opinions, and discovering what works best for your story, depending on the genre, and maybe even the intended readership. What might work for a serialized story might be more frustrating and overmuch when compiled in a massive volume. (Though fans of Arthur Conan Doyle might argue.)

Sometimes I start out plotting a story, expecting it to be a certain length, and discover that the first draft ends up far more than planned. I started a young adult novel last November, and the first third ended up a hair shy of 55k. I had three arcs planned! I still haven’t finished that novel; it started out a promising idea, but ended up boring in execution for me. I think I need to revamp certain things about the story and the heroine before I make another go at it. At the rate it was going, each arc was going to be around 50k, and that’s not standalone. For a young adult audience, 150k as a single novel is definitely too long unless I tried to break each arc into its own individual novel and make them self-supporting enough for that to work.

It kind of comes down to attention span, doesn’t it? Young adults go for the shorter reads and slimmer volumes. “Serious” fiction is expected to be longer. As for gay and queer fiction, I suppose I’m still finding my way. Convergence and Body Option could both be considered novellas, I think; they’re around 20k each and I managed to get in there, tell the story and develop the romance, and conclude without making it any longer.

Then there’s others that grow tentacles and rise up out of the ocean to consume you. I tapped one of my old Nanowrimo stories to edit for potential submission, and was shocked to realize it’s around 160k. It’s a mystery/suspense with some horror elements, and takes place at a fictional boarding school. There are two relationship subplots. And I shake my head at my younger self, realizing here and now that I’m going to have to trim a lot of fat out of that story before I even think about submitting it to a publisher. (I already know I’m going to chuck one of the relationship subplots, which is going to make some of that story’s first draft readers very unhappy.)

What’s the optimal novel length for a standalone work? Does it depend on the subject matter? The plot? The author?

To me, it’s a combination of all of those elements. Genre and intended audience definitely play their parts. The simple, obvious example is the young adult genre–more than 60, 75k is pushing the attention threshold to keep your story marketable.

I’m starting to wonder if that holds true for a lot of m/m romance readers in that they want to keep their stories around 75k – get in, get the payoff, get it neatly wrapped before bedtime. For me, though, the thing that dictates the length of my story are how the story wants to be written, and I’ve always believed stories, as well as individual chapters within them, should be as long as they need to be.

As a reader, I seek stories on that basis, too. Long or short, it doesn’t really matter to me so long as I’m engaged and interested in the story that they have to tell.

As a reader or a writer, what’s your take on it?


  1. Definitely an interesting take! As a scholar of nineteenth-century fiction, I think a lot about the length of novels (that was the heyday of the three volume novel that gave us long works like Pride and Prejudice, and also serialization, which led to massive tomes like Bleak House). I think in conventional publishing we’re actually in a moment of excessively long novels, but you’re right that m/m novels seem to be much shorter, on the whole.

    On the other hand, I definitely had some complaints that Imaginary was too short, at 32,000 words! So who knows?

    1. Oh man, I apologize for the late reply! I do think I tend to be long-winded, so I can definitely stand to be edited down. At the same time, I need enough space and word count to develop a good relationship alongside the plot!

      I don’t feel like Imaginary was too short. (Maybe people were complaining because they wanted a sex scene, which would’ve made it longer. :P)

      There have been complaints that mine are too long, so obviously I’m still establishing a happy medium.

  2. Having been an avid reader since before I could tie my own shoes, all I can come up with is that it all depends on the story. Some people can create an intricate, masterful world in a minimal number of words, while others take their time and draw you in so that you don’t notice how many times you’ve turned the page.

    As a general rule, though, when I’m reading in the m/m genre, I tend to prefer mid-range stories. Too short, and it feels rushed or forced. Too long, and I’m often getting exasperated and skimming entire sections just to get it over with. Looking at my m/m bookshelf, I’d say that the majority of my favorite stories all fall somewhere around the length of Signal to Noise, with one or two variations.

    Oh, and there’s a slight difference between genres. Genres like Sci-fi or Fantasy, which are often set in universes that need a little explaining, lend themselves better to longer stories than Contemporary, where we don’t need the same kinds of concepts explained to us as readers.

    My 2c.

    1. “It depends on the story” is perfectly valid. Though, if it’s taking me a damn long time to get around to the main plot, I definitely run the risk of people skimming! Signal to Noise was a really good length for everything that it needed to get accomplished, but I fear that usually if I have a first-time relationship and a plot side by side, it requires more word count!

      Different genres are definitely a factor as well, I totally agree. That’s why I’m shooting for between 100-150k with Dragonspire. :3

  3. I don’t think I’m as much concerned with the length as I am with the writing. If the writing is compelling enough, I wouldn’t notice if the book was 165,000 words.

    When I think of books that are too long, my first thought is of Stephen King. I enjoy his writing, but there have been quite a few times when I’ve thought he could use a good editor who will stand up to him and make him cut superfluous content. And I’ve thought that because the story lagged (mostly because of his tangents and unnecessary details). So long as the story is moving along and compelling and the content is necessary to the story, I think it shouldn’t matter the length.

    1. That’s a fair point as well! So it really does depend on the book itself, though I think genre comes into play as well.

      Oh Stephen King is not the only one! Anne Rice suffered from that, and I think even Rowling could have stood to have some of her unnecessary sub-plots chopped from later novels but she got “too big” to really be edited down.

      I like long stories, but it seems like most gay fiction readers prefer…not the length that I like to write, lol.

  4. I find my stories always run a bit longer then I’d intended. If I’m planning for 10k-15K short story it’s going to be 20K-25K for sure. If I’m aiming for 20K-25K I’m going to hit 30K. I intended Memory of Blood and Lotuses to be 20K-25K and it ended up being 43K. Like Fire Through Bone was supposed to be 30K and when all ways said and done ended up being a little over 80K.

    I am kind of impressed by your books though because I haven’t broken 100K for a signal work though.

    I think shorter works are coming back into style in the publishing world over all. In ebooks I think the longer heavier tomes publisher were pushing for a while doesn’t matter so much because you’re not making extra money off of them nessisarily.

    I have noticed m/m romances tend to be much, much shorter. Neil Gaiman said on his blog once that 80K+ was considered a novel by most publishers but Baen Books, for instance says they generally don’t considered manuscripts that are less than 100K. Yet Dreamspinner considered anything 60K or more to be a novel. While most m/m romance books that I see tend to be in the 20K to 60K range.

    1. That happens to me sometimes, too. I’m trying to do a story for the submission call and wringing my hands, hoping it doesn’t end up over 20k! (I think it may, so I need to look at trimming my outlines.)

      I seem to come up with ideas that take me over 100k with depressing regularity. The horror mystery that I wrote years ago is around 159k – I like it, I think it’s pretty decent, but it needs a good hard edit before I’d even think of submitting it to the press.

      That’s a good point with the shorter works and ebooks, I hadn’t really considered how that might be affecting the market for longer works. Personally, I love to dig into a good long book if I enjoy the plot and characters. The more time with them, the better!

      I tend to think of novels as longer than 50k simply because that’s where Nanowrimo set the benchmark. It definitely depends on who you’re talking to!

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