opinions

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?