Monday, July 28, 2014

Q&A: How long should my book be?

The latest fantasy series (actual size)
Typically I don't care about word counts.  The story I write contains as many words as it took to write, and that's all that matters to me.  However, when you are going to publicize, pitch, query an agent, or otherwise talk about a written work, the word count becomes important.

And that word count determines the length of a novel more than any other system.  Because of the differences in sizes of books (trade paperback, hardcover, paperback, etc) and the sizes of fonts, the page count of a book can vary considerably with the same story.  But what doesn't change is the word count.

So when you write a story, you will fall under several categories of size based on the word count.  There are four basic story sizes, although some break down the types even more:
  • Short Story: under 7500 words
    • Flash story: up to 1000 words
    • Short short story: 1001 - 4000 words
    • Long short story: 4001-8000 words
  •  Novelette: 8001-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up
A recent study of major fantasy works was done, showing the word count of these multi-book series.
Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
Total: 473k (plus 95k from the Hobbit)

Wheel of Time - Robert Jordan
Total: 3,304,000 (official count)

A Song of Ice And Fire - George R. R. Martin
Total: 1,314,000

Sword of Truth books - Terry Goodkind
Total: 1,184,00

Harry Potter Books - J.K. Rowling
Total: 1,085,000

Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
Total: 1,715,501
Seeing this, there is a tendency among many young and beginning writers to assume that a fantasy story has to be big.  Rowling's books average over 150,000 words, and the typical fantasy release is so massive you can use it to press wildflowers.  Series get bigger and bigger; a trilogy seems modest compared to the Wheel of Time books.  Patrick Rothfuss only has three books out so far, and they each have more than 200,000 words.

But Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's in US release) Stone was just 77,325 words.  The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was just 36,363, not even long enough to be a novel by today's standards.  In truth, shorter, and stand-alone stories used to be more the standard instead of the massive multi-part epics people associate with books these days.

Books such as the Conan stories were not a series, but were individual stories and collections of short stories about a character in a setting.  You could read them in any order without losing the plotline.  Other books were always meant to be stand alone fantasy fiction instead of part of an -ology.  The Xanth novels by Piers Anthony for example follow a historical chain but are not in a sequence that must be read in order.

And most of these earlier fantasy stories were quite short compared to modern mega novels.  The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, the Elric series, and yes, even the Narnia books are all fairly short.  "Doorstop" novels such as A Dance with Dragons (422,000 words) were very rare and typically associated with major works of literature such as War and Peace (587,287 words), not fantasy.  Tolkien's Epic was the exception, not the rule.

There's nothing wrong with writing that vast series of gigantic books if that's what your story takes to tell.  A book should be as long as it needs to be, and no more or less.  If you have a huge sweeping epic involving vast armies and huge sections of history, then that's going to take a lot of words to tell.  But writers of fiction should not feel compelled to write a huge book.

If you have a shorter story to tell, then tell it shorter.  Don't pad your book to make it seem like the other guys, and don't slash your story apart just to make it smaller.  The modern trend toward gigantic mega-series is not a template or even particularly significant in the great scheme of literature.  Its just what some are doing today.

The one thing I would caution against, however, is writer inflation.  If you look at the word counts of successful writers in series you can see a pretty standard pattern: they get longer.  Each book, almost without fail, is longer than the last.  Its practically a joke.  You can see it if you line them up on the shelf, its like each book ate the previous one.  This is not good, unless each book needs to be bigger because it has a larger story.

The thing is, I suspect that as the writers get more comfortable, experienced, and successful, their editors allow more to slip through, they pad the book more with description, dialog, and extra scenes for flavor and it gets ugly.  Consider any director who starts making more sloppy, longer, and talky movies as they become more successful.  They need an editor to cut them down to be trim and lean like their first stuff.  Don't be that kind of writer.  Keep it trim and lean, keep it only the size it needs to be and cut out the stuff people skip, as Elmore Leonard put it.

There's nothing wrong with writing Doorstop epics.  I just want writers to understand they are under no compulsion to do so.  Writing smaller, individual stories is not only good but its fresher than the modern trend and often quite welcome to readers.

*UPDATE: Here are some basic numbers for various publishers and what they look for, in case you are going the traditional publishing route for a full novel:
  • Baen: prefers 100-130k, "uncomfortable" with under 100k
  • Daw: minimum 80k words
  • Pyr: 100-130k desired, will not even consider books under 85k for science fiction or 95k for fantasy.