word count

Fleshing out the bone

dragon engraving

If it really is a good idea to be average, what do you do when your book is the wrong length?

From working as an editor as well as a writer, my impression is that most writers have problems with being too wordy rather than writing drafts that are too short. What’s your experience as a writer?

My books are never too short. I’ve got whole systems for reducing flabby, waffle-y first drafts to a reasonable size (I’ll be blogging about this on my general author site), but I’ve never needed to ponder the problem of a book that was too short… until The Bone Dragon.

It’s baffling. The idea is a great big enormous one: definitely an idea that deserves a full novel. And yet my first draft was a measly 50,000 words. In finished form, it’s still shy of 70K. Where did all the words go? Are they hiding behind each other? Bunched up in terror of my red pen? I keep hitting ‘word count’ and still the numbers remain the same. How can this be?

Editing my way through the first draft, I kept my eyes peeled for where I’d somehow missed out 50 pages’ worth of plot. But there weren’t any notes in place of whole scenes yet to be written: not a [[ ******** add scene about Jane and Uncle Ben here *********]] in sight. On the positive side, it was my best ever first draft. Everything in it needed to be there. The plot was tight, and I’d got just the right number of major and minor characters (a major plus since I have a tendency to over-populate my books with unnecessary characters).

One key thing stood out as I pondered my word count conundrum: people weren’t going be more inclined to enjoy the book if I set about shoe-horning in unneeded material simply to make it longer.  And yet agents and publishers would probably turn their noses up at a 50K novel.

After much tea and chocolate and squishing of my cat (is purring not the most wonderful invention ever?), I took a deep breath and sent the manuscript off to my handful of ‘first readers’: colleagues, fellow writers and literary-minded friends who are willing to be honest but kind about my work.

Worries over the length aside, I was anxious that I’d written a book that was ‘just for me’. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is important to know when you’ve got a book that you should keep to yourself to be enjoyed by the light of your bedside lamp alone. Some books really shouldn’t see the wider light of day. I try to be honest with myself about work that falls into this category, but I really didn’t know about The Bone Dragon, so I asked my first readers two key questions:

  1. Do you like it? Will other people like it?
  2. Do you feel anything is missing or not fully fleshed out?

I got my answers surprisingly quickly (I’m sure the length helped!). The answer to question 1 was a surprising ‘yes’ all round. I’d been sure at least one of my first readers would hate it and another just wouldn’t get it, but that wasn’t how it played out. So far so good.

Even better, rather than just saying nice, generic things (almost always a sign that people don’t actually like what you’ve shown them but don’t want to say so) my lovely first readers had very strong opinions about aspects of the book that weren’t clear and, best of all, things they wanted to hear more about! Oh frabjous day!

One of my first reader’s main pieces of feedback was that, as a woman, I occasionally missed the mark about the psychology of my male characters. The emotional landscape rang true, he said, but my male characters’ attitudes to problem-solving sometimes didn’t. “Men try to fix things. Often in practical ways. Even when they shouldn’t,” he told me. This led on to a whole series of new scenes in which one of the characters tries to fix things on a purely practical level; this, in turn, creates a series of conflicts with another character… and disrupts the plans of a third. So the comment helped with characterisation, building conflict, complicating the plot and with my word count!

Buoyed up by my first readers being in agreement that the book would appeal to readers, I put on my editor’s hat and started asking myself all the standard tough questions. The ones I kept coming back to were all about the links between plot and character. It all boils down to this question: does each character have an arc?

… though begs a further set of questions:

  1. Is each character defined and unique?
  2. Does each character have a goal?
  3. Do all the characters change over the course of the book?

Even though I didn’t have too many characters, two weren’t suitably defined. Simply put, it was easy to mix them up. Both had a similar role to play in the book. Both had similar attributes. Both had a similar relationship with the protagonist. Neither changed profoundly. Not good enough.

I knew either one character had to be scrapped or something needed to be done to ensure that each character added something different to the book. Critically, each character had to change and develop, whether internally or in terms of their relationships with other characters… and, if possible, this development needed to be triggered by some sort of conflict. Now, I don’t mean that I thought I had to create conflict between the characters necessarily, but I had to ensure that they were somehow conflicted.

So that’s what I did. My pitiful 50K draft expanded to a satisfactory 68K. I had hoped to push the word count over the magic 70K mark… but I just couldn’t find another 2000 words that needed to be in the novel.

I still can’t see where I’ve skimped. All the characters have their own arcs now – some bigger and some smaller – but all of them develop or change in some way. There’s conflict of sorts in all the relationships. There’s lots of drama. There are clues to the mysteries that the story revolves around, and red herrings and revelations too. There’s a climax and even a resolution.

But before I considered the book finished, I sent it back to my first readers… and the consensus was that the manuscript felt complete: “It seems like it’s now in final form,” said a friend who works in the publishing industry.

Working on The Bone Dragon has inverted a lot of what I know about writing books. Maybe being upside down for a while will do me some good. Perhaps, in the long run, having written a book that’s too short I’ll miraculously move forwards writing tight, waffle-less first drafts from now on.

Well, there’s always hope, right?

When is it good to be average?

How long is a book?

long colonade

Now, the retort to this seemingly stupid question is ‘How long is a piece of string?’ but it’s really not that simple. Unless you’re a famous writer, agents and publishers have fairly set ideas about what a ‘book’ is. And one of the key parameters is length.

Novellas don’t sell (unless you’re super-famous). Short stories don’t sell very much (unless you’re super-famous or win a major award). Short novels don’t tend to sell (unless you’re super famous). I hope you’re sensing a theme here.

Unless an author is already a well-established brand, then agents and publishers will put a black mark against a submission that doesn’t fall within an acceptable word count range. The black mark may not count your project out… but it might. And do you really want a black mark before the agent/publisher has even got to the synopsis, let alone your sample material?

The ‘acceptable’ word count range for a book depends on its genre. But it’s generally wise to be wary of brick-like tomes. Why? Because they’re expensive to produce: there’s more editing involved, more page-setting, more pages… And that means that publishing the book is a bigger risk. To get a ‘yes’ on a very long book, it needs to be better than an average length book to compensate for the extra risk. The reverse is not true with short books because readers want to feel they’re getting their money’s worth: they don’t want to spend the same amount on something that’s half the size.

So book length is an area in which you really do want to aim to be average: for once, that’s the ideal.

Now, The Bone Dragon has proven contrary in many ways. It took me a very long time to write it – not in actual writing hours, but in how many years it was gradually written over. Usually, once I have a really detailed plan for a novel, I sit down and write it in under a month. The Bone Dragon took several years. Other things kept on getting in the way (including the rib in a pot that was the inspiration for the book in the first place)… but more on that another time.

The Bone Dragon also took a relatively short amount of time to edit. And when I did finally finish writing and start editing, my main goal was to make it longer. Longer!

Usually I set myself a word count target for how much I’m going to slim a manuscript down by in order to push myself to remove the ‘flab’. But, with The Bone Dragon, I needed to build the manuscript because for some reason that still escapes me the word count on the first draft (no matter how many times I rechecked it) told me that my book – the most intricately plotted book I’d ever written – was less than 47,000 words!

I still think the only explanation is that some of the words are hiding behind each other… because of the Dragon, you understand.

Anyway, thanks to many wonderful friends I started identifying what was missing. This was critical because I was determined that, having finally written a book that really did have little to no flab, I wasn’t going to edit in unnecessary material. On the other hand, the word count was a big, thorny problem: no one was going to want the book at that length. And there was no reason for me to risk having it rejected purely because of the length.

There was plenty of plot, even in the first draft. So why weren’t there enough words? (out, out, cowardly words! Stop cowering and show yourselves!)

Learning to identify what was missing instead of trying to spot what wasn’t needed was an interesting challenge. But gradually the word count crept up. I reached the 50K milestone… The 55K milestone… Praise be, the 60K milestone!

At this stage, I started doing some reading to figure out the lowest word count I was likely to get away with. Here are some of the most useful sources I found: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-count.html http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html http://editorialass.blogspot.com/2009/06/is-there-word-count-cap-for-debut-novel.html

The consensus seems to be that for any ‘adult’ genre, 60K was the absolute minimum number of words, while 70K was a happier minimum and 80-90K (or even up to 100K) was ideal. Now, romance novels generally do better on the lower end of this. Thrillers vary: light thrillers (‘cosy murder mysteries’ for instance) tend to lower end, while spy thrillers and big airplane-read action novels tend to the higher end. Literary fiction has greater flexibility. Chick lit comes somewhere in the middle (though it tends towards the short end of the scale). Fantasy and sci-fi can go really, really long if you’ve got an epic enough story (NB: series are generally what agents and publishers want, so make sure you shouldn’t be splitting your enormous tome into a trilogy… unless you’ve got a trilogy of tomes anyway). Young adult starts at about 45K and goes up to 80K (usually).

As for The Bone Dragon… Well, it’s not immediately clear what genre it belongs in, though I’m hoping this is because it has cross-over potential rather than because it falls between two camps. I think it would market best as a literary crime novel or as young adult. Generally cross-over books start as young adult/children’s and move over into the adult market, so that’s been worth bearing in mind as I struggled to work out what to do about the length.

The final word count is under 68K. This means that it’s happily above the 60K bare minimum and verging on the OK lower limit for an adult novel though it is still short for adult fiction. It’s just fine for young adult, however.

So that has helped to dictate my submission approach… After all, while an author should theoretically be free to make a book as long or as short as it needs to be, a writer who wants to get published needs to face facts: agents and publishers care about length. So I do too. I don’t want agents/publishers to look at my cover letter and be ready to bin my synopsis and sample chapters simply because the word count isn’t what they’re after. If I’m going to fail, I definitely want to fail at a higher bar than that!

So there you go. Word counts don’t make a book. But they can stop a book making it on to the shelves.

And, after all, there’s nothing to stop you asking your publisher if you can add/cut down once you’ve already sold them on your story. Get a contract with a book that’s within the right limits and then, if the word limit has been hampering you, see if you can negotiate to adjust the manuscript to be the length that is needed to tell the story your way. You have to be willing to accept a ‘no’ – I wouldn’t advise taking this path if you’re prepared to tear your contract up if the publisher decides not to negotiate on this point – but if you are willing to make a ‘no’, then the worst the publisher can say is ‘We like it like this.’ You’ll still have a book on the shelves after all. Not exactly a bad result.