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How Long Should a Novel Be?
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When I wrote my very first novel, I took to heart someone's advice that a novel should be 300 manuscript pages.  It turned out that wasn't good advice, but when we're starting out in this rather complicated and mysterious business, we cling to crumbs of information as we try to figure out what we're supposed to do.  I wrote the 300 pages, and the first thing my prospective agent told me was that my manuscript was too short.

Somehow I stopped worrying about length for a time.  I wrote three novels, each roughly 100,000 words each.  My next book, THE TERRORISTS OF IRUSTAN, came in at 600 manuscript pages, or about 150,000 words.  I didn't think much of it until my publisher asked me to cut 75 pages.  Suddenly I became hyperaware of the issue of length in a book.  (It was a better book for being tighter, by the way.  I learned a lot through that process!)

Technically, a novel is anything over 40,000 words, although there is disagreement on that (naturally).  A novella is 17,500 words, up to 39,999.  A novelette can be 7,500 words to 17, 499 (again, depending on whose rules you follow.)  A short story is generally considered to be anything under 10,000 words.

But a novel?  Even a young adult novel is expected to be 60,000 words, as I learned when I received my first contract for one.  There are trends in these things, I'm finding.  For a time, and quite recently, publishers were looking for shorter novels, 90,000 words or 95,000 words.  Such works are less expensive to print, and therefore--we hope--more profitable.  I've always had a little difficulty writing to that length, although IRUSTAN's excessive length has never gotten hold of me again.

My new contract specifies 115,000 words, and this catches me by surprise.  The trend has changed again.  This may be in part due to the ease of publishing electronic versions of our novels, or it may be that by asking for 115,000 words a publisher can be certain of getting a "real" book into their hands.   Ideally, of course, a story should be as long as it needs to be.  But this is a business, albeit an artistic one. As working writers, we have to take these things into account.

For those of you under contract, do you know what your current contract specifies?  Do you take that into consideration when you're writing?  And what if your word count runs significantly under (or over) the requested length?  Any editors out there have some insight?

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Fashionable lengths

The original draft of my first novel was 900 ms pages. (Isn't everybody's?) I actually started sending it out; like an overfond parent, I couldn't bear to cut out any of my favorite scenes — which, of course, was all of them!

Fortunately, a very smart agent gave me sound advice about editing the story down from one behemoth into two more easily digestible volumes. When I worked my way through that process, she took me on as a client. The first published version (in German) was about 500 ms pages and 100,000 words. I cut out another 50 pp (and made the story much more focused) when I sold it myself to an English-language publisher later.

Who knew the length of novels went in and out of fashion, like hemlines? When trying to sell my first novel, I was often told by agents that they never read anything over 90,000 words (this was in the '90s). Now I read on agency websites that 100,000 to 125,000 is considered "the norm."

Excellent post, Louise!

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So interesting!

Thanks so much for your input, Lisa.  Isn't it odd that we have to serve fashion along with everything else?

My editor has just explained to me that length has something to do with genres; historical fiction readers, for example, like some "heft" (her word) in their books.  I found that to be fascinating.  As a reader myself, I don't think the weight of a book ever made a difference in my buying decision.