Is it long enough? (Said the vicar to the nun) Part 1 by Chris James

Author Chris James
Author Chris James
Author Chris James

Among my family and friends in the UK, the line “said the vicar to the nun” is a staple of our slightly-naughty sense of humour. Whenever a potential double-entendre heaves into view, you can bet someone in the room will say it. At my dad’s 70th birthday party last year, as he cut his birthday cake with a big knife he exclaimed, “Goodness me, that went in deep!” Two seconds later I uttered, “said the nun to the vicar,” and the assembled crowd fell about. Yeah, you probably had to be there.

But this post isn’t about cracking saucy gags with older relatives, it’s about one writing concern many of us have: “making length”. Just how long should your novel be? Ultimately your story should be as long as it takes to tell it, but, empty-headed-and-generally-unhelpful platitudes aside, it is capable of being any length you decide. Generally the mainstreams dictate that a “full-length novel” is 80,000 to 120,000 words, but with e-publishing some are saying that a novel only needs 40,000 words. As with so many things in fiction writing, it helps to look around. My favourite novel, The Time Machine, has only 25k words, but you’ll be hard put to find that many superbly-chosen words so skilfully put together. At the other end of the scale we have the pros: door-stops of 200k+ words that are guaranteed mega-sales in numerous territories; household names whose editors aren’t about to tell them that their latest is just too damn long. My target when I start is 100k (about 330 double-spaced A4 sides). It’s a nice, round number; I like it, and now I’ve done it twice I’m addicted to the high I feel when I reach it.

Writing a novel, especially if it’s your first and you’re an unknown, is the same as trekking to the North Pole. You can’t see the end, so you really need to have a map and compass. You’ll do your prep work, of course: character creation, world-building, and you’ll plan your little climaxes along the way (said the vicar to the nun), but you also need to decide your route: whose story it is and roughly how it’s going to unfold.

The Dead Zone

When you start writing your first novel, the biggest danger is what I call “the dead zone” (actually, I call it “the bitch zone” but since IU is a family-orientated kind of site, I changed it for this post), which lies between 10k and 20k words. In the first 10k, your enthusiasm pushes you along just fine, but then that glow starts to fade, time passes, the word count creeps up too slowly. At 15k you feel good you’re getting it done, so you go back to admire what you’ve created, maybe to remind yourself about a character or plot point. But you tell yourself something’s not right, you begin to doubt the characters, the plot, then you doubt all of it. You try to push on but a voice says, “and you’re not even a fifth of the way there!”. You turn and glance back towards base camp, and remember the warm fire and well-stocked larder. You wonder if you wouldn’t be better off doing that sponsored walk around your local park again, because everyone you know says your short stories are great.

The only answer is to keep going: stick to the map and the compass and don’t look back. I strongly recommend an outline for at least the first 50k, and then to know when and how your story will climax some thousands of words after that. If you have that to guide you, after 20k+ words you’ll catch a second wind and the going will get easier. You’ll pass 30k and then 40k before you know it. And then you’ll be halfway to the Pole, the point at which most of us would realise it’s not worth turning back.

At the beginning of writing a novel you absolutely must keep writing, even if you know it’s the worst collection of words ever excreted (which it won’t be, by the way). You need that outline to help guide you through the dead zone. Maybe after you’ve written a few novels, you’ll be confident enough not to need one. I’m just coming out of the dead zone in my third novel, still head down at my map, not looking backwards or forwards, just plodding on trying my best to ramp up the tension scene by scene. But if I didn’t have that outline, I know I’d doubt too many things, and that would lead to me doubting the whole thing.

Remember that you can’t effectively edit a partially finished story. Fix typos? Sure. Rewrite clichés? Absolutely. But not edit. Not until the whole story is out of your head and on the page. If you stop at 15k and see that about 5k words near the beginning aren’t very good (pick your own torture here: wooden characters, contrived plot, too much exposition, etc), then you’ll be much more likely to give up and return to base camp. But if you can wait, accept them but ignore them until you get to the Pole, then you’ll see that they’re not so bad: you could even delete the whole 5k and you’ll still have a healthy 95k.

The things I noticed from writing my first two novels were that (a) from first draft to publication, each shrank by 10k words, and (b) about three-quarters of those deletions were made in the first 20k words of the story. But only when I’d got the whole thing out could I then face culling all those sweet filler scenes and redundant exposition that appeared so vital to the story when I’d just left base camp.

Join us next week for Part 2: Story Acceleration and Character Control!

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Chris James is an English science fiction writer who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He published his first novel in 2010, a futuristic court-room thriller called Class Action, and his second in 2011, called The Second Internet Café, Part 1: The Dimension Researcher, which takes the sub-genre of Alternative Realities to its logical conclusion. He is currently writing the second part of The Second Internet Café trilogy. You can learn more about Chris on his blog, or his Amazon.com author page.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

31 thoughts on “Is it long enough? (Said the vicar to the nun) Part 1 by Chris James”

  1. British humour is great, I don't care who you are. I can't wait for next week's post! The length question has plagued me, well, since I decided I wanted to write a novel, really.

    1. Thank you, RJ. It's as subjective as any other aspect of writing, certainly, so I think it helps to decide your (approximate) target before you start.

  2. I agree with Stephen Hise – excellent article!

    You've provided sage advice made easily accessible by your cheeky English wit. I admit that the issue of "how long should it be" has always been a concern to me – as a newbie writer of course, and not in any other context!

    Looking forward to reading next week's article too, once it "heaves into view" Lol!

    1. Thanks, Jo. Longer fiction, especially if you're starting out, can be daunting, and that blasted word count can take the sheer pleasure out of writing fuller fiction if you let it.

  3. Some good comments in here.

    One thing I think is absolutely critical to understand: the "modern" idea of a novel as a story of 80-120k words is new. It's VERY new, in fact, and it's built not from any functional need for stories to be that long but from business and marketing issues dealing with shelf space and paper prices.

    Really. 😉

    As costs went up over the last 30 years, book prices went up to compensate. Publishers found that people were willing to pay enough of a higher price for a longer work that it became worthwhile to make books longer. So they started selecting longer novels, not on the basis of that being the "right length" for a novel, but based on marketing concerns. Don't want it too long, because then you can't fit enough copies on a shelf. Don't want it too short, because then consumers won't pay $7.99 or $8.99 for the book.

    Go back to the 60s and 70s, and you'll see that 150-250 page paperbacks were the norm. Jump forward to today, and the shortest paperbacks I can find are about 300 pages long – with the norm being more around 450-500 pages.

    Again, this has nothing to do with the natural length of a story, and everything to do with writers producing works to meet the demands of publishers, which are based on the demands the production and retail markets put on them.

    Ebooks DO open the doors quite a lot. Today, we're seeing works sell well at all sorts of lengths. Eisler wrote a short story of about 10k words which sold thousands of copies at $2.99. My own 3-5k short stories sell slow but steadily at 99 cents, and my 42k word novel "By Darkness Revealed" has sold hundreds of copies at $2.99.

    Serialized novels are back "in", with examples like "WOOL" and "Yesterday's Gone" selling like gangbusters. I'm working on an SF serial myself – and I have to say, there is a real appeal in seeing science fiction come around to its early 20th century roots in serialization! =)

    Point is, the right length for a story is…the right length for that story, told by that storyteller. There is no wrong length, not anymore.

    I agree with darn near everything else though: finish the work, THEN edit. If you're writing serials, finish the first five or more segments (50k words or more) first, THEN edit. You need to get a good idea where the story is going before you stop to edit, otherwise you are just wasting your time. With a novel, the ending could force changes on the beginning that cause you to scrap the entire beginning and rewrite it (happened to me). So any editing you do of early sections before finishing the rest is often a waste of time you'll have to redo anyway.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Kevin, excellent additional info, and I agree with you that there is no "wrong" length. But I would say that us Indies need to strike a balance with what we publish so that our readers know what to expect. I generally aim for the 100k mark to be consistent, so when I publish a novel the reader has an idea of how much "reading time" they're going to get for their money (this is, of course, quite apart from any question of quality). When I buy some Indie "novels", I have sometimes felt short-changed because I've paid for what I regard as a short story but what the writer has decided to call a novel.

    2. I think it's important that writers are aware that the lengths chosen by publishers aren't based on reader tastes or attention span or anything, but the economics of print runs.

      The cool thing is that ebooks (and very naturally indie ebooks) completely free writers up from any such of restrictions. I just published a 35,000 word novel… a very good ebook length, I think. There is an e-publisher named 40K books.

      By the same token, there is no economic reason not to publish a Kindle book of 500,000 words any more. Why not? Who cares? Doesn't cost any more. We're seeing writers piling 5 novels into a "boxed set" in a single ebook. (And, which cracks me up, creating little graphics of a boxed book set to sell them online)

      I also recently published an 8,000 word ebook. It's made to go for 99cents and free. You see shorter ones around.

      In fact, the last book I published was 20 pages, a graphic short story that is getting sales.

      The ultimate irony, I had to create paperback versions of both for reviewers. But guess what? Some of those sold, too.

      Length just doesn't mean anything anymore.

      Which the vicar told the nun, but she wasn't convinced.

      1. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Lin. I think here we're getting into the volume/cost issue, which is quite outside the theme of this post. My driver to wirte and publish my novels at around 100k is because of how I feel as a reader: for a certain amount of money, I expect a book to entertain/involve me for a certain length of time.

        For example, when we go to the cinema, we pay and expect 90 to 180 minutes of entertainment. If we paid the full admission price and the film was a short of 15 minutes' length, we'd feel a bit cheated. As a writer, I want my readers to know that from one of my books, they're going to get a good few hours of entertainment (allegedly).

        I think you're right that length doesn't mean anything anymore, but I've seen a few writers describing their longish short story as "a full-length novel" and failing to deliver as a result. I do feel that readers need to be able to rely on certain tags: a "novel" is so long, a "novella" is something less, and a "short story" something less still.

        Ultimately, it will take a writer more time to write more words, which should deliver more entertainment. Of course, if the reader has the word count in the book description on the purchase page, that's fair enough, but nnot all sellers do.

  4. While I did not know this is a common pattern I recognised my own in it. Those first 20K words just don't feel right – then the story takes off and they were all worth it. As for length, I aim for more or less 110,000 to 120,000 words. It seems to work out that way for my stories. They told me that was too long, but less didn't cut it.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Yvonne. I think that's an ideal length (said the nun to the vicar!) and you shouldn't listen to anyone who tells you it's too long!

  5. I love this site.

    Chris, you inspire me sir. Thanks for the words of wisdom, the encouraging pat on the back, and the kick in my ass when I need it most. Perhaps someday I can return the favor (said the nun to the vicar).

  6. Surprised there was no mention of how it's not the length that counts… oh, wait, you went there in the comments!

    More seriously, this is a generous article about your process and I love the expedition/base camp analogy. Really good stuff.

    1. Thanks, David, much appreciated although creation through writing is such a personal journey for each of us. Many congrats on your recent success with Unquiet Slumbers!

  7. Reader expectations are also evolving. Everything's evolving, and novel length is one thing to watch. My three novels just happen to be about the same length, give or take, (what Kevin calls natural length) but I do realize my readers do expect a similar length for the same price.

    Book clubs, especially, seem to want to fork out the same price for similar-looking books.

    Luckily, my publishers decide about pricing… so I try to give them more or less the same kind of product. Which is not that hard because I tell stories and create characters in similar ways each time – I vary the premise, the main topic, and some character traits, of course.

    But there's always a car chase, even though he doesn't always get the girl. Or vice versa.

  8. Thanks for commenting, Rosanne. I think you've hit the nail on the head there: that your readers expect a similar length for the same price 🙂

  9. Chris,

    This was extremely helpful to a very new novelist. It is interesting that I, purely by accident, wrote my second ms in the manner you described. The end product had a much better flow, and was easier to edit. It is as long as it is supposed to be. The 45,000 words tell the story the way I want, and hopefully the reader will be entertained.

    I look forward to your future posts.

  10. You are so right about the book being however long it takes to tell the story. I think people have a real tendency to overthink the simplest things.

  11. Thanks for the interesting article. I am at an early stage of writing, having read for years without so much as a nod for creation. Character building – yep! There's nothing worse than getting 12,000 words into your first novel then having to throw/amend everything.

    BTW – First novel still on the backburner, I'm getting to grips with Flash Fiction for the moment.

    1. You're welcome, Chris, thanks for commenting. Flash fiction is certainly a good place to start to get some feel for what sort of length you're more comfortable with (said the vicar… no, never mind). Check back this Sunday for part 2, and, as a btw, you should never, never throw away any of your writing because you never know when it might come in handy in the future.

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