Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Length Question

I might finish the book today. I have about a chapter and a half to go. I know what happens in the rest of the chapter, but I'm not really sure about the last chapter/big finish. This wasn't supposed to be this big a rewrite. My agent thought it would require just a few little tweaks. But the questions she raised sparked ideas, and then those ideas led to a few little tweaks -- but then those tweaks has this massive domino effect that changed more and more until I pretty much had to throw out the last few chapters entirely. It's going to take some re-envisioning to re-do the last chapter because that ending was something I'd always pictured, and this particular project is an old partially completed project that I decided needed to be finished, so that ending's been in my head for years. I even researched that setting, but it turns out that I'll probably end up using research I did for an entirely unrelated book that I may never write for the setting for the new ending.

Then I'll have to read the whole thing straight through for proofreading and to do some minor Bill and Tedding, and I'll be done! I think at this point, I would push back on any further rewrite requests because I don't think they'd make the book better. They'd just edit the life out of it or make it my agent's book and not mine.

While I'm battling Book Brain, I'm answering some reader questions. If you have questions you'd like me to address -- about writing, publishing, me, my books, etc. -- leave them in comments. I don't promise to answer all of them, but I'll do a post if a question inspires me.

I don't know about anyone else but I'm still confused about word lengths.

Some debut ya fantasy novels are 80K-90K. Some like Twilight are 120K. Some like City of Bones are 130K. Yet agents all say that the word count should be under 120K or's confusing. What's a good length for a debut writer (writing in that genre)?

I don't know a lot about the young adult market, but my agent did a blog post a few months ago about that. Her view was that length is the wrong thing to ask about when it comes to middle grade or YA books. Those markets are all about the pacing, so a fast-paced book with lots of twists and turns can be really long and still hold reader interest. That applies to the adult market as well, but younger readers do have shorter attention spans, in general.

If the length comes from lots of action, lots of tension, conflict and suspense, and if the plot has a lot of surprises and reversals, then you can get away with a longer book. A lot of these longer books read very quickly. That doesn't entirely explain Twilight, as I thought that book moved very slowly and had very little going on in it, but I suppose it was loaded with emotional tension, and since I am Spock, that didn't do a lot for me. Obviously, millions of readers disagree with me there and felt that book was engrossing (since that series has outsold mine by more than a million times, and that's not dramatic hyperbole, she must have done something better than I know how to do).

You're right to be looking at debut books instead of established authors, since established authors have a lot more leeway. Would an epic tome with the length and pacing of the last few Harry Potter books have sold as a debut book? I don't know.

It is safer to aim for shorter, since shorter books are cheaper to print and tend to be more economical than longer books (though that economy of scale tends to vanish when the book is a huge bestseller and rakes in tons of profits). Shorter books require less paper, are cheaper to ship, can ship with more books in the box, take up less warehouse space and less shelf space. If your debut young adult book is more than about 80,000 words, then it had better have something really, really special about it, something that grips readers by the throats and won't let go, because a super-long length will be a hurdle to overcome and it will take an agent falling in love with it to be able to convince an editor to give it a shot, and then that editor will have to become a passionate advocate within the house.

You'll have to be really objective about your work to evaluate whether it absolutely has to be that length, if you've cut all fat and fluff, if there's tension, action, conflict or emotion on every page, and if it really is engrossing enough that the pages fly by. If it can be shorter, it probably should be. That applies to adult books, as well. These days, even the desired word count for adult novels is shrinking to the 85K word range.

In journalism school, one of my professors liked to say that a news story should be like a bikini -- big enough to cover the important parts but small enough to be interesting. I think that applies to novels, as well.

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