Does my novel have a natural length – or am I trying to excuse excessive word count?
We’ve all encountered books that feel the wrong length. A supernatural mystery that plods on a hundred plus pages past the predictable twist. Or the third instalment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I've read thrillers with a protagonist named Jack that err similarly on the side of brevity. And others, featuring a different Jack, that are positively tantric about getting to the finish line.
Yet with some novels, the setting's created, the story plays out, the characters intrigue and develop in a way that seems so effortlessly right you don't even notice how long or short the book is. If it never occurred to me Gatsby was a famously slight 47K, nor did I spot that The Corrections was getting up to – depending on which blog you read, or maybe which edition – 175-195K and therefore into Moby Dick territory (which certainly does feel like it). With plenty of others you're quite aware they're doorstoppers but that's OK because you never want them to end. Isn't that how we're meant to consume a lot of SFF?
At the same time, most of us will have received well-meaning advice, or been on those blogs and forums, or subscribed – for our sins – to the YouTube channels, and heard over and over how no one will take your manuscript seriously unless it falls within the accepted word count range for each genre. And that you can forget those outliers, those exceptions to the rule, because if you're a first-time writer (as if there were such a thing), you'll never get to be one of those.
And... fair enough. That's your industry. I accept it. It may be particularly discouraging for the first-timer, for the unpublished writer, let's say. But I get it. Tough love. It's meant to be.
So no, this isn't a rant. Nor is it offering any insight into what the market is looking for (I'd just be copying from the same websites you'll find if you Google anything about word counts – seriously, there is so much out there). No, what this is is a question, or a series of questions and attempted answers, drawn from something that I can talk about with the authority of experience, namely the difference between the length of the first novel in my Chasing Mercury series and the likely length of the second.
Book One is around 115K. Book Two looks like coming in at 80.
How did those word counts turn out so different? Is there a good reason for it? And if so, does it suggest that yes, there is a natural length that each individual story needs to be, in order to 'breathe'?
Book One, The Borodino Sacrifice, was my first proper attempt at a spy/action historical thriller and as a result, even after a few drafts, I could tell it was overlong and overwritten. The truth is, it was up around 145K, and the received wisdom is that only SFF or full-blown historical sagas can be that sort of length, and then only from established authors. (Longer books cost more to print and bind and store and distribute and they’re not going make that kind of investment in an unknown. It's hard to argue with the logic of that. Although I presume there's a discussion to be had about ebooks.)
Anyway, after doing the Googling, getting horrified, Googling some more, then disingenuously elbowing my novel through into a historical category (although I’m not sure the postwar espionage environment really counts), I had it in my head that there was an upper limit for a book like mine, which was – being generous – 120K. Sure, I understood that a thriller of such a length might put off overburdened agents or publishers, who would gratefully consign anything above 80K, or 90K, or 100K to the trash, but I hoped that others might just give it the benefit and read on.
So I cut it down, and yes, losing 25K of those precious darlings really helped to tighten up the story and pick up the pacing. But I knew that I was reaching the limit of what I could do without professional editorial input. Possibly I was reaching the limits of the story itself. Any further cutting line-by-line and the whole tone and voice got muddied. Any further cutting of scenes or characters and I felt I was losing the narrative's vital organs – and for what? No, no, 120K would be the limit. Or, after one last pass to trim any infodumps or lengthy descriptions that had survived the Great Reaping, 115K.
Now I come to the point of this. Because as I documented in my last blog, I haven’t waited to get Book One published before embarking on Book Two (chance would be a fine thing, etc, etc.) No, for various reasons that I might break down and analyse another time, I’ve been working on The Herrenhaus Forfeit these past few months. Like Book One, it took a while to find its natural pace and shape, and it has thrown up some surprises along the way – minor characters taking unexpected turns, etc., yes, I know… oh, and the realisation that what it needs to distinguish itself is a big bloody heist drama sitting right at the heart of it. But I have been working to a plan. I’ve known where and when the story pivots in the middle, and I’ve just reached that point in the first draft – bang on target at 40K!
But hang on... bang on whose target? Ah, yes, of course. I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew I wasn’t going to put myself in that position again: wearing a fixed smile as I listened to people tell me that 80K was really the perfect length and 120K the absolute upper limit and honestly that's pushing it... Especially when those people included me.
What amazes me is that I took that on board and have written – conceived, constructed, peopled, narrated – the story accordingly. And OK, the second half of the book might end up being longer or shorter, but not dramatically so, because it really does need to be this length. I can’t imagine it having some of the epic or world-building elements that made the first book feel like it needed to be longer. And it’s lean enough that I certainly can’t imagine it getting any shorter. So until a professional tells me otherwise, I think it has a natural length. And, by implication, maybe, if I half-close my eyes and suck in its tummy, so did the first book. One day, perhaps governed by different objectives, so will the third.
That was what I wanted to say. Perhaps to reassure myself. Perhaps to reassure others. I had an exchange on Twitter with another writer who had encountered something similar with word counts in her series of novels. I was also going to include a footnote or a postscript relating to my not-entirely-frivolous confession that I'd tried to justify the 120K target by pretending my book was a proper historical. But two further, final thoughts occur on that subject...
Firstly, are these generic terms really set in stone? I'm already mixing two when I say mine are espionage/action thrillers. And it seems to me that some books like this, set in the WWII period, feel more 'historical' than others. Some use historical conventions like a frame story while others plunge you straight into the period as though it were the present day. Some of the former use that structure to depict the past as another country, while others don't. Some of the 'plunge right in' lobby read as so modern you can feel the author struggling not to give the characters cellphones and you wonder why they didn't set it in Assad's Damascus instead of Nazi-occupied Paris. Others are more convincing.
Secondly, leading on from that: if we accept that a lot of SFF and purer historicals are given the leeway of extra word count because they have more heavy lifting to do in terms of creating an unfamiliar setting, doesn't it follow that some hybrid historical thrillers need more space than others? Although The Borodino Sacrifice visits Paris and Berlin, the main action takes place in the less well-trodden territory of the former-Sudetenland Czech border zone during the first, fluid phase of postwar occupation by east and west (a phase that even many history books gloss over or get wrong). Am I not permitted some world-building word count for that – compared with, for example, all the books set in occupied France and inspired to varying degrees by the well-known stories of the female F Section agents? (By the way, my Uncle John, he of The Typewriter That Went To Meet Lucky Luciano, was brought in to do uncredited script doctoring on Carve Her Name With Pride. He had some stories to tell.)
What's that you say? 1984 is supposedly something like 90K (other confidently quoted word counts are available) and it's hard to imagine heavier-duty world-building than that? Yeah, but Orwell never wrote a sequel did he? It seems to me that the first book in a series might well have more lifting to do. Maybe 1985 would have been shorter, the same way The Herrenhaus Forfeit is. Or, maybe, I had just learned my lesson by the time I started writing Book Two – and I still can't learn my lesson about Book One.
One thing's certain. The word count on this post is high enough.
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I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.