I wouldn’t tell you about the weeks beforehand when I did nothing but lie around on the beach and drink too much, or the months of planning, trying to decide which flights to buy, and wondering whether I needed malaria pills. The point is, you start a story at exactly the point where it gets interesting, and you end it before it starts getting boring.
But how long should that be?
Traditionally, the writer’s options have been limited. Market forces and cost considerations have tended to strait-jacket a writer, and the only length acceptable was a short story or a novel. A short story is generally defined as anything below 10,000 words. Some people say 7,500 words, others say 20,000, but I think 10,000 is pretty common as an upper limit.
For novels, the preferred length, set by publishers and agents, is 80,000 to 100,000 words (with slight variations for genre, and much shorter lengths for Children’s/YA novels). There are good reasons for this.
First of all, the longer the book, the more it costs to print. And the more you add to the print costs, the more you have to add to the price of the book. Naturally, there is a point where the reader will baulk, especially if you aren’t J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Similarly, if you are a new or relatively unknown writer, readers want to know that if they are risking their $10, that they least get some minimum entertainment time.
Really successful writers can break these rules (they can pretty much do whatever they want), but for the other 99%, they have to play the game. And for unpublished writers trying to hook an agent, the rules are very strict. Most agents won’t even look at a book that is outside this word count. If they see a query letter, and the word count is 150,000 words, they probably won’t even read your query letter, or even bother to reply. If you’re lucky, you will get a short, curt message, advising you to trim it, but that’s it.
Over the years, there has been some classic work produced outside these word lengths. On the longer side you have War & Peace (460,000), Les Misérables (510,000), Middlemarch (315,000), and two that I thought were shorter Catch-22 (175,000) and Crime & Punishment (210,000). What you will notice about these books is that they are doorstoppers and/or the text is tiny. The other thing is that they were written a long time ago, before the corporatisation of the publishing world.
If you are a new novelist, or your sales are modest, a publisher (and hence an agent) is not going to want to take the extra risk of producing a more expensive, outsized book, not when there are thousands more people banging down their door with perfect-sized novels. Detailed profit and loss assessments are made on every book before the editor makes an offer, and it this stage, they don’t even bother with work that falls outside the preferred length.
One form has fallen by the wayside completely in the modern publishing world. The novella. Generally between 17,500 and 40,000 words (shorter again is a novelette), this for has produced a string of classics you will all remember: A Christmas Carol, Of Mice and Men, Billy Budd, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, The Old Man and The Sea, and Heart of Darkness.
Unfortunately, it is no longer economical for publishing houses to produce novellas for the vast majority of writers. Even though they have less pages, there are fixed production costs (cover design, marketing, etc.) that the publisher has to be regardless of length. And customers expect to pay less for something half the size of a novel, meaning publishers’ margins shrink to the point where it’s only worthwhile producing it if you are sure it will be a runaway hit.
So what is a writer to do? Up until recently, it meant either stretching or cutting your story so that it would fit into the preferred form. But as I mentioned at the top, the right length for a story is the right length. I’m sure there are thousands of novels on everyone’s bookshelves that would have been better if the writer had been allowed a length of their choice. And I’m equally sure that there are thousands more stories that we never got to read because of these restrictions.
Well, not anymore.
With digital publishing, length doesn’t matter anymore. You can tell your story in the length it takes to tell the story. You don’t have to add unnecessary sub-plots to pad it out, and you don’t have to cut that minor character you were so fond of to trim it down. You can tell the story your way, the way it was meant to be told.
The production costs for an e-book are pretty much the same regardless of length. Of course, you will spend more on editing the longer the story is, and formatting will take longer, but that’s it. You have no commercial restrictions outside of that, especially if you are self-publishing. And for self-publishers, as they have complete control over pricing, they can entice the customer into taking a risk with a low, low price.
While this hasn’t led to a boom in War and Peace-length stories (yet, maybe they are still being written!), it has led to a resurgence in the novella. And if this leads to the production of new classics like those listed above, everyone wins.