In the introduction to his novel tilted Winter Prey, John Sandford observes that this story was one of his first in which the novel’s length played out just the way he had imagined it would. He writes that, too often before that, he would find himself at the 50,000 word mark, only to realize that the end of the story appeared to be right around the corner.
He humorously notes that, when he would reach that point, he would realize, too, that he could go ahead and finish the novel, thereby having written a 55,000-word “pamphlet.” Alternatively, he could introduce new problems, new issues, and, possibly, new characters that would force the length toward 100,000 words, a standard word-count for contemporary fiction. So, of course, he would then dredge up problems and issues and characters that he had not expected to want or need in order to reach a “proper” length for his novel.
In most of my presentations to student audiences, a common question – closely related to John Sandford’s comments about word count – has to do with the time needed to compose a full-length novel: How long does it take you to write one of these? My usual answer is that, for me, the gestation period is similar to child birth: about nine months from the start of actual writing to the point at which the manuscript is ready to be submitted to its editor.
Let me put those two thoughts together. It takes me most of a year to reach a word count of 90,000 to 115,000, which is the actual range of my adult novels. (My young adult stories are shorter: about 65,000 words.)
That is not, of course, the right answer. That’s just my answer. My experience is that it takes that long – and that many words – to get to the point at which the story has done everything that it needed to do. That is:
The mystery has been solved. The reader and I are now clear on who the Bad Guys and the Good Guys have turned out to be, and we are no longer puzzled about how and why the threats were introduced back at the start.
The action seems complete. Everything the Good Guys needed to do to thwart and eventually defeat the Bad Guys has been accomplished. (This is not quite the same as saying that the Bad Guys are completely vanquished; they or their associates may reappear in the very next novel, still doing their worst.)
Relationships have reached maturity. Since my stories always portray at least one romance, it’s important to provide some sort of resolution for each of those potential love stories. (This is not the same as saying that a given courtship will not be continued in the next novel.)
The ending is both an ending – that is, a true “finish” – and yet an introduction to a new novel. A segue.
So, how long is a novel? is a good question, but one without a universal answer. My own answers are: for adult readers, at least 85,000 words, and supplying the reader with a tidy ending, preferably one which suggests a sequel.
Authors who write stories with messy endings, especially with unrequited love or the early-in-life death of my favorite character, probably will not have me as a reader any longer. If I’m going to invest in reading a full length novel, I need an ending that is both satisfying and hopeful. Give me that, and I’ll be back!