How Long is a Novel?
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.
First, C. S. Lewis commented repeatedly that writing The Screwtape Letters was the most unpleasant experience of his story-writing career. Every day, he said, he had to get himself into the mind of Evil, and write from that perspective. The experience wore him down, made him unhappy, and, once he finished, he resisted any suggestions that he write other stories like that one.
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.
I recall being concerned about the length of the third book in the Rebecca Series, Such Thy Mercies, because when I reached the point of feeling that the story was truly finished, the word count at that point was 92,000, whereas the first novel’s word count had been 105,000, and the second, 114,000. I consulted with my editor about that. She felt that the book indeed felt “finished” at 92,000, and that that was plenty long enough. She, in other words, was not concerned about the fact that the first two were longer.
The most recent Rebecca novel, the fifth in the series – titled A Fearful Thing – could have been “finished” at about 80,000, but I knew that it was not. It’s true that the basic plot was tied up nicely at that length, but I also knew that I wanted a second denouement, one that was personal to Rebecca, rather than conceptual. (By “conceptual” I mean the climax and resolution of the core mystery.) However, that would not have accounted for the fact that Rebecca had made enemies who were not satisfied with anything less than capturing and perhaps killing her.
So, the second, Rebecca-focused, denouement came into play, and resulted in a novel that was in the 95,000 word neighborhood, thus feeling more appropriate in terms of its length.
In most of my presentations to student audiences, a common question – closely related to the word-count question – 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 that for childbirth: 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!
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