genre writing

How Long is Long Enough?

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupThe first Wednesday in 2014 was a holiday, so the first Wednesday Blog For Insecure Writers is being done on the second Wednesday. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, read on – I guarantee that my offering on how many words you should write will send you screaming to the liquor cabinet.

 

There’s this joke; a priest, a nun, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The punch line is ‘it’s not long enough.’ Now, for the life of me, I can never remember what comes between the opening line and the punch line – but, that really doesn’t matter, because thinking of that joke, I started thinking about another ‘joke’ – how long should your book be? Well, that’s not really a joke, is it? I mean, we writers have to think about such things.

Browsing my social media sites for writers, I’ve seen this question come up from time to time, and back in the days before I decided to self-publish, length was a big issue, whether it was writing a book or an article for a magazine.

So, let’s talk about that, shall we? How long should your written work be? The answer is, it depends. If you’re writing an article for a journal, print or online, the publisher will have specified lengths, and if you wish to be published you’re well advised to comply with those specifications. When writing your novel, on the other hand, you’re sailing in completely different waters.

If you research it, you’ll find a number of different views on the appropriate length for fiction (nonfiction as well). Novels, it is maintained, should be anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 words. Some say a novel is 50,000 or more, and others insist that a real novel is 60,000 to 80,000 words. Less than that, and they maintain that it becomes a novella or even (shudder) a novelette.

I have a different view. I hew to the answer to the question, ‘how long should a man’s legs be?’ The answer is credited to either Abraham Lincoln or J.D. Salinger – it really doesn’t matter which said it, but it was ‘long enough to reach the ground.’ And that, my friends, is the answer to how long your story should be – ‘long enough to get from opening to conclusion in a rational manner.’

The length conventions, established by the traditional print publishers, were often based on economic considerations more than anything else. For a print publisher, it is more economical to print a book that ranges from 200 – 300 pages because of the amount and size of the paper used. Of course, for authors with an established track record and audience, exceptions have always been made. Another belief is that readers will feel cheated by a book that is too thin – say under 200 pages.

My own experience has been different. I’ve written books of just under 40,000 words (call them novellas if you wish, I just call them stories) which have done as well as those I’ve done that were over 50,000 – in the case of my historical fiction/western books about the Buffalo Soldiers, better in fact. I just map out the story, beginning with how I want it to end, going back and coming up with an opening scene, and then writing until I get to a logical stopping point. My Buffalo Soldier books come in normally at 45,000 – 55,000 words. I have a mystery series which tends to average 50,000 – 65,000 because of all the plot twists. Using print-on-demand, I don’t have the problem of having to economize on printing costs as much as a traditional publisher who has to establish a print run for each edition, and each book is also available in e-book format where length and thickness isn’t an issue – well, thickness isn’t.

What I’ve concluded, though, is that if the story is well constructed and well told, if readers can identify with the characters, and the storyline is credible, no one complains about how long it is. It’ll be a long time until we’re no longer guided by the conventions of the past, but I’ve noticed more and more independent authors who are following the new rule – make it long enough to reach the ground. Who knows; when the next technological advance once again changes the publishing industry, maybe we’ll be the ones out of step. In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing from the beginning to the end, and stopping.