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How Long Should Your Book Be?


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Ruth was reading an old Susan Howatch novel on her Kindle, which tracks the percentage of the book you’ve read without bothering about page numbers.  After reading for a few days, she noticed that she hadn’t made much of a dent on the percentage.  I asked the internet and found that the paperback of the novel had been more than 1100 pages long.

I’ve always argued that a manuscript should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story.  A lot of successful books – Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Bridges of Madison County spring to mind – are not much more than novella length.  The Lord of the Rings, broken into three books but really a single, continuous story, clocks in at 1086 pages, not including the appendices.  None of them feel too short or too long.

Besides, trying to force your story to fit a predetermined page count because you think that’s what the market demands is almost always a recipe for disaster.  Adding or cutting material just for the sake of adjusting the length leads to either in gaps in the narrative or padding that drags the story down.  This is not to say that all first drafts are the right length out of the gate.  Sometimes stories do drag and need trimming to flow better.  Others are too thin and need subplots built up or more details on the characters’ internal lives.  But these are changes made for the sake of getting the story right, not to fit the market.

 

So how do you know whether your odd-length manuscript is just what it needs to be or is too bloated or anemic?  Successful novella-length novels usually succeed because they are centered around a character development or story point that didn’t need a lot of pages to convey but that carries the emotional weight of a full-length novel.  Readers can finish them quickly and not feel underfed.

I’ve written before about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the novella on which the movie “Arrival” was based.   In the story, Chiang gives a sense of what it would feel like to experience time all at once rather than in linear sequence – and only reveals that that’s what he’s doing at the end of the story.  That’s enough masterful storytelling for a novel, but adding more material would have distracted from the central point.  It is a short book that still feels like a long book.

Extremely long novels also have a couple of features that make readers willing to put up with four-digit page counts.  The Lord of the Rings creates a complex world with several independent cultures and thousands of years of backstory.  It takes time to get all that across.  The same is true of massive, multigenerational works, like the Susan Howatch book Ruth was reading.

Long novels often work two or more different complex threads at once – effectively telling a single story through several different, interwoven novels.  After The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien’s narrative splits up into at least three threads – Frodo, Sam, and Gollum making their way into Mordor, Pippin and Merry rousing the Ents, and Aragorn heading down to defend Gondor.  These threads cross occasionally and come together at the end, but any one of them could make a standalone novel.  And then there’s “The Scouring of the Shire,” a short story appended to the end.

 

Abraham Lincoln, our tallest president even without the stovepipe hat, was once asked how long a person’s legs should be.  Lincoln said, “Long enough to reach the ground.”  The same sort of thing is true of manuscripts.  As long as you’re sure you’re telling your story the best way possible, just let your manuscript be as long as it needs to be.

 

So what other reasons can you think of for a book being a “non-marketable” length?  What odd-length books have you read?  Why have they worked?

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

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