You’ve probably heard that a book should be around x number of words, and that going too far above or below this number dooms it to failure. However, x tends to be different depending on the genre, who you ask and what your goals are (e.g. traditional or self publishing). Instead of defining the perfect length of a book, let’s think about the perfect length of your book.
A lot of the advice out there warns against writing long novels. If a debut author announces they’ve got a 200,000-word draft, they’ll probably be told they need to cut it down. Is that a good or bad idea? As usual, it depends.
It’s often advisable to tell a story in as few words as you can. That doesn’t mean you have to write a short book though! Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky is huge, but I didn’t feel my attention slipping while reading it. However, You’ll probably find some words you can do without when you edit your work. Here’s a short example I’ve written for this post:
As the noose tightened, Tom suddenly realised he’d never been in love. Not truly, and if he was wrong, not for long. What if he’d missed his soulmate at some point along the way? Could things have been completely different for him if fate had introduced him to the right person? The executioner was only a few feet away, already gripping the lever that would send him through the trapdoor that he was standing on. He supposed it was too late now.
Or was it?
Tom gazed into the crowd, into the sea of faces waiting for the spectacle, and he knew he was in love right then. Somewhere out there, his soulmate had come to be with him at the end. He closed his eyes and he could feel their hand in his, so very warm and extremely comforting. The rope chafed on his neck as he leaned forwards, but all he felt were their lips against his.
‘Any last words?’ the executioner asked.
‘I just want to say thank you,’ he said quietly. ‘For being here with me at the end.’ Then, he opened his eyes, smiled and stepped back, to await his journey onwards. He was ready.
The scene lasted 200 words, but not all of them were necessary. If something is warm and comforting, do we need to know it’s “so very warm and extremely comforting”? Let’s see what happens when I make some cuts:
As the noose tightened, Tom realised he’d never been in love. Not truly. What if he’d missed his soulmate? Could his life have been different? Better? The executioner already gripped the lever to send him through the trapdoor. He supposed it was too late now.
Or was it?
Tom gazed into the sea of faces, and he knew. Somewhere out there, his soulmate had come to be with him. He closed his eyes and he could feel their hand in his, so warm and comforting. The rope chafed on his neck as he leaned forward, but all he felt were their lips against his.
‘Any last words?’ the executioner asked?
‘Thank you,’ he whispered, smiling. ‘For being here at the end.’
He was ready.
The scene now has 124 words. The cuts took none of the meaning with them, and what remains is stronger on its own. Doing this across an entire book would make a big difference to its length. If you’re planning to self publish, it could also save you a lot of money. Many editors and proofreaders charge by the word. Even those who charge by the hour will need more time to work on more words, so handing across a novel that’s longer than it needs to be can be hard on your pocket.
That’s not to say that you have to murder every adverb and delete every detailed description. You’ll have your own writing style, and your own definition of what’s essential and what can go. Cut away what doesn’t help you show your vision, and you’re probably on the right track.
Do you prefer to write long or short books? Get in touch and let me know!