Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Long is a Novel?

Writer Tikiman posts that his 52,000 word manuscript was rejected by an agent because it is too short to be a novel.

So, how long is a novel, anyhow?

A lot of sources used to peg it as a work of more than 50,000 words (and NaNoWriMo uses 50K as their definition of whether or not you have completed your novel in a month).

In that case, rounded to the nearest hundred words, The Great Gatsby (50,100) just barely qualifies, and neither Farenheit 451 (46,100) nor Slaughterhouse-Five (49,500) are novels.

On the other hand, Bradbury and Vonnegut are both arguably science-fiction writers, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define a novel as a work of 40,000 words or more.

A lot of agents and publishers now seem to believe that 70,000 words is the starting point for a novel, and one publisher who takes submissions over the transom refuses to consider works shorter than 80,000 words. Even a baseline of 70K would exclude some rather wonderful books; right offhand:

The Color Purple (66,600)

The Hours (54,200)

Lord of the Flies (59,900)

A Separate Peace (56,800)

The Sun Also Rises (67,700)

It's still possible to find advice from publishers, literary agents, and writers advising "beginners" that to be published, they should keep it short--certainly under 80K. These same sources usually note that novels 100K and over should be avoided.

The problem with such advice is that it was usually either written in the 1960s and 1970s, or was written by people who last paid attention to the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The world has changed.

In the 19th century, the whopping great long novel was the style: Crime and Punishment runs more than 200,000 words, Middlemarch more than 300,000 words...and let's not even talk about War and Peace.

But in the 20th century, both literary fiction and pulp fiction began to run far shorter. Next time you're in a used bookstore that carries a lot of paperbacks, look at the mysteries and sci-fi from the 60s and 70s--slim little volumes, typically running about 200 pages. Longer books might be accepted for literary merit, and bestsellers tended to run long (even To Kill a Mockingbird approaches 100K), but the bread-and-butter of the industry was in the range of 40-70K.

It no longer is. Cozy mysteries run short, as do some of the categories of romance; but I'd guess that a typical non-cozy mystery nowadays is over 80K. Thrillers seem to average 100K or more.

There was a time when a unknown writer would have been considered insane for submitting a novel of 120,000 words. I'd guess that length is now about typical for first fantasy novels.

It's odd that, in a time where everyone talks about the shortage of time and the competition between books and other media, that novels seem to be getting longer. I can only conjecture that those people who still bother to read want something they can curl up and live inside for a while.

Another possibility is that books are now so expensive that publishers don't feel that the public will feel it is getting its money's worth from something slim. How this will balance out against rising paper costs in the longer term remains to be seen; but, then, in the longer term, we may all be reading on Kindles and Nooks anyway.

Which may offer hope to our pal Tikiman: In the future, length may vanish as a major consideration. Today, so much is constrained by the production and distribution costs of a book. So far electronic books are a sideline in the industry, but if they become the dominant form, life might be quite different.

There's nothing better than a good novella, but marketing considerations have driven them from the shelves. There may come a day when we'll see novellas and short novels as the market leaders. Right now, size matters. Tomorrow could be very different.


Tim Stretton said...

The Dog of the North is 135,000 words. Will initially wanted to cut the length "somewhat" but we agreed that fantasy readers probably expect a lengthy novel. When did you last see a short fantasy novel published?

Frances Garrood said...

An interesting post, David. During my brief (and stillborn) attempt at crime writing, I emailed Len about this and he said his novels are about 60,000 words. This length suits his type of novel well, but I guess most of us have to go for more (135,000 words - it makes me tired even to think about it, Tim). Mine are middle-length, the current WIP aiming for about 90-95,000.

When buying books, I'm afraid I do tend to avoid very short novels; the books I buy are often for holidays, and I need lots of length for my money. The shorter ones I can borrow from the library (how shallow that makes me sound...), unless they are books I really want to own (Susn Hill's Strange Meeting springs to mind, as does Jennifer Johnston's brilliant How Many Miles to Babylon).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, the last short fantasy novel I read was MacAvoy's Tea With the Black Dragon. I just pulled it off the shelf and counted a few words; it's about 50,800. Pub date: 1983. But it's an oddity of the genre in many ways.

I've seen some short, very effective horror/fantasy (Sara Gran's Come Closer for example). But once swords are involved, we seem to be off in the land of 120-180,000 words.

FWIW, Shock and Awe ended up around 120,000. I shudder to think how long it would have become if I'd included any swords.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

Yeah, 60,000 sounds about right for Len's books. Crime novels in general have become longer, but comic crime novels and capers seem to have found their sweet spot.

And swords and sorcery seem to have a sweet spot in the trilogy, which means that by the time they are done, they are books of, what? 400-500,000 words? (About like War and Peace...)

RDJ said...

I think publishers in the UK -- and France and Germany -- are okay with shorter novels than publsihers in the U.S. I know when I was looking for an American publisher for Acts of Violence (60,000 words), the only one willing to even look at it was Hard Case Crime.

On the other hand, at some point between December 2008 (when I submitted AoV) and now, MNW changed their minimum length from 50,000 words to 60,000 words ... so they're not okay with them being too much shorter.

For myself, each of my books has been longer than the last: 60,000, 65,000, 90,000 ...

I think I'd better nmot continue this trend.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Ryan--

Well, the progression from 60,000 to 65,000 isn't too alarming, but wouldn't the next logical step have been either 70,000 (increase by 5K), or 70,417 (same 8.3% increase as before).

65 to 90 is a pretty big hop. I don't have enough data points to figure out where it would take you if this is a trend. But if you just kept up your most recent percent increase, your next book would be 125,000; and then 173,000. Hey, it's do-able. Stephen King territory, but do-able.

But if we go all second derivative and look at the rate of change of the increase from book to book, (+8.3% for the second book; +38% for the third), then Book 4 would be 160,000, and Book 5 would be 1,309,000 words.

You're right--that might not be a good trend.