How Long Does a Novel Have to Be?
A novel must be at least 70,000 words long (unless it's a Mills & Boon style romance, or erotica, when you can get away with 50,000). Sagas of 150,000 words and more do get published, but they are more expensive to print. So too many words may be just as much of a disadvantage as too few.
My Novel Is Too Short!
If your novel is too short, your first reaction might be to try to make the story more complicated. You may be tempted to create more obstacles for your protagonist, or add a subplot or two. Don't be too hasty! Lack of story is almost certainly not your problem!
Don't Just Start Adding Subplots
If you think your novel is too short, there's a pretty good chance it's not because of a lack of plot.
Possible Reasons for "Writing Short"
Here are a few potential explanations for why your writing may be coming up a little short.
Being Too Efficient
If your background is in journalism, business writing or academia, you've spent years learning how to cut the waffle and get down to brass tacks. The thing is, a novel isn't just about facts—it's about atmosphere, description and feelings, too.
Forgetting What Your Reader Doesn't Know
If you write "short", the problem may be that you know what your characters and locations look like, and you know the inner motivations of your characters and you forget your reader doesn't. I write short, and my first draft always reads like an action movie, cutting from one scene to another with the minimum of detail.
The trouble with that is, there is no camera to fill in all the blanks. The reader doesn't have enough information to picture the characters or where they are, so they can't get involved in the story. Also if the story jumps too quickly from one scene to the next, they'll feel disoriented and rushed.
Either way, they're going to give up on your novel. If they don't finish your book, they're not going to buy the next one—and there goes your writing career!
How to Fix It
I didn't realise I "wrote short" until I read a book set on the same Greek island as my own novel.
The author took a page and a half to describe the harbor. To describe the same harbor, I'd written three lines! Personally, I thought a page and a half was too much. But I had to admit, it was a heck of a lot better than my three lines.
If you write short, you need to work on each scene in detail. Ask yourself what you're unconsciously editing out. What have you forgotten to explain to your reader?
- Scene setting: The reader needs to know where your characters are, even if it's a fairly nondescript room. A good exercise is to see if you can use each of the five senses to describe the setting. You may not use them all in the end, but doing the exercise does make you think!
- Character description: This is part of scene setting, really. When your protagonist meets someone for the first time, they make a mental assessment of that person. Make sure you do too. A short word picture of each character as they appear will make the story seem more alive.
- Show, don't tell: For characters other than your POV character, don't mind-read. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and describe what they see, not what you know about the characters. For instance, don't say, "Christine felt a pain in her chest". Instead, say, "Christine's face spasmed in pain and she clutched her chest". The main benefit of this approach is that it makes the scene more alive, but a by-product is that it also uses more words!
- Use dialogue: Don't report on conversations, show them. And don't just relay the speech—make sure you include the movements and reactions of the characters as they're talking.
Is Your Novel Too Long?
If by any chance you have the opposite problem—that your novel is too long—you're lucky, because it's easier to remove words than to add them (though I know it's painful to do the slashing!).
You may think your book is great just the way it is, and doesn't need "slashing"—but I can virtually guarantee that you're wrong!
I often encounter writers who think their writing must be good because the words come so easily. Just remember that when things flow too well, it's often not a good sign! Words that flow on to the page usually need stringent editing, because they're likely to be too rambling.
Too Much Detail
Another possible reason for excessive length is the temptation to include every single scene that takes place between your characters, even if it's not relevant to the story. Or perhaps you feel the need to include descriptions and backstories for every minor character.
Too Much Research
You may need to do a lot of research before embarking on your novel. You need the detail to set the scenes accurately and make sure everything is believable. However, your reader doesn't need to know most of it. I see so many writers who obviously thought, "I spent days gathering this material, I'm darn well going to show it off!", but it's not a good idea.
You may think it's all fascinating—but to your reader, those unnecessary details are b-o-r-i-n-g.
© 2008 Kate Swanson