How long should your novel be?

A post at Writer Unboxed: How Long Should Your Book Be?

All together now: As long as it needs to be.

That’s where this post starts off:

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.

Exactly. So if that’s where the post starts, where does it go? Because that really seems like the basic conclusion right there. I will add, what the author thinks is the right length may not be what individual readers think is the right length; thus the reviews for novella-length works that basically say, “Too short, not enough character development, if only the author had taken enough time to tell the full story,” and so on. Not every novella-length work gets that kind of reaction, though. Think of the Murderbot novellas. I think all of those feel about the right length to most readers. They certainly do to me. Plenty of character development there.

All right … looking further, I see that this is practically the only thing this post is saying. Well, that seems moderately unnecessary. Let’s see, what else might I feel like adding …

Okay! How Long Should Your Novel Be?

The real answer is: Are you self-publishing or going for traditional publishing?

Because if you’re going for traditional publishing, then length matters a lot.

Romance novel = 60,000 to 90,000 words, which is to say, short, right down to novella length.

Historical romance = more like 80,000 – 120,000 words, because it takes more words to establish the setting.

Cozy mysteries are basically mysteries that are at heart romance novels, and rather light romance novels as a rule. They run even shorter than most other romance categories, in the 50,000 – 60,000 range, it says here.

We all know that fantasy and historicals run long, comparatively. Within fantasy, urban fantasy runs short, around 100,000 words or so. Epic fantasy runs about 130,000, but to me that seems short, of course. I really think epic fantasy is likely to run much longer than that, but be broken into multiple books, eg, The Eternal Sky trilogy.

Science fiction is all over the place, but tends to roughly match epic fantasy as far as wordcount goes, and for the same reason, of course: because building the world takes words.

Self-publishing is different.

If you’re trying to bring out a new book every two months, then they’re going to run short short short, no matter whether you’re talking about romance or space opera. I’m still stunned that anybody can manage that no matter how short they write, but there are not only authors who do this, there are evidently quite a lot of authors who do this.

On the other hand, if you want to write a really really really long novel, fine, there’s no upper limit.

In self-publishing, I think only two things actually matter when it comes to length

A) What does the reader expect? Because if your readers expect 100,000 words and you give them 50,000 words, they’ll notice, and not in a good way. Whereas if the readers expect that your books will run about novella length, that’s fine.

and

B) What will work best for marketing? Because if you write a 300,000-word epic, that will be a lot easier to market if you chop it into pieces.

So there really is a little more to this than “Write the story in however many words work for the story.”

There’s also “Write at the length that editors prefer for your genre, especially if you’re a debut author. “

And “Don’t disappoint the readers with too short a book; the length should never be a surprise.”

And “Think about how you plan to market the book before you hit Publish.”

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5 thoughts on “How long should your novel be?”

  1. I don’t usually disagree with your analyses, but I don’t think cozy mysteries are romances. From what I’ve read, these books include a romantic relationship (or, worse, two. Ugh!) that never goes anywhere. There’s banter, teasing, but no conclusion.
    I enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s One For The Money, and read a couple of the sequels, but I soon grew annoyed at the constant back and forth of the heroine between the two love interests. I just checked and there are now 27 books in this series. According to the Amazon description, “Stephanie could finally be forced to choose between Joe Morelli and Ranger.”
    A romance triangle that lasts for 27 friggin’ books??????!!!!!

    If the “romance” were taken out of mysteries like this, the stories would be more interesting.

  2. And then there is GWTW, clocking in at a kilopage. It is far, far too long. The one required book in HS I did not complete. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

  3. If you want to publish a novel of anomalous length without self-pub, you need a Name.

  4. Re disconnect between the length the reader and publisher think is right and the author thinks is right (as well as the value of editors), I always think of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I read, and liked, the original published version, which clocked in at 832 pages. Later, the publisher released the “Complete and Uncut” version which Mr. King appears to prefer and is the only version currently in publication which clocks in at 1152 pages. In my opinion, the editor had done a darned good job–I prefer the shorter version. However, I have also read that the publisher wanted the length cut originally to “make it financially more viable.” Once King became a Name, as Mary says, that math changed…

  5. Allan, I completely agree. I read the uncut version and thought the editor had done a fantastic job.

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