Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Where it Counts

SOMETHING PEOPLE ASK ME all the time is how long, in word count, a novel should be.
   I've said here before that my own novels vary in length; when I'm writing suspense, 97,500 words seems to be the sweet spot. And when I'm writing an espionage thriller, it may trend longer: as much as 115,000 words.
   That doesn't mean that your novel is going to come out to either of those lengths. War and Peace clocked in at just under 600,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged came in 50,000 words longer than that. At the other end of the scale, your typical shorter inspirational romance novel is going to be around 45,000 words, give or take.
   In 1952, when The New York Times reviewed The Old Man and the Sea, the Grey Lady pronounced Hemingway's work a "novel," even though later critics have called it a novella because of its brevity (26,601 words and, in most editions, less than 100 pages of actual story).
   I side with the Times on this one (possibly the one and only time you will ever hear me say this).  More than mere word count goes into determining what is a novel and what is a novella. And Hemingway's depth of character development, his use of subplots, and the perceived passage of time in this book all push the work into the more highly evolved territory of the novel, despite the extraordinarily modest word count.
   Not, mind you, that you should submit your first novel at 27,000 words and offer, "But Hemingway did it!" as your defense. Nor would I turn in a 600,000-word tome.
   Once you get established as a novelist, the publisher will spell out in the contract what's expected in terms of word count. In the meantime, for shorter romance novels, at least 45,000 words is a safe target. And for longer contemporary novels, while 70,000-120,000 words is often mentioned as the range, I would shoot for 90,000-100,000 words; this produces a work substantial enough for a shopper to view it as a good gift or a vacation read, without making the book so long that the publisher is going to incur extra production costs.
   All of this assumes, of course, that the length of your novel passes the first test. It has to be long enough to adequately tell the story.

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