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What it means when your book's too long

December 2, 2023
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

Fewer tie ins really help

Authors working on novels and nonfiction of all breeds always eye word count limits. These limits used to be both longer (on the minimum end) and shorter on the maximum. Now it appears that anything goes, if you can write it well. Novellas and short novels come in under 50,000 words, especially if a novel is in a series. Historical, science fiction and fantasy, and even crime drama can easily move above 400 pages. That's 120,000 words.

You'd better use them well, though. Editors at presses despair at finding the pony inside the hod-pile of so many words, and the bigger books cost more to make and ship. A 200,000-word draft is often better at 20 percent shorter, a task that becomes tough for an author to do themselves. This summer I gutted my novel from 177,000 to 116,000 and felt like I'd left important parts on the cutting room floor. Sure enough, my beta readers had questions about motivation and backstory that were answered in some passages I wrote but cut away.

You can make a case for writing longer by looking at the best-seller lists. Seven of this month's top ten best-sellers are longer than 400 pages. One author, champion-seller Colleen Hoover, has a follow-on novel at 529 pages. The original came in at 336.

The rules for best-sellers are not the rules for a debut author. Nonfiction books are supposed to be under 100,000 words, too. One writer at the Author's Guild says her strategy is to omit the word count from her query and let the writing sample and the pitch do the work. That's sensible, considering that good books receive editing to shape them down (or up, sometimes, when you're short on motivations or nonfiction details).

"I happen to write fat books," said Luanne Oleas. "If I put my word count in my queries, it's rejected immediately. I get much further with a writing sample and a synopsis that omits the word count. However, the word count comes out eventually. My two published books have page counts of 334 (small press, $21.99) and 428 pages (self-published $16.99)."

Oleas said that future authors might look back on 2022 and wonder why books were so skinny. Long books that are digital-only get a special pass on this challenge. I tell authors that you can get readers to the end — where they're likely to recommend you or review the book — by writing tight.

One way to compress any book is to eliminate the mundane steps and tie off scenes sooner than you'd expect. If anyone in a scene is saying "See you later" or "I look forward to that," you've overrun your finish line. Watch out for "she turned and" or "he smiled" or "she looked up to see." Opening up a book can be a seven-step process, move by move, and detailing a taxi ride stepwise from hailing the cab to tipping the driver and closing the door is the long way around storytelling. Stay with the distinctive essentials.


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