How long is a piece of string?

Posted: February 27, 2009 in Crime, Writing, YA Fiction
Tags: , , , , ,

Stringing words together is what we writers do. But when it comes to novel writing, how long should that piece of string be?

That was a question recently posed by a regular reader of this blog and I thought others might be interested in the answer.

Dust, my soon-to-be-published first novel was done and dusted, at 50,000 words – quite acceptable for young adult fiction. My second is only halfway there at 44,000 words. It’s adult and crime. So clearly genre and intended readership impact on novel length.

If you know your genre and the intended market for your fiction, but are a little hazy on word length, read this rather excellent post by literary agent Colleen Lindsay On word counts and novel length..

She confirms my own belief that less is more, particularly for emerging writers.

Making it shorter can take longer; that’s what the edit phase is for. But if you are over the minimum word count expected for your genre and you’ve tied off all the narrative strands by the time you get to your heart-stopping ending, then type a full stop. You are done.

Any more and you risk ending up like that poor sad author in the movie Sideways, desperately trying to interest someone, anyone, in your 700,000 word magnum opus.

Maybe I’m defaulting to the old journalistic setting here – get it right, keep it tight – but I believe that creating something small and beautifully formed is more likely to win you friends, and influence agents and publishers in your favour, than laying a daunting door-stopper on them.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

  1. Thanx Chris for writing your Blog, How Long is a Piece of String. Most informative.

    And thanx for the link to Collen Lindsay’s post.

    The only genre not mentioned is narrative Non-fiction/Memoir.
    I’m presently Final Drafting my memoir, Me and Her. Word Count at present 86,000. Trying to get in down to the suggested 80,000.
    Sometimes deleting is harder than adding.

  2. I reckon you’ve hit the nail on the head, Chris. Love your last paragraph. 🙂

  3. Chris, another movie is ‘Wonderboys’ where the novelist’s student has to tell him he ‘hasn’t made any choices’.


  4. chrisbongers says:

    That’s what we do, isn’t it Angela? We make choices, hard choices that see us murder our darlings to enliven what remains.

  5. thewordygecko says:

    Thanks for this blog post, Chris, very heartening. I tend to write short rather than long all the time. I struggle and strain to get up to a word limit, any word limit. (Problem with a vicious ‘self-editor on the shoulder’, but that’s another story!!!) But yes, I think paring down to the essentials is good, leaves some space for the reader to do some imagining.

  6. I love tight writing. A pet peeve for me is when a writer waxes too lyrical over a landscape or takes too long describing what someone is wearing. I love hints that let us ‘feel’ the surrounds and ‘see’ what someone is wearing without being told it all.

    Tight novels give readers a chance to breathe their own life into them – to have their own thoughts and piece it all together. I find them more satisfying.

    And I think I might steal your journalism motto, Chris – love it!

  7. chrisbongers says:

    Leaving gaps for the reader to fill in is so important, isn’t it? Perhaps one reason we are put out by film adaptations of favourite books, is that we have “completed” the character in our mind’s eye and find someone else’s interpretation quite confronting. Thanks for the comments. 🙂

  8. […] find (by looking at the web 0 1 2 3 4 5 6) that I looked at the question differently from everyone else.  People seem to imagine that […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s