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  • How long is a novel?
    by Writingislife at 16:39 on 29 May 2013
    Hi all,
    I have been quite scarce on here for the last few months. What can I say...I've been writing.
    Just a quick question. Can a novel be less than or at least 40,000 words?
    Thanks. I am going to try and come here at least once a week from now on.

  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by Jaytee Conner at 17:20 on 29 May 2013
    Hi there

    I don't think it can 40,000 or less would probably classified as a novella.
    I think most publishers nowadays are looking for something at least between 90,000 and 130,000 words.

    Others on here will give you a more expert answer, I'm sure but when I write novels they are always over the 90k mark.
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by EmmaD at 18:02 on 29 May 2013
    Glyn, Jaytee's right - that would be a novella. (Unless you're writing for children, of course, where it's all different). The only other fiction that is routinely that sort of length, I think I'm right in saying, is category fiction like Harlequin Mills & Boon, which I gather is something like 45-55,000.

    Those apart, very roughly, I'd say that the boundaries for commercial fiction for adults would be something like 75-120,000 words, with the vast majority around 90-110,000. Literary fiction could be a bit shorter - say 70k, to a bit longer - say 140k. Shorter than that it becomes very difficult for a publisher to launch and promote and market it, longer than that and it gets expensive to handle.

    Within those boundaries, though, the most important thing is that it's right length for itself.
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by Writingislife at 19:01 on 29 May 2013
    Thank you Emma and Jaytee. Very useful info, I will bare those figures in mind.
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by SandraD at 09:43 on 30 May 2013
    Why? Please, why the upper limit?
    If a book is good I don't want it to end, often pick books off the shelf because of their width, and what about 'Gone with the Wind'?

    Or is this another instance of doing what the publisher thinks the market requires?
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by Jaytee Conner at 09:49 on 30 May 2013
    Again I could be wrong but isn't it that if you're a new writer, first time to be published then they won't publish a long book.
    If you're an established writer selling in volume than the upper limit disappears.
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by AlanH at 12:30 on 01 June 2013
    Michel Faber's 'The Crimson Petal and the White' has 833 pages. A very good read and a weapon.

  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by EmmaD at 16:37 on 01 June 2013
    The upper (elastic and permeable) boundary - inasmuch as there is one - is, as far as I can see - because

    a) production costs rise if it's over a certain length which increases the unit cost, and since it's not easy to price a book at more than its competitors, that comes straight off the profits (and not the author's royalities - the publisher takes the full hit). Agents and the editors who might love the book and want to buy it are aware that it's going to be harder to sell to the rest of the publisher.

    b) because 98% of the 200,000 word novels in the slushpile have a half-way decent 120,000 word novel inside them struggling to get out. Most writers use more words to tell their story than they need. So a monster novel is starting off on the back foot with editors and agents.

    c) because throughout the book trade the general sense is that longer books are harder to sell: as many readers are daunted by them as relish them. Remember the discussion on here not so long ago about how many readers said they like short chapters because they're manageable? Same goes for whole books. No doubt the industry makes a mis-judgement quite often, but it's in their own interests to find a market for any kind of book where there is one, and fat books (hist fic, sf/f, for example) are no exception, so where they say there isn't one, it's likely to be reasonably true.

    What'll be interesting is whether, with the advent of the e-reader, people stop noticing length so much at either end of the spectrum. Apparently the self-pubbers do well with novellas, putting out one or two a year in between the one or two novels a year they put out.

    On Gone With The Wind, it's hopeless trying to draw any conclusions from novels which were first published more than ten or twenty years ago. Readers change, the market changes, traditions and tastes get exhausted and new ones are looked for; if you're thinking in terms of what the industry's looking for now, then it's irrelevant what sold longer ago than a decade or two.

    On The Crimson Petal and the White, yes, a truly brilliant book can buck all sorts of normal guidelines, especially if it ticks other boxes brilliantly in other ways. That is always true: although it'll need to find advocates in an agent and editor and on through the trade who are prepared to argue just why its perceived drawbacks can be transcended. It may have been rather alarmingly long for the production department (no idea if it was) but it was early in the charge which Possession started, you could say, of big, meaty, baroque historical fiction: a market was beginning to be visible. And at the literary end readers are more adventurous and less likely to be daunted. Maybe we also have more wobbly table legs, and more burglars, so it comes in handy several ways.

    More generally, we have to remember that we're not typical readers - no writer is, by definition.

    The real criterion is that the book is right for its length.

    That means it doesn't have a single word or sentence or paragraph or scene which is surplus to doing the overall, storytelling job of the novel as a whole, and not a single place where there's one of those missing. What those boundaries are really saying is that great length or great brevity is a big drawback in the business of selling books, and the book has to make up for that by being extra-compelling in all the other ways.

    FWIW, my first novel was 141,000 and I don't think anyone once even mentioned the length. The next one was 137,000 when I first sent it to my editor, and she had reservations about the modern strand, in particular. "After all, it's nearly twice as long as most novels" she said when we were discussing it, and was very surprised when I said it was shorter than TMOL.

    The point being that she was right, and there were too many words in there for what the novel was doing: it was "too long" in the important sense of what the story needed, though not in the unimportant one of arithmetic. I re-wrote the modern strand, it ended up at 127,000 but, ironically, in production the book was designed so the paperback actually looks as fat as TMOL, even though it's actually quite a bit shorter: historical fictioneers do like to feel they're buying a meaty read, but it needs to be meat, not fat or insoluble fibre.


    Sorry for the monster post - and I should add to it that when I say "market", I mean market which is economically feasible for publishers. Which, of course, is also something which has changed. The tighter margins are squeezed by the booksellers, the less there is spare to spend on a book with inherent drawbacks which are likely to make - such as super-length...

    And yes, I have seen comments in blogs about my novels, where people have said things like, "Thanks for this review [of TMOL]; I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this, because it looks rather long."
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by yababula at 22:26 on 01 June 2013
    some people says novel is above 50000 words. But i saw some novels below 50000, but written in other language
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by AlanH at 02:55 on 02 June 2013
    With the 'Crimson Petal ...' I never had any sense of dragging over those cherished pages.
    When I finished it, I felt I'd lost a real companion.

    The shortest book I've read recently is 'Memories of my Melancholy Whores' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, that book, in my humble opinion, did drag over its 100 pages or so. I felt it should have been a short story.

    The real criterion is that the book is right for its length.

    I strive to fulfill this. And every edit I do has the - maybe not the primary aim, but definitely an aim - to reduce the word count by eliminating anything that could be said in fewer, more engaging words.

    If I had to throw a book at a burglar I would throw Herbert's Dune. Never have I enjoyed a book less. IMO, it's 100,000 words too long.

  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by SandraD at 08:53 on 02 June 2013
    because 98% of the 200,000 word novels in the slushpile have a half-way decent 120,000 word novel inside them struggling to get out.

    Red-faced ... yes, know what you mean

    as many readers are daunted by them as relish them.

    ... and part of me screams "call themselves readers then?"

    re ebooks - I really struggle to read for long (admittedly only on a laptop) but yesterday sat for hours with a 480 page detective novel - way past my bedtime, but then, as you say

    we're not typical readers - no writer is, by definition.

    and finally
    Sorry for the monster post -

    don't be - it was the length it needed to be
    Thanks Emma
  • Re: How long is a novel?
    by CarolineSG at 14:07 on 05 June 2013
    I absolutely LOVED Crimson Petal too. The opening sequence was so original and cinematic.

    Has anyone read Under the Skin? VERY bizarre book! Good though.