Novel Length

August 18, 2009

Boy, I’m getting inspired left and right by blogs recently! Today’s inspiration comes from Dear Author, where Janet asks whether size matters in a book. Great article, I recommend you go read it and come back.

…don’t forget to come back, though. *coff*

Right, so the question is…does size matter?

Let’s develop some guidelines.


Does it matter which genre you’re reading? Is a shorter book preferred if you’re reading romance versus fantasy? (Paranormal romance blurs the line intentionally, so I’m shoving it over to the fantasy side of the equation).

To me, Genre DOES matter, at least a little. The basic romance is boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, something happens that makes it seem like they won’t get a Happily Ever After, then they DO get the Happily Ever After. That’s a romance in a nutshell. It’s like a foolproof cookie recipe. There’s tons of room to add a little more butter, or some nuts, or some cinnamon or peanut butter, but it’s still a cookie. Add too much flour, and all the sudden it’s a muffin.

Okay, I’m not sure where I was going with that analogy, but now I’m hungry. Moving on…

I believe romances FEEL complete at lower word counts. That isn’t to say that longer word count romances can’t succeed, as history has proven that they can. However, it has to be very well-written to survive.The word count has to not feel like padding. No pages upon pages of poetic descriptions. No random side plots and hijinks. No moral preaching (yes, I’ve seen this, and yes, I already know slavery is bad. Thanks for the refresher course, now could we get back to the hero and heroine?)

The thing is, I feel the SAME way about artificially padded fantasy books. No flowery descriptions, please. No technical manuals on how magic works, and you can go ahead and skip past all of the scenes where the villain talks to themselves about how marvelously evil they are. I get it. No, really. I do.

BUT, I feel that it often takes longer to get to the point in a fantasy novel, by virtue of its nature. Fantasy worlds have to be BUILT, and I want to SEE them. You can have a hero and a heroine take a taxi in a contemporary romance and leave it at that, but if you have a fantasy hero and heroine hop in a pumpkin shaped carriage pulled by six skeletal horses driven by a mouse wearing a tophat and an english accent, then I’d like a bit more time spent on that. I find that interesting. I do not find taxi cabs interesting (so skip the combustion lecture, I’ll just skim past it anyway).


I believe that the plague of bad urban fantasy/paranormal romance trilogies we’ve been seeing lately is a direct result of word count requirements. I believe those bad trilogies would make SUPERB long books as authors stop trying to restructure the story they’re telling into 100k word increments.

I might be biased on that opinion though. *winks*

Tightening the Belt

So why do publishing companies inflict word count requirements?

Sadly, it’s because a large portion of very long books are very long because the author wasn’t really sure what they were doing.  (Okay, that could also describe me, to be fair). Oftentimes, a 150k word book is a much BETTER book at 100k. Extra useless stuff gets trimmed, and the whole story is tighter and more cohesive. Fewer places where the reader’s eyes glaze over and they skim past pages of boring description or whining.

This sort of tightening is a very good thing, but there comes a point when you can tighten a story so far that it pops and loses all of its creative juices. Sure, maybe that side story with one of the characters isn’t VITAL to the plot, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun and everyone loves it. Tightening rules say anything that isn’t vital gets cut. It may not be vital to the plot, but if it’s vital to the enjoyment of the story, then why cut it?

Oh, right, because you have to hit the word count in order to get published.

What about stories that are too short?

I’ve been mostly nattering on about stories that want to be too long – what about stories that are too short?

First off, readers are not stupid. We recognize broad margins and wide spacing pretty quickly. We are paying prime dollar for these books, and we are not paying for word count. An 80k book costs that same as a 100k book. It’s easy to feel like you’ve been cheated when you pay full price for what feels like half a book.

Shorter books also have less time for character development and plot movement. Sometimes, a shorter book can feel rushed or empty, or the characters can seem like popsicle stick puppets, going through a children’s play.

On the other hand, there are a LOT of people (myself included) who do enjoy a shorter story. Something we can start and have a reasonable expectation of finishing in the near future. There are times when I feel like dipping into a rich, multifaceted world, and there are times I just wanna see the guy get the girl with a smile on my face.

Shorter books not only have their place, they are vital to readers. Short stories, novellas, and novels all fulfill different needs. The problem is when publishers are arbitrarily deciding that we don’t WANT novels anymore. They’re even shrinking font sizes so that larger books look to be the same size as shorter books. (I find this deplorable, because now you’re making it hard for me to read!)


EBooks may change this, though I don’t believe it’s going to be swift. No longer can we evaluate spine width on a shelf if we’re talking digital books, and extra pages don’t necessarily beef out the file size of an eBook in and of themselves. EBooks are opening the doors for authors in a lot of ways, and I’m really hoping that more relaxed word counts are one of the results.


I don’t want authors to lose their fear of “my book is too long”. I want authors to have to sit back and think about whether their book is too long (or too short!). I want them to think about each chapter or plot point. To think about each piece of their book and be concerned about things like pacing. But I also want for a book that DOES that introspection and is still “too long” to remain “too long”.

I don’t want to read stilted, rushed books, nor do I want to read a book that bores me in between the fun bits.

If a great book is only 70k words, I want to read it. If a great book is 250k words. I want to read that.

I don’t want EITHER of those books to be forced to shrink or grow (in ways that almost certainly feel artificial) in order to fit an arbitrary word count.

In the end, if I have to choose between “too short” or “too long” I usually prefer “too long”.


What about you guys? What are YOUR thoughts on long vs short books? I know I hardly have a representative audience here (The Hobbit and the Wheel of Time aren’t exactly “concise” storytelling) but I still want to hear your opinions. Does genre matter? Do you buy books based on the width of the spine? Do you notice the cheap font/spacing/margin things publishers do? Do you prefer “The Director’s Cut” or do you just want the meat of the story without any frills attached? Would you prefer a single long book to replace a mediocre trilogy you’ve read recently?

Don’t nag me. The pepper images fit. Seriously! The top pepper image is obviously a trendy reader. The second one is a “magic” pepper. The third one is cut in half – too short! Get it? And the last one is…uh…umm…okay, fine. I just really like the pepper images. *shame*


  • Rhotley August 18, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Speaking of word count …*cough*

  • Lauren August 18, 2009 at 11:15 am

    First off, the peppers are fabulous! I LOVE them! So cute.

    I really dislike the long book forced into a trilogy thing that’s been going on a lot lately. I think about Robin Hobb’s Forest Mage trilogy, which granted I didn’t finish, but maybe I would if it had been one long book instead of a painfully slow trilogy. I don’t mind a long book if it works. I don’t mind a short book if it works. I just want it to work :-)
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..What’s For Dinner? =-.

  • Brad-o August 18, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I have a huge preference for short stories (something I can read between 15 minutes and an hour at my abysmally slow pace). If it’s longer and not well done (or hasn’t drawn me in), it turns into a chore for me to finish it.

  • KristenSue August 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Hey! I read the first book of that Forest Mage triology. But the book from 1/2 Price was presented as a stand alone. It was sort of open ended, but I accepted that as not forcing eveything to be completely wrapped up by the end of the book. I don’t think I’m going to read the others.

    Tami, I think you should do a post on book size and shape, not length. I was at a store and saw a few stacks of books that were the size and shape of regular mail envelopes. I really loved that idea of having tall and slim book for a shorter novel instead of a short and squat one. But I didn’t buy it. It was _Catcher in the Rye_ or some other ‘classic’ literature which I didn’t like the flavor of.

  • Tami August 19, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Whereas I usually hate short stories – It’s like standing in a candy store and having someone tell me I can SMELL the candy, but eating is off limits.

    I did the same thing with the Forest Mage book. Read the first, saw it was open ended, and made the decision to stop at that one rather than continuing.

    It costs more for publishers to do books with nonstandard binding, so they don’t do it very often. It’s a great way to get people’s attention, though. personally, I’d love it if I could order really nice leather-bound hardcover copies of my favorite books, so they’d all look impressive and nifty on a bookshelf. The fact that one of the books I want done this way is The Pig, The Prince, and The Unicorn shouldn’t be a consideration. ^_^

  • Brad-o August 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I think that depends on how it’s done and what it’s about. In the best case, I think it’s like a piece of candy instead of a slice of cake. More often than not, I don’t want to bust out utensils. But sometimes, I *really* want that cake and will feel unsatisfied if I don’t get it. As an example, King wrote a “Dark Tower” short-story that really makes me want to read the series.

  • Tami August 20, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Ah, but it also depends upon your appetite. You may be satisfied with a piece of candy, but I’m greedy. I want the whoooooole piece of cake.

    At any length, it’s all about how the words are handled. I think pigeonholing into wordcounts is good practice for the author, but a mistake to have as a requirement. Very very few “modern” novels are on my “keeper” shelves, and that’s a shame. Either I’m totally missing the good books, or the good books just aren’t as easy to come by.