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Nov 18, 2012

NaNoWriMo Tip #18: How Long Should Your Novel Be?


Life is short, but snakes are long.

These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works.

Let’s say you’re merrily typing along and your novel starts to deviate wildly from your outline. By itself, this is no disaster. It’s not unlikely that what you’re writing in the heat of inspiration is better than your pallid outline.

The one thing you are most likely to lose control of, especially if you’re a newbie writer, is wordcount. When I was younger, I used to set out to write a short story, and end up writing a 180,000 words of what I realized only after the fact was actually a series. Meanwhile, I’d be writing a 20 page paper for school and couldn’t figure out how to stretch it past 10 pages.

Learning to control wordcount emerges from experience, as you learn your own habits. No one else can teach you those. However, there are a few helpful tricks to bring you closer to the mark. If your word count is on the low side, you’ll have to add; if it’s too high, you’ll have to cut. The hard part is knowing how to add and subtract from your story in a way that doesn’t change it into another book entirely.

First Question: Shouldn’t you just allow your story to be whatever length it needs to be?

The short answer: Yes.

Duh.

The long answer: The hard part is knowing what length it needs to be. If you’re in the position I was when I was younger, of setting out to write a short story and finding myself with 180,000 words of an epic and no end in sight, you’re not in control of your story. It’s not writing an epic that was a problem, it was that it came as a surprise to me. Of course, I was a “pantser” in those days (I’m convinced 95% of most supposed pantsers are just writers who haven’t learned to outline properly yet), so I was fine with that. Since I was in high school, not trying to support myself with my writing (never mind feed and clothe and house spawn), I could afford to indulge myself like that. Still, I think even then, I would have been happier if I’d known how to complete a solid 70,000 word novel rather than wallow in an incomplete 180,000 word behemoth.

Also, the fact of the matter is that certain genres have common lengths, and you violate those standards at your peril. If you are an indie publisher, you can be endlessly self-indulgent, but I don’t recommend it. If you want a traditional contract, you have to follow the wordcount guidelines.

Second Question: I’m trying to write 50,000 words by the end of the month, and you want me to CUT?

The short answer: No.

The long answer: Yes. Eventually. Don’t get so caught up in the form of NaNo that you lose sight of the spirit of NaNo, which is to finish a book. It’s better to finish a solid, 20,000 word novella than end up with 50,000 words of Going Nowhere. You should strive to keep your story as compact as it can be, given the genre and story goals.

If you want “credit” for the hard work you’ve done this month, go ahead and include your outline and your excess scenes in your wordcount. It’s a good reminder of how much of a writer’s work goes on before and between the scenes. You deserve to pat yourself on the back for not skipping those steps.

On the other hand, if you don’t care to much about the official deadline, or you’re not worried about finishing, and you want to use the NaNo wordcount program to only measure the actual progress on your novel, that’s fine.

What you should never, never do is knowingly “pad” your wordcount with lame scenes, just to meet the wordcount deadline. That wouldn’t fool an editor or a reader, so why are you trying to fool yourself? You do yourself no favors thereby.

Third Question: Isn’t there some leeway, even for commercial novels, when it comes to final word count?

The short answer: Yes.

The long answer: Within reason. It’s a good idea to set three wordcount numbers ahead of time. The minimum words this book can get away with, the maximum it can get away with, and the target number of words it should be.

I’m writing a YA urban fantasy, and I don’t have to worry about imprint specifications, but I still have a narrow range of wordcounts I will accept. So wordcount brackets look like this:

Minimum: 60,000
Target: 70,000
Maximum: 80,000

As you can see, I haven’t left myself a lot of wiggle room. Why is it so narrow? Several reasons. The genre is YA, so I want it to be a fun, breezy read. It’s a holiday book and I don’t want slower readers to start reading it before Halloween and still be slogging through it by Christmas. (I want them to move on to my Christmas book by then!) At the same time, I want the story to feel meaty enough that it doesn’t read like a novella, so I want it to be at least 60,000 words. (The first book of The Unfinished Song is only 50,000 words, but as the first novel in a saga, it’s deliberately short; plus, it notoriously ends on a cliffhanger, so it’s short in part because it’s, well, unfinished.)

Finally, another important consideration is whether your book is part of a series. My project, October Knight, is a stand-alone at the moment, but I may decide to write more stand-alone books in an episodic series.

The rule for wordcount and series is this: Sagas (continuous stories) can increase in length with successive books. (Think Harry Potter, where the first book is considerably shorter than the last.) Episodic books (each stands on its own and can be read out of order) should all be approximately the same length. This means that if you’re writing the first book in a saga, you won’t be trapped into that wordcount forever (but shorter is better because it’s easier to grow longer later than the obverse). If you’re writing a episodic series, you better figure out what wordcount is going to work not only for this book but for all future books in the series.

Depending on the book, I might not be so constrained. I have another book, sf, which I’ll write sometime, and the world brackets look like this:

Minimum: 45,000
Target: 90,000
Maximum: 140,000

That’s such a loose range it’s crazy. Probably once I hunker down and start outlining the project, I’ll settle on a more specific length. Really, though, for this particular story, I’m more interested in conveying the hard science and sociological theme of the book than I am concerned about whether it’s a novella or a tome. There are several ways I could present the story. Length is not the primary consideration. The readership will be hard sf readers, and I know that they can handle any of those lengths, so that’s not a concern either.

By now you should have a chunk of draft done, and you should have some idea of how long your average scene is. (Although if you are rich outlining rather than writing full scenes, you need to take into account the additional factor of how much each outlined scene will expand when written in full). My average scene length for my Unfinished Song series is 1000 words, within a 500-3000 word range.

How do you find your average scene length if you’ve never done it before? It’s easy. Use the word count feature on your word processor and just make a list, in a notebook or on a spreadsheet, of each scene and how many words it is. Add and divide. If you’re writing in rich outline mode, and you’re so disposed, you might write out one or two of the scenes in full, to see how much you add.

Multiply you average scene’s wordcount by the number of scenes, and you’ll find the expected length of the novel… IF you are following your outline. If you find you are adding or subtracting scenes right and left, then your outline, alas, is not keeping up with you and won’t be a good guide to estimate wordcount.

Don’t let you outline boss you around, but DO keep it updated. If you have a fabulous new idea for a subplot, or a minor character turns out to be super-important, not just a spear-carrier, put the new scenes you’ll need into your outline so you can tell if you’re still in control of the novel’s final wordcount.

What if you find your novel is veering way off course, growing to unwieldy length or staying stubbornly anorexic? I’ll present some suggestions for shortening or lengthening your novel while in mid-draft in tomorrow’s tip.


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tahir sumar said...
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