Monday, April 29, 2013

WRITING A NOVEL: Does Length Matter?

THE NOVEL: Does Length Matter?

Most movie scripts (screenplays) are typically 100 pages long—each page providing one minute on the “big screen”. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as the American epic historical romance film adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind, which ran for a whopping 220 minutes.

What about novels? In your opinion, what is the perfect length for a novel? Readers typically measure novel length in pages (250-300 words per page), but the true measure of the novel is in words—anything over 40,000 words being classed as novel-length (by most standards). However for some, the weight and size of the physical book might play a factor, the reader hoping to avoid having to manage a heavy, awkward, wrist-aching book during their nightly before-bed reading time. However, this problem is easily solved with the modern paper-thin electronic readers.

In the writer’s world, the question of word count comes up fairly often. A common and generally unhelpful answer is, “As long as it needs to be.” (There is an industry-standard answer which I’ll get to later.)  Technically, the length of a novel can easily be shortened or lengthened simply by introducing new characters. With each new character comes the opportunity for the writer to create scenes where this new character must interact with the other characters—adding to the words, pages, and chapters. But then again, a novel can be packed full of characters and still remain within the industry-standard range. For example, in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, Catch-22, there are forty-two man characters and the word count was 174,269—at the top end of the typically accepted range for adult novels (100,000 to 175,000 words).

The average word count of the “Great Novels” is 136,604, but then again, how do you define a “Great Novel”? Though the term is singular, many novels have been referred to as "the Great American Novel". At one time or another, the following works have been considered to be the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick, The Whale, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many others. I digress…

The more stats you uncover, the more the stats distract from the essence of the question: “What is the perfect length for a novel? In the end, I believe this is a question that can only be answered after the reader turns the last page, because it is only then that the reader is able to express his/her degree of satisfaction about his/her fictional journey.

I have also discovered that reading fiction is a learned process with different degrees and levels. At an early age, children are taught how to use their creative minds and imaginations when they read—to turn words into pictures within their minds (see below: word counts by reader’s age). Unlike movies—where we are “shown” the story, robbed of the need to imagine, and force-fed the emotional journey—novels provide words that must be converted into imaginations within our minds. Good novels provide us with just enough, but not too many, words—leaving creative space for the reader’s mind to imagine. But that brings us back to the original question, Does length really matter?

The literary industry typically sets the acceptable range for adult novels (commercial and literary) to be 80,000 to 110,000 words. Words cost money for the publishers, so the goal is to provide enough for the reader’s enjoyment yet not too many to eat into the profit margin.

The industry often divides the novel into typical word count ranges by the story type, age of the reader, and genre (known to vary slightly).

Story type: Novel (over 40,000); Novella (17,500-40,000); Novelette (7,500-17,500); short story (1,000-7,500); Flash Fiction (100-1,000); Micro-Fiction (up to 100).

Genre: Romance (85,000-100,000); Cozy Mysteries (70,000-85,000); Mysteries, Horror, Crime (75,000-90,000); Sci-fi and Fantasy (80,000-120,000); Literary and Women’s Fiction (80,000-100,000).

Reader ages: Picture Books (200-500); Early Readers (500-2,000); Chapter Books (5,000-10,000); Middle Grade (25,000-45,000); Young Adult (55,000-90,000).

Interestingly, two examples of best-selling novels that tend to baffle literary experts are Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook which was 45,000 words and Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County that was only slightly more than 39,000 words (technically too short to be classed as a novel, but instead should have been put in the novella category). Readers were spellbound, rocketing both books to the top of the charts as all-time favorites.

For those who have read the first two books of my flight trilogy: Flight to Paradise (a love story) is 92,980 words, 70 chapters (average 1,328 words per chapter), and 360 pages. Flight into Darkness (a suspense thriller) is 66,114 words, 40 chapters (average 1,652 words per chapter), and 255 pages. The third book in the trilogy, Flight to Freedom (inspirational) is 64,411 words, 43 Chapters (average 1,498 words per chapter), and 266 pages. I personally like to read tightly written novels with shorter chapters—James Patterson style—so I therefore tend to write that way.

Bottom line: When it comes to length—I believe, as do many writers, that length is relative. It’s more about the enjoyment factor when the last page has been turned. As a writer, I had much rather create a good story that is a little short on words (as per industry stats) and leave the reader wanting more, than to bore my readers to tears vowing never to read another one of my stories. Plus, I find that my audience grows when I create stories that are enjoyable for all ages and all levels of readers. One of the most encouraging reviews I often receive from my readers is: “Yours was the FIRST novel I have ever finished!”

Give me your thoughts…

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