What’s the best length for a novel?

It’s a question to bedevil most first-time authors. When I put together my first novel I kept wondering if I was going too far or not far enough. At 60,000 words I knew there was still much I needed to write to round out the various plotlines – but would I end up with a long-winded saga or was it heading for a ‘normal’ length book? I did the only thing any self-respecting researcher would do – I Googled for as much information as I could find. What I discovered was that there are too many different answers, although I found some great advice which urged authors to let the story run its own course. In other words, tell it the way you want to tell it and when you’ve finished telling it, the book is completed. With certain provisos it’s not a bad philosophy.

Let’s find some context in which to place this debate. Writers of fiction have basically three available options. My oft-quoted friends at Wikipedia believe a short story should be less than 7,500 words; a novella should be between 17,500 and 40,000 words; and a novel is anything over 40,000 words. I’m sorry Wikipedia but I just don’t buy it! In my humble opinion the bands are much too narrow to be commercially viable. Here’s my own (very personal) take on what length each should be:

Short story – usually ranging from 3,000 words to 10,000 words;
Novella – usually not less than 10,000 and ranging up to 35,000 words;
Full-length – usually not less than 35,000 words and ranging up to 110,000 words.

Okay, I know this is very broad and you’ll find plenty of examples well outside these ranges. The intention is to guide rather than prescribe.

Consider this – the average paperback page has 300 words and the average Kindle page has 240 words. If you write a full-length paperback of 90,000 words you’ll fill 300 pages (the same number of pages in a Kindle will amount to 72,000 words). My own opinion is that anything in paperback dipping much below 260 pages (78,000 words) is in danger of moving from full-length to novella-length. I’m sure many will disagree but as a yardstick it’s not an outrageous guide.

So what are the differences? Many authors have a list of potential stories constantly whirring and clicking around their brains. In many cases these are stories best dealt with in a short-story format, usually something away from the normal output of the author, and usually featuring a different set of characters, or even an entirely different genre, than he or she is used to. It gives them the chance to get the story out there and with less effort (in terms of time, not quality!) than they usually expend. The market for short stories is growing exponentially, with more and more readers enjoying smaller bites, particularly from their favourite authors.

Novellas could be described as falling between two stools – they are way beyond short stories but would breach trade descriptions if they masqueraded as full-length. I recently read an action story on Kindle and was surprised to see the percentage bar announcing 55% completed, despite my built-in radar telling me I could only be about a third of the way through. I had failed to notice that what I had downloaded was a novella (my own fault – it was properly described, I just missed it) and to my surprise I really enjoyed the format. I think these too will become more and more popular. What I learned from reading my first novella (yes, I’ve lived a sheltered, full-length reading life until now) was that it hit a lot of marks for an enjoyable 2 to 3 night read which allowed me to move on to my next book.

Ebook publishing has shifted the goalposts considerably. It’s easier to imagine downloading and reading a good short-story than it is to encounter its slim counterpart on bookshelves. The costs of production of the printed version would still have to be passed into the reader but an ebook variation can be offered for as little as 99 cents, or less.

The very nature of short-story construction is easy to grasp, but It usually takes the experience of having at least one novel under your belt before you’re able to determine at the outset whether the book you’re about to embark upon will flesh out to be a novella or a full-lengther. I would suggest that if you are a fair way into your project to write a full-length novel and find the story is wrapping itself up sooner (in terms of the number of words/pages) than you anticipated, then you should change your goal to a novella. The worst thing you can do is start rewriting and adding unnecessary bits just to watch the word count grow in the bottom left corner of your Microsoft Word document (or whatever you’re using).

At the end of the day we need to come full circle to the opening principle of authorship. Forget word counts and the number of pages – concentrate on telling your story and let the chips fall where they may. I’ll bet, however, you’ll do what we all do. You’ll watch the counters and use them to set daily/weekly targets for yourself, including the ultimate final target of words/pages.

There’s nothing wrong with that – I hope some of what’s been covered here will help. Enjoy your writing.

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7 Responses to What’s the best length for a novel?

  1. Jason says:

    I am currently writing my first story (again, as my computer crashed after it was complete) and I am already over 78,000 words. I have quite a bit more to go, but my Word document shows only 205 pages. It seems to flow quickly, so I’m surprised this is getting to the full-length novel length. Is it advisable for a young writer to keep stories shorter?

    • Joe McCoubrey says:

      Hi Jason – I would say you are already at the full-length stage! Congratulations. There’s an old but true rule that the story should be told the way an author wants to tell it (obviously keeping in mind the desire to keep the reader interested) and the length should look after itself. If that happens to be 40k words or 90k words, then so be it. I always think it’s good for a first-time author to get the “feel” of going the distance i.e. finishing a full-length novel. After that, the next work, of any length, should be so much more comfortable.

      Good luck with your writing. I’m looking forward to seeing your novel.

      Best wishes

  2. Susan Condon says:

    Well, I wasn’t disappointed when I came back for my Friday fix, Joe. I enjoyed your post and it has comments I’ve made recenlty jumping around my head. Although I’ve written more than a few short stories, as a reader I would always have a preference for the novel. If I’ve invested my time into the characters I always felt cheated when the short story finished so quickly. I have only read two Novella’s – the most recent on my Sony eReader while on holidays, was ‘Apt Pupil’ by Stephen King. Although a big fan of Stephen King from my teenage years, I had never heard of this, quite disturbing novella, which, because of its content, was perfect as a novella. It would have been way too short as a short story but I don’t know whether I would have had the stomach for it to be much longer. Maybe the content of the story also determines the length. In my mind, for my novel, I’ve always had 85,000 words floating around – but time will tell . . .

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Susan, I have to say your 85k yardstick is pretty much in line with my own. That puts you squarely in my 75k-110k band, although I prefer my novels to be towards the upper range. Many thanks for a great feedback.

  3. joemccoubrey1 says:

    Norma – thanks for your comments. I look forward to sharing some more stuff with you.

  4. Norma Budden says:

    I enjoyed reading your post; it was my introduction to you and I’ll be sure to return, as time permits, to read some of your other posts. As for word count, I’m the opposite of most people, I presume; I have to look up the word count later. I’m focused on getting the story down and note the other details later. It’s very liberating, actually. Now I’m off to take a look at your books; I must admit your header is engaging and I can tell from this blog post that you take pride in your work. See you around…

  5. Jim Masson says:

    Interesting stuff Joe. Writing is one of several art forms and who is to say how loud a piece of music is or how many notes it should be? Or how much paint should be applied to a portrait or landscape painting? You are right, it is about the finished article and how it is perceived by the person who appreciates it. Trying to mug up a novel from what should be ideally novella status will no doubt create a weaker art form and be less pleasing to the recipient. It is a trade off really… when to stop adding words. Bit like painting you get that moment when you know ‘that’s enough- the work is finished’ and you stop writing. Packing a novel is never a good idea.
    Every word should tell its story. One difficult thing I face is in trying to engage in social realism, ie in depicting the world almost omnisciently (a bit like Frederick Forsyth) is also keeping the plot moving along at a good pace. It is so easy to end up in a cul de sac with a page of purple prose and meaningless information for the reader. I will be starting my second novel before the Easter and can say that the only way to write a novel is do it… I thought about my first one for a long time. I’m glad I have it out of my system because the process of doing that is highly formative. It is a hugely exciting, engrossing and enlightening process… literary therapy! We all have a book in us. And some… a library!

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