Writing: thoughts about book length

I’ve shared my thoughts about various aspects of writing and books. Today, I’ll share my thoughts about book length.

There are many opinions on the matter of ideal book length or on the classification – and some of them changed over time.

Is it possible to target length?

Personally, I’m skeptical about that, based on my own experience. It might be possible for a writer with a lot of experience to make a good estimate of the final length. For a beginner, not really.

When I began, I had no idea at all how long my story might be. When I wrote the demo and saw that the 8 chapters were close to 30k words, I was genuinely scared by the length. When I got to drafting #1, I then guessed the full length could come close to 300k words and the full story (i then saw it likely to be 4 books) close to a million. The first draft ended up at 235k-ish and only started dropping noticeably at the fourth draft (currently it’s at 180k-ish). As result, the current guesstimate for the full story is at roughly 3x 180k (I’ve sheared #2 down from 230k to 190k in the second draft) – still a lot.

I’ll welcome your thoughts and experiences in the comments – I’m really curious how other peoples’ expectations evolved.

Anyway, is it necessary to have some target length? Unless you’re going for a contest/challenge with a specific range (or writing an university thesis), probably not. For those aiming for traditional publication, it might be worth having a look at the genre standards and stay at least close to them but it’s probably impossible to hard-target it in the first draft.

What is too much/not enough

This mostly touches reader’s expectation. Again, those change by genre and form – regardless of genre, short stories/novellas will be short(er). For a full-scale novel, the lower end seems to be around 40-50k words and the average at double. It’s well possible to surpass 150k or even 200k words – and there are books like that. Just realize in which genres those tend to be the case – epic fantasy is among those, for example.

In the very ideal case, when all the fluff was cut and all the necessary parts were in, a book would be “neither too long nor too short but exactly as long as the story demands”. Reaching that point is what I see as the main goal.

If your book is significantly longer than the usual and the fear of possible reader rejection (some might not favor reading 600+ pages from an unknown author without enough positive reviews to back the choice up), it might be worth splitting the book. This, however, brings significant dangers: the cut might be far too obvious to be artificial. An ending (more so in the case of such a cut) still must feels like one – there should be at least some major event at the end and some part of the story brought to a conclusion.

Likewise, if a book is too short, there might be the possibility of merging two shorter books into one (especially if the series would be made of several 200-page or shorter books). Again, the ‘seams’ should not be too obvious and, if both endings were to stay as such, some special approaches might be necessary – such as making the individual books labeled as ‘Acts’ of the merged book with each act having its own conclusion.

Worldbuilding and detail

This might be a hard one to strike a balance between too much and not enough. You don’t want to go down to such a detail some of your readers would fall asleep but you don’t want them to feel like they have no idea what your world is like, either.

There are several ways to deal with this, such as using calmer passages to drop detail (when the character is in a situation to actually notice it) or an introspective passages to drop hints of backstory. Pacing is important and might be more important than length: poor pacing might make a 200-page book feel endless while good pacing will make even 800+ pages fly.

Technical aspects

This is mostly in relevance to print books as storage space is not an issue for e-books. Keep in mind that paperbacks have a limited durability and larger books might suffer ‘spine injuries’ and damaged corners if repeatedly carried in handbag/backpack. Hardcovers, on the other hand, are more expensive to produce. If you’d prefer to focus on print books over e-books, keep that in mind (I believe this is one of the reasons for word count limits in traditional publishing, affected by the typical size of a book).

Those are the main factors. Do you think I forgot something? Let me know. Want to share your thoughts on this matter? You’re welcome.

See you next time.

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