Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Size of the Great American Novel isn't That Great Anymore (and I Think That's Great)

So, I've been out of the writing/publishing industry for a little while now, and a lot has changed in the last five years.  The fundamental rule - the one amateur writers the world over hate or refuse to acknowledge - is still true, and that is, if your novel doesn't fit into some very specific guidelines in terms of length, language, and topic, your manuscript goes in the trash can.  What has changed are some of those guidelines - most notably, the size of a novel.

The common wisdom used to be that unless your manuscript was big enough to consider it as a murder weapon, it wasn't big enough.   In On Writing Stephen King suggests that writing 2,000 words a day for three months will produce a "respectable" 180,000 word novel.   I've always felt this was a little ironic since I've always enjoyed his shorter work, such as Carrie and The Running Man, a lot more than his longer works like The Stand (I said it, come at me fanboys).  In fact I attribute a reasonable amount of his success to being able to get in, tell a story in as few words as possible, and get out.   180,000 words is a lot of words.

Well, the times they are a changin'.  Printing books is expensive and giving them shelf space is even more expensive.  People are also spending less time reading than they used to, and that means that now, it looks like most publishers rarely consider a manuscript over 100,000-120,000 words.  That's a full third shorter than the recommended length just a few years ago and personally, I love it.

High fantasy is the biggest offender, but I often read a book and think "this was a good book, it would have been a great book if they had shaved another off 20% of it."  I find that it's much, much easier to tell a 200,000 word story in 150,000 words than it is to tell a 100,000 word story in 150,000, assuming the writer has any interest in the quality of the finished product.

So this change excites me.  I have at least two half-novels written that died or stalled because I couldn't find a way to bloat them up to 180,000 words or more and still tell the story I wanted.  I can't say for sure that I'll be able to revive those projects (and I won't be looking at them at least until I finish my current novel, which isn't sci-fi or fantasy) but they'll certainly be worth a look.  It excites me.

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