Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: How Long Should Your Story Be?

Woohoo! It's hump day. Time for another Writing Wednesdays post!

Today I'm talking about wordcounts and how I decide how long a book should be. First though, some announcements, starting with the most obvious, which is that the blog has been updated with a new look and features, including the badass Marci art that will soon be a cover for my Heartstriker sequel, ONE GOOD DRAGON DESERVES ANOTHER. Please let me know what you think or if there's anything else you'd like to see added. I'm in the process of updating my website to be at least 20% cooler, too. We're just upping the cool all around!

Second, awesome Fantasy author Lindsay Buroker asked me to come on the SFF Marketing Podcast, and I did! And it was great! Awesome questions covering 2k to 10k as well as my experiences with marketing my books both from my trad published side and my own efforts with my indie titles. I was also a giant nerd, but what else could you expect? It's me. \_(ツ)_/¯

Anyway, you can listen or watch the whole thing for free here: SFFMP 32: Traditional Publishing, Indie Publishing, and Writing More Words Per Day with Rachel Aaron


And now, without further ado, here's what you're actually (hopefully) here to read:

Writing Wednesdays: How Long Should Your Story Be?
Way back in the ancient times when I was first trying to break into publishing, there were hard and fast rules about how long a story should be (70k for Romance and Thrillers, 80-100k for Fantasy with a ceiling of 120k, etc.). The reason for this was because, back when every book was released in print, these were the word counts that let a publisher publish your book inside the acceptable printing cost to cover price ratio needed to make a profit.

Back in the days of print dominance, these strict word counts made a lot of sense even outside of a publisher's profit and loss sheets. Too long, and your book would cost too much to produce, which would in turn force up the cover price past what readers were willing to pay. Too short, and your book would look tiny on the shelf, creating the perception of a rip off (who wants to pay $6 for that pamphlet of a book?!).

But with the rising dominance of ebooks, hard word counts have become far less important. Longer books still cost more to produce since they just take longer to edit and proofread, but the production cost difference between a monster tome and a short quick read is much less of an issue than it used to be, especially if you're covering the cost of the book yourself. Also, since all books are now just links on a eReader, readers can't see them next to each other on the shelf, which eliminates the stigma against overly short or long books. Every book is judged equally by its title, cover, and blurb.

As writers, this shift away from the classic hard and fast rules on novel length gives us enormous freedom. Now, at last, we can focus on telling exactly the story we want in the best way possible without worrying if we're going over or under a limit. By that same turn, though, it's also enough rope to hang ourselves, because even though we don't have to worry so much about print lengths anymore (or at all if you're publishing in ebook only), there is definitely still a perception of how long a novel should be among readers.

This perception of what is or isn't an acceptable length for a novel varies by genre, and failing to fit inside it can lead to some nasty reviews, even from readers who loved your book otherwise. This is especially true with books that run too short, because when a reader pays for something, they expect to get their money's worth.

So how can we as writers avoid this problem? Well, the simplest solution is to just stick to the old word counts, the standardized lengths the publishing industry has been teaching readers to expect for decades. Personally, though, I hate the constraint of hard word counts. I believe that the word count should serve the story, not the other way around. That said, though, I'm a commercial writer. If I want to keep selling books (and I do), I have to write for my market, which means respecting what my readers want and expect when it comes to length.

So how do I balance the book length I want verses the book length they expect? Also, how can you tell if a story is a stand alone of it if needs to be multiple books? These aren't questions that have definitive answers, but, like everything in writing, determining the right balance for your book all comes down to skill, planning, and execution.

Step 1: Figure out how long your book is going to be, and if that's a problem.
When I sit down to write a new story, the very first thing I think about is how long it's going to be. Because I love to world build, I'll often come to a book with enough stuff to write something that's five or ten times larger than what I really need. Determining what belongs and what needs to stay in the background is where the art part of writing comes in. It's not really a question of can, but of should. Sure I can write more, but should I? Is adding more plot or information actually going to help my story, or it just going to drag it down?

These are calls that only I as the author can make, and I've found the best way to decide which of my ideas is worthy of making the cut into the final story is to try and think like a reader. I can't speak to you, but I know that for me, Writer!Rachel and Reader!Rachel have very different priorities. Writer!Rachel thinks all her ideas are awesome and can't wait to cram everything in, while Reader!Rachel just wants the story to move ahead at the speed of maximum excitement.

This is why, when I'm plotting a book, I always try to start at the barest minimum story needed to get from the beginning to the end. I can always add more scenes later, but the bones of the plot don't change. A note here; if you can't figure out which plot line or lines are your main story, that's a warning flag that your book might be rambling. An author has to know better than anyone what story exactly they're trying to tell, otherwise your book will be a mess. So if you're not sure, figure it out. You can always change your mind later.

Once I have the bare bones of my plot down, I try to figure out how many words I think it'll take to write just what I've got to determine the minimum length of my book. Now, obviously, the accounting here will vary enormously from writer to writer just based on style, so if you don't already have a good idea of how long your scenes run, I suggest going back to something you wrote earlier that you're proud of and figuring out your average scene length. Once you've got that, you can look at a plot, make a rough estimation of how many scenes it'll break down into, and then multiply by your average scene word count to get a very ballpark idea of how long the finished book will be. If that number is shorter than 100k, you can most likely fit everything you've got into a single book. If it's higher than 100k, you know you're going to end up with either a long book, or a book that might need to be split in half. Even with ebooks, unless you're writing epic fantasy, most readers are leery of 200k+ books, and publishers are VERY skeptical about taking them on. Even, if you're self publishing, books over 200k, or even 150k, can be a bad bet since you're going to be paying to edit what's essentially two books worth of content for only one title's worth of profit.

Considerations like this are why taking the time to consider your final word count before you start writing is so important. It is infinitely easier to cut/add scenes, or to break what you thought was going to be one book into two, before you've invested months of your time in the text. Even if you're a pantser instead of a plotter, taking a moment to critically think about what you'd like the final form of your story to look like can be the difference between finishing up with a novel that's spot on for where you want to be, and finishing up with a novel that you'll now have to fatten up or drastically cut down.

Step 2: Filling in the rest.
Now that I've got the bare bones of your book, it's time to flesh out the rest of me story. Again, this is a process that involves balancing my reader and writer minds. As always, Writer!Rachel has a million things she wants to add, but while that's exciting, the question I always try to ask is would Reader!Rachel care? Does all this extra stuff make the story more exciting/dramatic/engaging, or is it dead weight?

Again, making the call as to what scenes are writer ego and which are actually awesome is part of the art of being a good writer, and should always be carefully considered. Personally, I try to err on the side of less is more. Like Eli, my motto is "my stones have a 2 bird minimum," which means anything I put in my books has to serve at least two purposes. For example, if I have a character talk at length abut her backstory, those words have to do more than just tell her story. Whatever information she's revealing also needs to help build the larger world of the book, or foreshadow future plot events, or name drop other important characters in the setting. It can't just be a girl talking about her childhood. Or, rather, it can, but again, you've only got so many words in your book. Why waste them doing only one thing?

Help! My book's too long!
If your word count is bloating out of control, but you're not sure why, my advice is to step back and re-focus on the story you're telling right now in this book. Find your main plot line, and make sure it works. Everything else can be added or subtracted later, but your central story has to be coherent, clear, and properly executed if your book is going to be successful. Otherwise it's just a bunch of scenes in a line. Find your main plot and stick to it, cut anything else that's not pulling its weight.

If you do know your main plot, but you're still having trouble making it fit because you need to include way more background information than you have room for, that may be a sign you need to start your book earlier in the story of your world and actually show some of that backstory on the page. Or, if that doesn't work, you could just try starting with at a simpler point for your first book and save the huge complicated stuff for later in the series when your reader is more comfortable/invested.

Finally, if you've got a tight focus on your main story and your book is still larger than you think it should be, you can always go back through and tighten up the individual sentences. Even if you only cut 500 words per chapter, that's still 5k in a ten chapter book/10k from a twenty chapter book, not to mention doing this will often make your writing tighter and therefore better over all. I do this with every book I write.

And if all of those still aren't enough, it might just be time to embrace your larger book. :)

Help! My book's too short!
I have to confess, this is an issue I don't generally have. As you might guess from my blog posts, excessive brevity is not my problem. That said, I've read several books that were way shorter than they felt like they should be, and every time, it was because the author made things too easy on their characters.

So if your book is coming in under where you feel it should be, look back and see if you can make life harder on your heroes. Make the bad guy smarter, make the barrier higher, give them bad luck. I'm not saying go overboard into full on sadism, but characters aren't in a book to have a good time. Suffering, struggle, and conflict are the soul of good plots and deep characters, so do whatever you can to make your characters fight for every inch within what's reasonable for your world, and not only will you end up with a better word count, you'll add real depth to your story.

Alternately, you can also expand your book by giving the villain and side characters more development. The trick to this is that the development has to go somewhere. You can't build a character up into someone we're really invested in and then have him go out like a punk. If you're going to get a reader invested, you have to make that investment pay off, or you're just wasting everyone's time. But if you can build up a character and make that pay off at the end (for example, humanizing a villain only to then have his own human weaknesses--such as an inability to let go of anger--be his ultimate downfall at the end), you'll come out with a really great addition to your book.

And again, if you try everything and your book's still too short, maybe you just wrote a novella, which is totally fine.

And that's it!
Thanks for reading! I hope these tricks I've learned help you write the book that's exactly the right length for your story and your market. Ultimately, though, whatever your final word count, the only thing that really matters is that you end up with a book you're proud of and readers will love. Sometimes, books just come out weirdly sized, and no matter what you do, you can't make them fit, and that's okay. So long as the story is good and the writing is tight, the length of the book is ultimately a secondary concern.

And thus concludes this week's Writing Wednesday! Come back next week for a new craft topic, and if you've got a specific issue you'd like me to cover, leave it in the comments below. If you missed a post, you can see them all by clicking the "Writing Wednesday" label (or the general "writing" label, which links to all my writing essays going back to 2012) at the bottom of this post.

Thank you as always for reading, and happy writing!
- Rachel

1 comment:

  1. Rachel
    This is super helpful. I, too, love the freedom that comes from not having to stick to the hard-and-fast trad pub word counts, but it really is a danger for me. I'm long-winded at the best of times, and having to cut makes me tighten up. Putting on my reader hat doesn't help in my case, because I looooove long books. Give me a door-stopper, in pretty much any genre, and even better a series of them? I'm in heaven. I was reading some reviews lately of the Expanse SF series by James S.A. Corey and several reviewers said they were too long--that's one of the things I love about them, long and richly-textured.

    Since I know I have a tendency to love those twisty, meandering plots, and I don't tend to see them as digressions or unnecessary, I have to be even more careful. I'll be relying on my critique partners and beta-readers a lot for that. But I'm still not letting myself go over 115k for a final draft on my book, with the hope of cutting it down to 100 or 105. It's only the first of three, so it's not as painful as it could be.

    Your two-bird rule (or Eli's...) is helping me right now try to combine some scenes, less for overall word count than for structural integrity, but it's still a VERY helpful strategy!