As long as it needs to be

Get your minds out of the gutter; I’m talking about stories.

I’ve got one that took hold of me a couple of years ago, a historical fiction about the disastrous Narvaez expedition, and it ended up about 8000 words long. That puts it in the loosely defined novella category, which is fine; you can call it a ham sandwich for all I care. Most readers I know are not so worried about a story’s length as they are about its plot, direction, and ability to hold their interest. Take a look at Neal Stephenson’s massive Baroque Cycle, if you want an excellent example of a billion-word story that keeps readers enthralled all the way to the end.

So, I’ve always been puzzled by word limits. You know, the ones imposed by editors and magazines and agents on your particular opus. I don’t think a lot of authors write something with an eye on the Word Count ticker. I think they write something, then start squashing it down to meet the publishing definition of what they are trying to write. And I think that is a criminal act worthy of an old fashioned cat-o’-nine-tails scouring. Of the editor and agent.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the killing of your children. The Narvaez story, on first draft, was about 16,000 words, and I murdered a lot of unnecessary orphans to get it into current shape. There should not be one thing in a story that doesn’t belong there. And all writing is story, whether it’s novel or screenplay or even a term paper explaining the adiabatic lapse rate . But forcing the story into an artificially imposed word limit often kills children unworthy of slaughter, and alters the story from what was intended. How many unpublished versions of what you’ve published do you have in a desk drawer, and how different are they then what was submitted? And I don’t mean godawful first drafts, but ones you, sorrowing, put away because of venue?

This is reading, not TV. If you’re going to read, read. And if you’re going to write so others may read, write all the words you can.

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4 Responses to As long as it needs to be

  1. Falcon says:

    I was pondering this too the other day. I really struggled when writing my novel to get it to the length I’ve read traditional publishers prefer for a novel. In their defense, they’re having to think about production costs, and whether the size of a finished product looks “worth it” to a buyer.

    In other words, a physical novella isn’t going to be proportionally cheaper to produce than a full length novel. So readers might feel they’re paying too much for a book that doesn’t take long to read.

    I don’t see why this should have to constrain e books, though. And that’s one thing that entices me at times to think about writing again. If I independently e publish, I’m going to write the length of story that the story requires. No more. No less.

    • admin says:

      Filthy lucre versus art. And I’m wid you about ebooks-there’s just no reason to keep within word limits. EXCEPT…gotta keep the story alive. Some stories you don’t even know are 100,000 words, while others you struggle through every painful sentence.

  2. Mimi Rosen says:

    I think you make a good point, although it’s hard to know what to pull out at times. I tried to bare bones one of my stories, because I was told that I had too much description, but afterwards readers said that they couldn’t get a sense of place. Go figure.

    • admin says:

      Head scratcher, ain’t it? The story pretty much dictates which way you go. I’ve got lush pieces with reams of description, and some really stark stuff that offers no explanation at all. And a lot of times, readers don’t get it. But I don’t consider that a failure; what spoke to you often doesn’t speak to others.