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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's the Best Length for My Novel?

Carla’s posting last week about manuscript length reminded me how frequently I am asked "What’s the best length for my novel/memoir/fill in the blank?" My response is: "However long it takes to tell the story."

I’m not trying to be coy or evasive. Honest. By "however long," I don’t mean "however long it takes to tell the story in a single, unrevised draft," or "however long it takes to tell the story with interesting digressions and fascinating but nonessential backstory" or "however long it takes to tell the story before you’ve figured out exactly what the story is." I mean "however long it takes to tell the story well, with a keen awareness of structure and an understanding of which elements of the story are essential and which are nonessential."

Art is art, and it doesn’t always occur within strict guidelines. That being said, there are some loose parameters within which most adult fiction falls. In my experience, general adult fiction is somewhere between 60,000 and 85,000 words in length. Anything less than 60,000 feels a little slight, and once you expand beyond the neighborhood of 85,000 words publishers usually become uncomfortably aware of the length. As Carla said, there are lots of reasons to be rejected. Why include length as one of them?

But there are plenty of exceptions. Different genres have their own guidelines regarding length. If you’re writing in a genre (and you should know if you’re writing in a genre) make sure you know the guidelines. If you’re not writing in a genre, be sure that the length is justified by the size and the demands of the story, and that the story is not lost in an avalanche of words.

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