How Long Should Your Book Be?

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From Writer Unboxed:

Ruth was reading an old Susan Howatch novel on her Kindle, which tracks the percentage of the book you’ve read without bothering about page numbers.  After reading for a few days, she noticed that she hadn’t made much of a dent on the percentage.  I asked the internet and found that the paperback of the novel had been more than 1100 pages long.

I’ve always argued that a manuscript should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story.  A lot of successful books – Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Bridges of Madison County spring to mind – are not much more than novella length.  The Lord of the Rings, broken into three books but really a single, continuous story, clocks in at 1086 pages, not including the appendices.  None of them feel too short or too long.

Besides, trying to force your story to fit a predetermined page count because you think that’s what the market demands is almost always a recipe for disaster.  Adding or cutting material just for the sake of adjusting the length leads to either in gaps in the narrative or padding that drags the story down.  This is not to say that all first drafts are the right length out of the gate.  Sometimes stories do drag and need trimming to flow better.  Others are too thin and need subplots built up or more details on the characters’ internal lives.  But these are changes made for the sake of getting the story right, not to fit the market.

So how do you know whether your odd-length manuscript is just what it needs to be or is too bloated or anemic?  Successful novella-length novels usually succeed because they are centered around a character development or story point that didn’t need a lot of pages to convey but that carries the emotional weight of a full-length novel.  Readers can finish them quickly and not feel underfed.

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Extremely long novels also have a couple of features that make readers willing to put up with four-digit page counts.  The Lord of the Rings creates a complex world with several independent cultures and thousands of years of backstory.  It takes time to get all that across.  The same is true of massive, multigenerational works, like the Susan Howatch book Ruth was reading.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed