Does Size Matter?

The length of a manuscript influences whether it will be published traditionally. This is particularly true for new authors. I made a beginner’s mistake by not considering this when I wrote my first novel The Perfect Murderer. If I’d seen any advice about how long genre novels should be, my brain glossed over the figures.

I wasn’t consciously aiming for any particular length, for though I had a rough structure for the storyline I write in an organic way, allowing the action to evolve through what the characters would do in the circumstances. Sometimes they did things that I hadn’t anticipated, but it felt right to stay true to their natures.

I had a brief frisson of achievement when I passed the 100,000-word count, anticipating that I’d be finished at about 130,000 words. I was correct, though after reading through the manuscript several times, then leaving it alone for a week, a nagging feeling arose that it felt distinctly unfinished.

This was mainly because there were so many questions left unanswered, to do with the fates of my two killers and their victims. I’ve read thousands of cop stories, mysteries and thrillers in the last fifty years, and it’s always rather bothered me when I find myself thinking “but what happened to?” at the end of a story. There can be good reasons for leaving things unresolved, of course, such as the planned reappearance of a character in a sequel. Sometimes vagueness is a result of savage editing or even forgetfulness. Raymond Chandler forgot to identify who’d killed a character in The Big Sleep.

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The end of my novel felt snapped-off, full of rough edges, so I smoothed things off by writing an afterword, explaining what became of the corpses of my goodies, innocents and baddies. I also set my lead detective up for a sequel, while not ruling out that the serial killer hadn’t perished and could return. This took my manuscript up to 160,000 words.

My beta-reader, who’s just finished reading the novel, loved that I’d written an afterword and that there was a feeling of optimism after what had been a rather harrowing tale. But the length of my novel is a no-no for a first thriller by an unknown author, as the guideline is 80,000 to 100,000, with most published first books being at the lower end of those figures. Other genres vary in what is expected for a word count, with science-fiction and fantasy novels the longest at up to 150,000 words, followed by historical at 100,000+ and bringing up the rear are westerns, which can be as short as 45,000 words.

I expect that we’ve all read novels much longer than this. I forced myself through the 1,267,069 words of Marcel Proust’s A La Rechcherche Du Temps Perdu, as a teenager – I didn’t have a social life! The last 69 words were the best… I’ve since read many other long novels by Thomas Wolfe, Iris Murdoch, John Irving, Victor Hugo and Tolstoy, enjoying them all. Sometimes it takes that long to narrate a story, and also there’s a challenge to the reader to last the course. Hence the phrase “I like a nice long read.”

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2015 turned into the year of the long novel. After the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch at 784 pages and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries at 864 pages, which became the longest novel to win the Booker Prize, several other novelists have cracked the 1,000 page barrier.

I decided not to rewrite my novel, as taking an editorial chainsaw to it to halve its length would have been a travesty. I don’t expect a literary agent, or publisher with an open submission policy, to take the risk of publishing something that long by an unknown author, but that’s OK. One needs to be an established and successful writer to have long novels accepted. It’s amazing to me that J.K. Rowling got away with such lengthy books, particularly as they were aimed at young readers who supposedly have limited attention spans. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was 896 pages and 257,045 words! Something tells me that her publisher didn’t want to edit the goose that was laying so many golden eggs…

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Instead, I wrote a prequel to The Perfect Murderer, called Who Kills A Nudist? which introduced my detective and forensic pathologist characters. This second first novel was a comparative doddle, by limiting it to 80,000 words, and I’ve got the enthralling sequel all lined up to publish afterwards – hurrah!

How long are your novels?

Have any of you experienced similar problems of conforming to what is expected for word counts? Or have you had the opposite problem of feeling like you’re padding the narrative out to reach a nice size?

I must admit that I’ve had the wicked thought of doing this with a couple of my novellas, which are about 30,000 words long.

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