Tag Archives: Word Count

Am I repeating myself—yes I am! Do you?

I returned to creative writing in 2013, initially with short stories, novellas, poetry and song lyrics. I wrote my first novel in 2014, a crime novel and tried querying almost 200 agents and publishers with it before realising it was double the length it should be for a debut novel by an unknown author. D’oh! 

Undeterred, (I’m stubborn!), I wrote a prequel of the correct length, followed by three more stories, running into tricky problems in maintaining continuity through a series.

I came across a dilemma of saying the same thing again, which reminded me of a technique that one of my favourite crime writers Ed McBain used.

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He’s credited as a pioneer of police procedural novels, and his 87th Precinct stories use exactly the same descriptions of his cast of detectives. Protagonist Steve Carella is always introduced as: 

‘He was a big man, but not a heavy one. He gave the impression of great power, but the power was not a meaty one. It was, instead, a fine-honed muscular power.’

These brief hints at the looks and nature of his cast of characters are carried across from one book to another. They become a welcome way of refamiliarising oneself with who’s who, the thumbnail sketch a mantra.

In my series, the Cornish landscape is as much a character as my heroes and villains, and rightly so as it’s a mystical and dangerous place, with plenty of legends and natural hazards. Scores of holidaymakers are injured or killed here every year. Faced with a way of saying this again, I decided to repeat myself:

‘Cornwall could be a dangerous place, and it was usually visitors to the county who were caught out by being too relaxed in its deadly beauty. Holidaymakers tumbled off cliffs and into old mine workings or drowned in rivers and at sea.’

I also repeated myself in introducing one of the characters, a forensic pathologist called CC:

‘She was unmarried but enjoyed plenty of suitors over the years. With no children to distract her she was melded with her career—though an aged Grey Parrot kept her on the straight and narrow. The bird’s language was as colourful as CC’s own, and the pathologist’s screech of laughter reminded him of her avian companion.’

I don’t see this as laziness, and I see no point in rewriting a description just for the sake of being unique. As I found, when reading Ed McBain as a teenager, readers may well like the sense of familiarity the repetition creates.

Do any of you do this?

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Average Chapter Length

I have a feeling that this post will be about a quandary that doesn’t really have an answer.

I have a tendency to grasp tricky concepts, notice fine details and see things laterally—while missing the blooming obvious! The thought came to me last night while re-reading my last novel, that there were quite a lot of chapters—50—which made me wonder if it was too many.

A typical word count for my chapters is 1,600-2,250. I write crime novels, though I haven’t tailored the word count as being ideal for readers of this genre. Rather, it’s come about naturally, fitting the requirements of the mini-story that each chapter essentially is, imparting a discrete part of the whole. I’m conforming to the expected length of 80,000 words for a debut novel by an unknown author.

Chapters can be of any length, of course, and in my reading, I’ve seen one-word chapters and even blank pages used to convey emotion, while some authors don’t bother with chapters at all. With my longer chapters, I’ve used two or three section breaks, when the scenes described are potentially connected—through being a story about a criminal investigation, but I leave it up to the reader to decide the significance. They like to work things out before the detective protagonist.

I like a bit of variety in chapter length, for several reasons. One is that if a reader sees the next chapter is short, they may keep on reading—and if you prime that chapter with something intriguing, they may go onto the next!

Is chapter length something that you consider when writing erotica, romance, fantasy or science-fiction?

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Mickey Spillane

Novel Dysmorphia

This article in Literary Hub (well worth subscribing to their free newsletter) made me smile, as I recognised many of the feelings that the author Sloane Crosley experienced about the size of her novel.


(I love the illustration for the article—lost in a book—now there’s a bookmark)

My first novel The Perfect Murderer, written in 2014was imperfect largely because it was double the length of what a debut work by an unknown author should be, at some 179,000 words. I did some heavy editing and removed 40,000 words. I still have faith in it and know that attempting to cut it down to 100,000 words would be as successful as cutting the neck off a giraffe to make an antelope.

Instead, I viewed it as a learning experience, and it now takes a place as the second novel in my Cornish Detective series. I wrote a prequel to The Perfect Murderer, called Who Kills A Nudist? I kept a close eye on the word count, bringing it in at an acceptable 80,000 words.

I had another feeling of recognition for the plight of author Joshua Ferris, who is interviewed by his editor in the linked article from Sloane Crosley’s.


He had similar problems with the size of his book, having to lose a vast chunk of it. Reagan Arthur, his editor, also called him to task about using the word ‘Jew’ to describe a character in one of his novels. I had similar problems writing my new first novel, as it features nudists, the gay community and BDSM, all of which have politically correct connotations that are formally given respect in the media, even if they’re poked fun at colloquially.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, without appearing that I’m being judgmental in any way. My characters might say things that I would never even think. It might help if I were a member of any of these groups, but I’m not (honest!). Just doing the research for these aspects of the story made my eyes water…

Some subjects are hot potatoes, which makes them hard to handle, but potentially satisfying for a hungry reader in search of something a bit spicy.

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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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