Friday, 20 January 2012

How long should a book be? Roz Morris

If two writers move house, by far the worst job is transferring the books. When we did we hired two guys who cheerfully manoeuvred unwieldy items while we took the small stuff. Finally it came to our books. Hundreds of boxes of books, 20 years' worth of greedy collecting. It was like one of those biblical epics where slaves build the Great Pyramid, block by block, all day. For the first hour we joked with the cheerful chaps about how boring it was. For the rest of the hours after that, we wore lobotomised stares.

Publishers are well aware that moving books takes time and money. That - and hundreds of other factors including the size of book that looks good in a shop - means there are certain book lengths that aren’t profitable. As I found when I wrote Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How to Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.

Why I wrote a writing book

For years I've critiqued novels, helping new writers to polish their books to publishable standard. Invariably, many of the problems are in the structure. A character's arc peaks in the wrong place, or they don't have an arc at all. Back story is clogging the start. The middle is a mass of same-old scenes where characters talk and drink tea.

Whenever I mention this I know what comes next. Panic, and the words: 'how on earth do I do all that?' It’s like I’m telling them to start again.

But I happily disembowel my work and look for bold changes that will squeeze more out of my story. I thought the most helpful thing I could do is write a book about how I do it.

I also know a lot of people who start writing and fizzle out, so I added how to plan, research and organise the writing.

Voila, a complete guide to writing a novel. In 40,000 words.

Too wee?

My agent said: ‘it’s very good but can’t you make it 80,000 words’?

Tsk, but that wasn’t the point. Everyone has shelves of writing tomes that they mean to read. Like diet books, they sit on the shelf as displacement for the real thing. Nail Your Novel came out at 40k and it didn’t need to be any longer. For heaven’s sake, these people have books to write.

I self-published. On Kindle, its dinky size doesn’t matter. Ebooks can be exactly as long as the material requires. Even better, you can have it beside you as you write (no need to jam the pages open or crack the spine) and follow step by step. Which is exactly how the book is designed to work.

Or not too wee?

Not too wee at all, it seems. Rather like Goldilocks and the third porridge, it seems just right. I’ve had thrilled emails from readers saying ‘this gave me exactly what I needed’. ‘I never thought I’d finish a novel and now I have.’ Visiting an author friend, I found the print edition on his desk. 'You don't need that,' I said. 'I use it all the time,' he said.

It’s even crossing desks in high places. Another friend - a senior editor at a Big Six publisher - saw the print copy on my hallstand and said 'can I take this?' 'Get off,' I said, 'it's too short for you to publish'. ‘I don't want to publish it,' she said, because she's like that. 'I lose days every month writing letters to tell promising authors what revising a novel really means. All the writing books are incomplete or full of waffle. I'm going to tell them to buy Stephen King and this.’

And as Kindle has emancipated my writing book, have the Morrises decided to abandon the colossal paper library for an ether one? No. We buy books two ways now, and twice as many. May we never have to move again.

Thanks for the bookship pic Lilivanili and thanks State Library of Victoria for the nuns

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris. She also has a novel: My Memories of a Future Life


Liz said...

great post and good advice. thanks

jenny milchman said...

Stephen King and this. You can't be in much better company than that. Since structure is certainly the thing I most struggle with, I would love to read your book. In print. Even if I have to move it one day :)

Graham Dinton said...

Great post, thought provoking and interesting times, Roz. With e-books, it looks like a whole range of lengths may emerge, though I do think that we have got ourselves trained to think a novel will be 80k+. Novellas just don't seem to satisfy. However, its motivating as a budding author!
Perhaps also embedded multi-media, particularly in non-fiction, will emerge. Live cooking demos, etc. I can see a version of Nail You Novel with an embedded video of you writing out a beat sheet. :)
Your paper library will go eventually, same way cd libraries are going! De-clutter, that's the key! But not at current e-book prices!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Liz - thanks!
Jenny - thank you! I was rather chuffed... the more I write (and critique) the more I understand how structure is the writer's secret weapon.
Graham - multimedia is one of those things that publishers have been chasing for years, but with limited success. Usually they aren't people who like multimedia - understandably, because they like books as books. So they graft on stuff like games or alternative views of pictures, without any idea that they have to think of multimedia as a fresh thing of its own. The TV industry is the same - interactive programmes have mostly bombed.
But the new Kindles and the ipad allow multimedia to be used more easily and effectively - and a lot more people have them so it's finally worth publishers finding people to do multimedia properly instead of paying lip service to it. (Can't you tell I've been hearing about publishers and multimedia for years...?)
So yes, maybe I'll have to do NYN Live!
But CD libraries? Call me old fashioned, but I still have one. I still have vinyl too...

Susan Price said...

Not sure where the nuns come in, Roz! - but great post and it looks beautiful. I shall be pointing my novel-writing brother in your direction, and might even buy your book myself - although you don't have to convince me that Structure is pretty nearly All!

alberta ross said...

my 'stash' of books will be de-cluttered when I die:) like a weight around my neck!! having inherieted from two past generations thousands and having spent 6 decades of my own book buying (and audio and e-books:)many are un-re-homable (I have tried, I have tried) I personally can not bring myself to trash a book- stupid really but there it is.

Great post

Katherine Langrish said...

This scares me. Structure is all. And I know that. But I don't know how I know it and I don't know how I do it. With me it's a sort of blind, instinctive fifth sense I'm always terrified I'll lose!

Roz, I want your book! (But first I have to get a Kindle.)

Karen said...

Great post, Roz, and some really useful advice.

Linda Newbery said...

Your book sounds excellent, Roz, and some good pointers here. "Same-old scenes where characters talk and drink tea" - I love that! Reminds me of one of my dearly-loved editors, who said once "There's far too much cake." He was right.

Valerie J. Long said...

Nice! Yes, there may be marketing reasons for longer books or shorter books. A fantasy story might look poor to LOTR fans if it's just 160 pages thin, on the other hand, 1600 pages may appear threatening for a children's book. But it's as you say - there's a "right" length for the given content, and for e-books there's no such thing as a page count.

Dan Holloway said...

mmm, moving and books. Enough to send shivers up the hardiest of spines!

I agree entirely about length, and ebooks could be the saviour of the novella, for example. I wonder whether at the other end of the spectrum there's a risk they will lead to slightly less than optimally edited doorstops?

madwippitt said...

Stephen King? Is he a 'must read'? The films have put me off ever trying so far ...

dirtywhitecandy said...

Susan - LOL - the nuns are drinking tea. They really need to at least fight off some snakes as well, and rescue someone who will offer them a tantalising, but wrong, solution to the problems they were having to start with.
Alberta - no, I can't trash books either. What an appalling idea.
Katherine - I think to an extent, awareness of structure is like having an ear for music. You know when it works and when it doesn't, but explaining how you know is more difficult. Also seeing it, in a tangle of scenes and words, is often even more difficult. (And if you don't have a Kindle, I have a print version of Nail Your Novel...)
Karen - thanks!
Linda - we all have our stock 'thinking/evaluating' scenes, don't we? I weaned my characters off wine and onto tea but the problem was still the same. I shall try to introduce cake as variety, or maybe nuns.
Valerie - Absolutely. Fantasy readers love doorstops. The bigger the better. Textbooks do better if they're hefty too.
Dan - yes, the novella - and the short story. And as to the minimally edited, hopefully editors will still lace into those for aesthetic reasons.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Madwippitt - On Writing, the movie... LOL

Jennie Walters said...

I have your book on my Kindle and found it really helpful, Roz. I think there's a fear that if we over-analyze what we're doing, we won't be able to write anything and that confidence will go (sort of what Kath's saying) but I think your book is great for the 'stuck' moments, to get a writer going again. I agree it shouldn't have been any longer. Isn't it lovely to be able to ignore advice we feel is wrong, rather than having to go through the motions and end up with something that doesn't work (which we knew all along)? But of course, good editorial advice is worth its weight in gold.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Thank you, Jennie! You're right - overanalysis can squash a good muse, but comes into its own when something's wrong.
And, having worked with very good editors, I totally agree about your other point. A great editor helps you make the book as good as it can possibly be.

Ashen said...

I enjoyed this post :)

julia jones said...

Agree with Ashen. Thanks Roz

dirtywhitecandy said...

Thanks, both! Wonder if I can actually get the comments to work this time - Blogger keeps asking me to create a blog whenever I try to reply! As if I'm not greedy with blogs already....

George Fripley said...

Just come across this via Guardian...this articlte raises an interesting point. I have heard the 80,000 word limit bandied around (probably about 250 pages?). My personal opinion is that a story has its own length and artificially extending it just devalues the story - dilutes its impact.
Still, I supopse there is minimum price to cover publishing costs, and they want the book to have a certain 'thickness' on the shelves.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Hi George! Yes, 80,000 is one of the magic limits for fiction, although it varies by genre. Apparently in the textbook market, the longer the better. At the other end of the scale, the novella and short story are very ueconomic to produce.
I completely agree it seems cockeyed, and readers are right to be horrified. We want our books to be just right!