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On writing… and writing, and writing January 16, 2013

Posted by thejinx in enduring chaos, writing.
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How long should a novel be?

One could ask a hundred different people and get a hundred different answers. Perhaps you would get answers by word count, or page count, or something even vaguer – longer than a novella. Some websites give their estimation of an ‘ideal’ novel length, some might simply give numbers to avoid going too long or too short. Some might cite Dickens or Tolstoy – or Martin or Sanderson, to use modern examples in my preferred genre – or they might lean more toward Stevenson or London – or Scalzi or Collins.

But the fact remains that all those authors were published. There is precedent for novels from 100 to 1,000 pages. Those vague answers, frustrating as they might be for someone who genuinely wants a guide for how long their novel should be, are more accurate.

Enduring Chaos, the novel I am currently editing, has always been a little on the lengthy side. Not, perhaps, for fantasy – I’ve read plenty of books I estimated to be over 200,000 words long, based on random page word counts – but in some way or another, each of the three drafts of this book have taken a bit longer to tell than my other novels. Admittedly, it has gotten shorter with each incarnation; the first, unfinished draft topped 150,000 words, the second was complete at 115,000, and the current sits at 109,000, although I’ll admit I’ve added 6,000 words already in this round of editing.

I don’t have much experience to say how long my novels tend to be, given that this is only the third book I have written to my satisfaction enough to publish it. While I’m not particularly interested in writing 600+ page epics, nor do I ever have quite enough story to fill out that much writing, I do like drawing a story out and taking its time getting where it’s going.

That is precisely what happened with my first published novel Aurius, which ended up being the second longest thing I’d written at 125,000 words. The book was about the main character Jake’s journey, and there was plenty of that to cover. My second novel, the scifi Halcyon, was notably shorter at a little under 80,000 words. It was a faster-paced story and got where it was going much quicker without quite so much character exploration along the way.

As for Enduring Chaos, it is a different beast altogether in that it is the first book of a trilogy. (However, each installment, of course, is a story on its own.) But it still has always taken a little longer to tell.

What made the first draft so long?

In short: meandering.

Truth be told, I created the main character and started writing the story on a whim without knowing where it was going. Several chapters passed before I even determined what the ultimate goal of the story was, and I spent much more time exploring the shared world in which I wrote it. Even when I did finally address the true conflict, it took the story a while to get where it was going, as the characters underwent various side quests along their way. Rather than a novel, it was more episodic, chapters like episodes – or occasionally scenes – of a TV show with a main story arc but more focused on the events that happened along the way.

The second draft of the novel was notably better planned, and although there was still a little meandering, it was a much more cohesive story. So why did this draft end up the length it did?

In short: filler.

I do like taking my time getting where I’m going with a story, at least with fantasy or any slower-paced novel. This was very much true for the second draft of this novel, which spent a bit of time either going into characters’ back stories or otherwise drew out the story to emphasize the length of the journey they undertake. I wrote in page-long descriptions of places or events that really had no relevance to the true story, partly because I wanted to draw the story out and partly because I was learning at the time how to let my characters dictate the story, rather than the other way around.

As for the current draft, it is better planned still, though that’s not why it ended up shorter. There is certainly a lot of story to fill out the current rendition of this novel, and with five separate points of view, there is certainly room for plenty of material. Brevity was the name of this draft. The reason why is another post entirely, but it is something I’ve abandoned in this round of edits, hence the addition of so much already. Although one particular plot point is going to be cut, I wouldn’t be surprised, with what I’ve been adding to the story so far, if it ends up longer than the previous draft in the end. I certainly don’t anticipate it surpassing the first draft, but it will end up a little on the longer side, at least generally speaking.

So how long should a novel be? Ultimately, a novel is as long as it needs to be for the story to be told.

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