Welcome to Writers Talkback. If you are a new user, your account will have to be approved manually to prevent spam. Please bear with us in the meantime

Word Count Woes And Novellas

edited October 18 in - Writing Problems
As we know, giving the word count is an essential part of a submission but the problem is, no matter how well written the book is, the count might make it unacceptable to publishers and agents.  Too long and it can be cut but too short and it should never be padded.  

First-time fiction writers (first for publication, that is) are expected to write 80-90,000 words at least.  When I began my W.I.P. I believed it would be full length as with previous work but, once again, I have a novella.  This is currently 42,000 words long.  Although editing will probably increase the word count slightly, it will still be considered too short.  I was looking forward to submitting it in a final attempt to be published in the traditional way but now feel I can't unless I can find a reputable publisher/agent who will  consider shorter work.  

I did submit a previous one last year to a new company I found - one that publishes novellas - but received no reply.

What I thought of doing was putting three novellas together, including the current one, under an umbrella title - but would this be considered too wacky?


Comments

  • Novellas do well on Kindle, so you could release them individually then if there is a linking theme or characters, setting, create a set later- gets maximum income opportunity.
  • Thank you for the suggestion.  I'll certainly bear it in mind but loading something onto an e-book myself may be a bit too daunting, especially as I'm not on the Internet at home (yet). I've thought of using a company to do it and I may do that later but it isn't cheap, which is why I wanted to have another go at publishing by the conventional route first.  It's useful to know that novellas can do well on Kindle.
  • If a publisher wants longer novels, not novellas, then they want longer novels not novellas, even if it's three of them together.

    There are opportunities for publishing shorter works though. You could try a 'digital first' company, who'd make it into an ebook at their expense, not yours just as 'traditional' publishers do with paperbacks. These publishers seem far more willing to consider shorter works.

    Depending on the genre you could also consider pocket novels. There's a (not very profitable) market for romance and cosy crime.
  • Word count is usually a question of planning. I almost always know before I start writing how many words I'll end up with. I usually aim for 80,000-90,000 words.

    How do I know? Because I know how many chapters I'm going to write and that each chapter will be an average of 2,500-3,000 words. How do I know that? Because I know how many words are necessary to narrate the scene or description or dialogue in that chapter. 

    For example, I'm now writing the middle chapter of my current novel and I'm at 39,000 words.

    Word length shouldn't be accidental. Nor do I like the idea of drafts that involve cutting or padding. If you plan a book well, you can write it in one draft. True, the planning may take more time than the writing, but at least you'll have a publishable work at the end of the process. And writing is much more fun when you can sit down each day and know what you need to write.
  • Although I never have and doubt if I ever will try to write a novel, I do think GeorgeQ's approach sounds very sensible. My fiction experience is limited to short stories or flash and I usually have a loose plan when I write a short story: seat of the pants only works for me when writing flash fiction.

    With the non-fiction travel memoir that I'm attempting, I started with a plan of the anecdotes and stories I wanted to include and those have expanded as I've remembered other bits and bobs that would enrich the whole. I'm at the stage where I think I now know the chapter order. My main problem is that some of the anecdotes are very short and weaving them into the chapters without sounding disjointed is my current challenge.
    My other problem is that I'm very wedded to the idea of using some rather wonderful quotes from the letters page of the national newspaper as chapter headings. But I only have so many which means I already know how many chapters are in the book - which means the chapters are going to be longer than 3,000 words.

  • Claudia said:

    My other problem is that I'm very wedded to the idea of using some rather wonderful quotes from the letters page of the national newspaper as chapter headings. 

    Claudia - I think this is an amazing idea! I'm not going to steal it, but it's certainly given me a new perspective on how to think laterally when choosing titles for chapter (or even working titles for drafts of novels!)
  • I tend to do the opposite - write 150k words for a 80k book then need to pair back in subsequent drafts - it's not a very structured or disciplined way to work but everyone's different.
  • Thank you for all your comments, which are appreciated.   I can say only that I don't believe it's just a question of planning.  I do plan but  I can't help thinking Gerald Q's method may result in a manufacturing of word count - in other words, padding - to fit what has been decided.  It's probably more a question of having enough of a story to begin with.  One of my novels was about a well-known historical episode, which, after plenty of research, resulted in a strict schedule of events that I had to cover and I ended up with 94,000+ words so that would seem to cover GeraldQ's point, except that I certainly didn't plan a particular number of words per chapter.   There's much to be said for following the natural rhythm of the story and creating contrast and momentum where necessary, rather than following a sterile framework.  This usually does mean that the word count per chapter is accidental.  It should be.
  • GeraldQ said:
     If you plan a book well, you can write it in one draft. 
    Your planning must be exceptional. Very few people can write a book in just one draft.

    Personally I don't think it matters if we plan or not, cut or expand during rewrites, take one draft or many. What matters is the finished book.


  • Claudia said:
     I'm very wedded to the idea of using some rather wonderful quotes from the letters page of the national newspaper as chapter headings. 
    Getting permission to use them won't be easy. 
  • Ah but you don't know Fiji and how things work there. I doubt I'll have any problems at all. (And hope I won't have to eat those words!!) :)
  • Foxglove said:
      There's much to be said for following the natural rhythm of the story and creating contrast and momentum where necessary, rather than following a sterile framework. 
    Here's where we disagree a bit. A story doesn't have an automatic "natural rhythm." Stories have beginnings, middle and ends. They have arcs and fluctuations in pace. These things aren't "followed" – they are imposed on purpose by the writer. If they aren't imposed in the right way or at the right time, the story loses its shape (as when the word count is too short or too long). I follow a rhythm, but it's a rhythm I've established from the very start. 

    It's reductive to think of planning as a sterile framework. Every creative work has a process and a framework. MIchaelangelo didn't just pick up his chisel and have a go. He did numerous sketches first or made maquettes. The creativity is built upon that framework. For example, my chapter plans tell me only very roughly what's going to happen (e.g. Character A discovers clue Z). The rest is a creative decision in the moment.

  • Your planning must be exceptional. Very few people can write a book in just one draft.
    My planning is detailed (5k-10K words of notes?), but think about it for a moment. Many professional writers (journalists, copywriters) don't have the luxury of multiple drafts when working to deadline. They often have to do their best effort first time.

    For me, a novel is something like a machine. If the parts aren't in the right place, no amount of great writing will make it a readable novel. So I figure out a workable structure before I write. It's hard work, but it means I can then write every day without getting stuck and I don't have to rewrite anything.

    My first novel was a single draft. The only serious structural change made by the publisher's copy editor was to move one paragraph to another chapter. My latest book (also one 90K draft) was published with no copy edits at all (only a proofing, which is always necessary).

    Sure, people write in different ways and that's their choice. But I've seen so many writers struggling over multiple drafts (only to then have a publisher hack away at it for weeks) or not finish at all. It "works" for them in the sense that they have a book at the end of it, but it's like using a stone to open a can of beans instead of a can-opener.

  • Gerald Q said:
    They have arcs and fluctuations in pace. These things aren't "followed" – they are imposed on purpose by the writer. 


    Yes, that's what I meant by inserting contrast and momentum but there has to be a basic story to begin with.  I can't imagine using a method of working that doesn't involve several drafts and still don't understand how you manage to avoid those, even with all the planning in the world.  My guess is that your writing is plot-driven, rather than character-driven, therefore it depends more on incident, which you probably find easier to create to fit the framework length you have decided on.  That's fine, of course, if it works for you, but it doesn't work for me.  Good luck with it all, anyway.
  • It's interesting how different methods work for different writers.
  • Foxglove said:

      My guess is that your writing is plot-driven, rather than character-driven, 
    This is the eternal conundrum. I think that all novels are plot driven, even if the development and exploration of character IS the plot. Things have to happen, and they have to happen with a consistent regularity. My approach is to roughly sketch the   progression of "things that happen", thematic developments and possible character arcs. Then when I start writing, the characters take over.

    In my current work, I've discovered that one main character has changed along the way so that my plans for him now look less credible. But because I have already plotted the next 15 chapters, I can sketch a few notes that change his trajectory without messing up everything else. This adherence to the plot is what prevents further drafts.

    My method looks rigidly formal from the outside, but it's really improvisation. Each chapter is a given situation and it's my job to improvise within it. For example, my notes for chapter 17 are: "Character meets boy for first time." I have to choose how, where and what actually happens based on the 16 chapters up to this point (and what's going to follow). I have to turn that brief description into about 2500 words, all of which is character work.

    I've been writing obsessively since I was about 9, so practice might also help a bit.

  • GeraldQ Said: In my current work, I've discovered that one main character has changed along the way so that my plans for him now look less credible. But because I have already plotted the next 15 chapters, I can sketch a few notes that change his trajectory without messing up everything else. This adherence to the plot is what prevents further drafts.

    Clearly this way of writing novels works for you, Gerald. But I don't understand why you are so against writing more than one draft. I do appreciate that it could be easy to fall into the trap of never actually finishing if you keep writing draft after draft, but needing several drafts isn't so wrong, is it?
  • If I was writing a novel I think I'd have to have several drafts. Otherwise - how do you know if something was better before? With poems I keep several versions (easier, I know!) and leave one of them with phrases and ideas on which have occurred to me but maybe haven't used in the final, just in case I need to recall or reuse or put something back in. Sometimes I change a single word and look back a few days later to check if the change is better or not. I need comparisons. 

    I suspect there are as many ways of working as there are writers, and no way is wrong if it works for you. 
  • Liz said:
     no way is wrong if it works for you. 
    Totally agree. 

  •  Gerald. But I don't understand why you are so against writing more than one draft. 
    Naturally, I understand that people work in different ways. However, what I've noticed again and again is that people who work in drafts have a harder time producing a novel. It takes longer and is more hit-and-miss. As an instructor, I'm always looking for the most effective – simple, painless, successful – way to complete a project. I have many problems with the draft method, but the greatest is this:

    When you begin a novel without an idea of where you're going, you're going to get lost. You're going to hit dead-ends. Possibly you're going to get blocked. You'll have to re-write and re-write. Maybe you'll never finish, because as the novel grows in complexity, previous drafts can remain in your head. What is the novel you're trying to write?  That doesn't look like a process to me. It looks very hit-and-miss. Almost accidental.

    A process is something that refines itself and becomes easier over time. The draft method reminds me of those people who make the same mistake over and over, never seeming to learn. As I say, it works for some people (in the sense that they eventually produce a novel), but I've never worked with a student who managed to come out of it with a publishable, or even readable, novel. 

    Look at it this way. I now have my process. Idea-research-plotting-writing-final check. I write a minimum of 1000 words a day, every day, and the novel is finished in 8-10 weeks as one draft. It's ready. Another writer may spend three years working on multiple drafts of a novel, agonisingly hacking out a story and a structure. We both end up with a a publishable novel (maybe), but in the time it's taken them to write one, I've done three. Without stress. It just seems more professional to me.

    There are millions of better writers who work in drafts. They also trust their editors to dig a novel out of the mountain of words they've written. I'm an evangelist for a method that eradicates the majority of the frustration in order to professionalize the process. I find that most people don't listen to m, but I'll continue trying to make their lives easier!
  • When you say the novel's ready, is that it? It's sent to your publisher and published? How long does it take after those 10 weeks for it to be available to buy?
  • And are you being expected to promote it or are they doing all that?
  • When you say the novel's ready, is that it? 
    As far as I'm concerned, that's it. I send it to the agent and it gets published or it doesn't, depending on the market. I have no control over that.

    If a publisher takes it, it will be proofed and I may have to answer queries from the proofer (I use some made-up, historical or obsolete words). There's usually a copy edit, but none of my books have been heavily edited. Usually something like "In this line, it's not clear who is standing behind who," so I change a pronoun.

    But when I send the novel off, I'm not going to be doing any more serious writing on it. I've pretty much lost interest in it and I am thinking about the next one. I genuinely have no interest in finished books. I can't even remember the stories of my earlier ones.

    My experience is that a novel tends to come out 12-14 months after it's accepted by a  publisher. It has to slot into a production line of other books for proofing, marketing, printing etc. Publishers often ask me to get involved with social media (Twitter etc) but I've found this to be an utter waste of time in terms of marketing. Or rather, you have to spend every day for months building a presence on Facebook etc before anyone notices you exist. For me, that's not writing. I'd rather not sell books if that's the only way to sell them.

    Not one of my books has been well publicised and none of them have sold well enough to make any material difference to my life. Well, a couple of them allowed me to take a year off and travel round the world, but that money was advances rather than royalties and has long gone.
  • That's such a shame. 
Sign In or Register to comment.