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Who Says How Long Your Novel Should Be?


I like short novels, always have. Take Agatha Christie's suspense books. All of them clocked in at around 55,000 words, and yet they were able to grab us and make us want more.


Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, the gum-shoe detective sagas of Dashiell Hammett, the works of the pulp fiction writers, Fahrenheit 451, Jim Thompson's anti-hero psychological dramas, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books all come to mind as examples of powerful stories told in few words as if an extra adjective or adverb was a capital offense.


What about Slaughterhouse-Five that comes in at 192 pages?


And I could go on and on.


Yet in today's market place major publishers would reject all of those books because they lack the word count the publishers impose on various genres.


The imposition of arbitrary word counts is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the flip side of the notion of "reader expectations." I often hear people say if a book doesn't hit the genre word count, it will disappoint readers who purchase it.


What readers are these, I wonder?


I've never felt disappointed by a writer who could tell a great story in 200 pages or less, although I have often groaned at the process of devoting the time necessary to read a book of 600 pages.


My point is that a book should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story.


I understand that this issue presents a problem for a writing coach if the coach's client is striving to have her book bought by a major publisher. In that circumstance, the coach has to explain genre word count realities to the client to inform her of the situation. The client must meet the word count standards or face almost certain rejection from the publisher.


However, the coach should also explain the realities of other avenues for publishing a book, methods that don't demand the book fit into an artificial word count notch.


Of course, if an indie book finds a readership, a major publisher may scarf it up even if the author was so brazen as to write a great story with a paucity of words.



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