Monday, April 6, 2009

"So long, Marianne"

One of the the sad facts I've had to deal with is that length does matter. Yes, this is a hard thing for any writer to swallow, but editors have needs, and we must rise to the occassion, as the bishop said to the actress. Their needs are often very specific. Yes, a story is as long as it is, but the antholgy isn't buying anything longer than 6000 words unless you happen to be Stephen King. And if the retailers are calling for shorter Romance or longer Fantasy, you, dear writer, had better shape up to fit the gap... or there will be no gap.

Now Sarah can probably chime in and give some more precise figures, but the odds are the length you will need to provide for the most common markets are 4000 -6000 words, or in general novel terms around 90-120K words. There's stuff like folios and print sizes and shipping boxes... all of which are not your problem but your publisher's problem. However providing a satifactory length book or story does make you a little more popular. I figure I've written about 5 million words of books and stories by now, and I have something of a feel for how long it will take me to tell a specific story. That's very nice for me... but not much use as advice, I hear you mutter, before preparing to pelt me with over-ripe fruit. Well, yes. Fortunately I have a hard head, and washable pelt, but the truth is length is rather specific to the individual. I'm quite terse, so the same story will take me two-thirds of Eric's natural length and so on. The point is you have to practice this and learn it, but there is clear relationship between the number of main characters and the length, and a less direct relationship with scenes. Each writer varies, and you will have to experiment and find your own, but for me it's 10 to 15K for each major character, and for short stories about 1.5-2K a scene (hence my shorts often tend to 3 scenes). That works for me. It won't be the same for you, but it is worth coming to grips with your length if you need to insert extra (or cut more) to be the object of your editors desire.
Here endeth the entendre!

5 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

How long is a piece of string?

As long as it needs to be. A story needs to be as long as it needs to tell the story.

You're right, the more narrative characters, the more balls to juggle, the longer the book.

The market/publishers are asking for longer and longer books and the poor authors are providing them. But ...

I've been reading some fantasy recently, where the plot started on page 200 or even 300 and the early part of the book was more of a travelogue intro to the world and characters.

If the writing is entertaining and the characters interesting, I can be swept along. Other wise, it loses me.

KylieQ said...

So what is the expected length for fantasy? Looking at the number of pages, I would have expected more around the 150,000 mark.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Standard fantasy is 100K to 140K. (400 manuscript pages, courier 12pt, double spaced).

Even SF is getting longer.

I heard of one author who has been asked to write a 200K book.

Dave Freer said...

KylieQ - the gossip among people who should know is that the lengths are coming down. Fantasy tends to run a little longer than sf - where 100K is considered dead on last I heard. But I have been hearing mutters about 90K to cut costs. Dunno how true they are. I was specifically told Heirs books would need to be BFF - 220K +, I've now been told actually 180K is fine. 100-120 is the spec in most of my other contracts. I think that's 17 or so - so that's pretty standard for Baen (or has been - this is a moving target). I've always delivered what they asked so I cannot say if it is a problem or how various publishers handle it. Maybe someone else can chime on this.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

weirdly, my 120 k fantasy with bantam looks longer printed. No clue how.

BTW your "story length" might change too. Depends on the tools you use to tell the story. In years of mentoring beginners I find they start very short. They'll tell an entire -- novel worthy -- plot in 2k words.

Then they discover what they're doing is more telling than showing and they start showing. As is inevitable (at least for me) in such processes, they start writing ALL details, including how many times the character blinks and the story average balloons to 20k words, while the content shrinks to a short-short's worthy.

And then with experience comes ballance. My stories now absolutely depend on the idea, though I can pitch a story to the exact length I need these days. Ask for a seventy five hundred word story, and up it pops.

The writermatick! It's a lot like hitting your head the number of times of the hour you want to wake at or... something.