As aspiring novellists we always receive conflicting pieces of advice. ‘A book should be as long as it needs to be,’ is always a good one, but it’s also generally sound advice that, ‘first time novellists should aim for a concise book.’
A novel can be 50,000 words or 250,000 words, but 80,000 words is a reasonable length in non-genre publishing. In science fiction and fantasy, however, novels tend to be a little longer because – for starters – there’s all that world-building to cram in. So in SF/F a reasonably short novel might be 100,000 words or even 120,000 words.
So back in the days when I was with my first agent, CW, when an early version of Empire of Dust climbed to 240,000 words I knew it was too long for a first novel. I edited it down to 180,000 words and told CW that it was finished. She wouldn’t even look at it. ‘Get it down to 118,000 and then I’ll read it,’ she said.
Eeep! Could I do that?
I’ve never been sentimental about the words that I write. If they have to go they have to go. I’m quite capable of ‘killing my darlings’ if it makes my book stronger. So without losing the full-sized version, I set about doing a surgical strike and not only got the book down to 118k words, but went beyond that and got it down to 115k words. Yeah, OK, I was a little worried that I’d thrown out the baby with the bathwater, especially when it came to the characterisation of my three antagonists, but stripped down to its bare bones, the main storyline was exposed and the pacing tightened up and I felt as though it was ready to face the world.
Then without submitting it anywhere Agent CW became my ex-agent. (It happens.)
I added back 8k words of characterisation, so that Empire finally (or so I thought) checked in at 123,000 words. A publisher showed some interest and held on to it for 3 years without committing. (Yeah, that happens, too.) So in the meantime I acquired a second agent (Agent BF) and got wrapped up in writing a different novel. In fact I wrote three different novels and Empire was, if not forgotten, overtaken.
Agent BF decided to get out of agenting (Another thing that happens more often than you might think.) While looking for a third agent I sent the fantasy manuscript that I’d been working on to DAW who not only bought it, but asked ‘What else have you got?’ At that point all the work I’d done on Empire suddenly became worthwhile because DAW bought it as well and commissioned a sequel. And because nothing ever happens in the way we expect, Empire of Dust is actually going to be the first one out from DAW (November 2014)
(And yes, I have now got a lovely new agent, Amy Boggs of Donald Maass, which I’m very happy about.)
But again, because nothing ever happens in the way you expect it to happen. During the editing phase my editor kept asking. Did you think about doing this? What about the background to that? Nearly all the answers to her questions were in the original 240k word version. To cut a long story short, I added in another 40k words using ideas (if not the actual words) from the original long version. Then my editor read the extended version and asked for a few final tweaks. It’s now 171,000 words long. But the editing process is the subject for another blog post… coming soon to a Blog near you. (This one, in fact.)
So to go back to the original question: How long is a novel? I asked my editor whether adding extra word count was a problem and was told, ‘We don’t mind extra words as long as they’re good ones.’
So that’s your answer.