Size Matters, Length Not So Much

Size Matters

I’m talking about novels, of course. Be naughty in your own time.

Each genre has an average expected novel length, and usually for first-time-authors that length is almost a condition. For science-fiction novels, the average length is usually between 90 and 120K, and if the author hasn’t been published before, agents and publishers will rarely consider novels longer than 100K.

Now with the “electronic revolution” and the advent of self-publishing, novel length is becoming less of a worry. Even with traditionally published authors, the twenty-first century tickled out novels exceeding 120K on a regular basis. Hey, some of my most beloved sci-fi novels are monstrous tomes, from 170K (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion) to 370K (Peter Hamilton’s Judas Unchained).

Apparently the evolution of accepted novel lengths in science-fiction—like all other major things regarding traditional publishing—had much more to do with technology, economy and profit than with reader expectations. Given that the publishing industry is changing yet again, and no one has a clear grasp of the direction it’s headed, novel length is probably going to affected once more. However, I’m not keen on rubbing a crystal ball and talking about how I believe things will change in the future. I’m not even going to focus on a novel’s length first and foremost, but on its size.

What’s the difference between novel length and novel size?

In my twisted mind and for the present blog post, novel length is measured in words and/or pages, while novel size is measured in the magnitude of the story problem and the extent of its reach. Lemme explain.

Story problems can range all the way from a single situation affecting one person’s life, to a chain of events affecting an entire civilization or more. The degree by which a story problem increases in size (in magnitude and importance), can be measured in the amount of details and the depth of analysis (for small scope problems), to the amount of time it takes to unfold and the number of people or worlds it ultimally affects (for large scope problems).

Take Flowers For Algernon, for example. The scope is small, the protagonist is (arguably) the only person truly affected by the story problem, and the novel is a study of his ascension and decline. It isn’t very long either, just barely over 80K. But it’s BIG in size. The story deals with mental disability, brilliance and the frailty of human relationships, and the size of the story is given by the profound, in-depth analysis of one person’s inner world. It plays on the reader’s heart and mind strings, and becomes important to her.

On the other hand, there’s Pandora’s Star (yeah, yeah, Hamilton again, but seriously, that guy writes skull-smashers, not books). The scope is huge, the entire human race is affected by the story problem, and the view-point characters are presented in enough detail that we feel for each of them too, supersizing the emotional investment. The length is well over 350K, but it becomes irrelevant as we read. The size of the story is given by the enormous consequences of the story problem, and the number of people directly affected. How can we not root for humanity and the many protagonists and stay up night after night reading, when everything they (and we) hold dear faces destruction by an utterly inhuman alien race?

Ultimately, the size and thus the magnitude of a story is not given by its wordcount, but by the optimal presentation of the story problem.

And when we write—when we’re in the process of creating or refining a story—focusing on our wordcount instead of nailing the scope and investing in the adequate aspects to match and maximize that scope, is a big mistake. Focusing on the length of our story instead of its size, is one of the major sources of frustration and of that bad vibe we get when something just isn’t working and we don’t know why.

Our stories can be small or big in scope, they can be about a single person or an entire race, but as long as we treat the story problem the right way and invest in the right aspects, we will write BIG stories with BIG impact, regardless of their length and number of characters or subplots.

What’s your experience been so far? Does the size or the length matter more to you more when you pick up a book? How about when you’re writing one?

10 Replies to “Size Matters, Length Not So Much”

  1. For me, the sweet spot it 80-100K as if someone really gets into one of my novels they can read them in a day, and from the feedback, many do… so size over length, although as you note with Pandora’s Star, size and length can also be a winner.

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    1. 100K sounds great to me, though if my reading habits are an indication I really do have a thing for bigger books. Writing a huge book myself, though, is not a very tempting idea. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, Peter.

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  2. For me both aspects of size (ahem) come down to writing and story-telling skills. I like long books, if I’m engaged with the writing, story or premise (for nonfiction) and scope is fine if it works with the story.

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    1. True, if the the storytelling is great and the book never feels too short or too long (i.e. the writing fits the scope of the book), then length becomes completely irrelevant. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Julie.

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  3. Another great post, Vero. The one exception for me are shorts – novellas that leave me feeling like they could have been developed into a full length novel except the author lost his or her steam. Then I feel cheated.

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    1. Thanks, Cindy!

      Novels theoretically don’t have an upper limit of length, that’s why I used them as an example. With short stories & novellas, as you say, a size issue is created when the topic / idea is not treated well enough for the short format, and could have (should have) been turned into a novel. Absolutely agree with you there.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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  4. Well said. This made me think of a book I have been reading lately – the second in a series and about 175k words. It has some pretty painful ‘second book syndrome’ and frankly has been mostly a let down- but my thought through it all has been “I feel like she is trying to make the book feel epic but instead do doing it with content, she is doing it with length- and this book just won’t end.” The first book was almost the same length I now realize, but I felt invested through all of it and didn’t feel like it dragged on at all. I think it just goes to show you can’t get too caught up in length- the focus has to be quality and being successful with your intended affect. I suppose it’s a bit of a skewed example because its a series, but it is what your post made me think of.

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    1. That’s exactly what I meant, D.V. Your example captures the problem quite well.

      From a reader perspective, we’re often able to notice when novels drag and the only thing adding weight to them is the number of pages. What’s tough is to keep that keen eye when we’re writing. We often misinterpret volume and number of character and/or complications to add weight, importance, and size to our stories, when in fact they do nothing but bog them down. It’s always more important to mind the quality and the natural flow, than to worry about wordcount, complexity and grandeur.

      Thank you very much for the comment! 🙂

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