Why Your First Novel Should Be Short
When you reach success in your publishing career, by all means, write long books. But in the beginning, make them shorter.
In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.
Stephen King has been and always will be one of my heroes, and his book On Writing is one I like to read every one to two years. I love it so much I’ve been doing a long blog series here on Medium pulling quotes from the book and discussing the quote in relation to my own work and to what writers around the world can learn from the quote. I almost always agree with everything King says in On Writing, but alas, we have arrived at a quote I take a bit of issue with.
I totally agree with the first part. When you’re writing the first draft of a novel, you should absolutely aim for 2,000 words a day if it all possible. That might be ten pages, or eight pages, or twelve pages, or six pages, depending on how much dialogue is in the day’s writing or how many block paragraphs. Writing a novel can seem daunting, but when you focus on 2,000 words a day, every day, you put more focus on the current scene you’re working on rather than the book as a whole. The cool thing about sticking to a schedule and writing a set amount of words every day is that eventually, whether it’s a month or six weeks or six months or whatever, you will finish the first draft of your novel. So, yes, I agree with King’s advice there!
But what I take issue with is the second part of that quote — that 180,000 words, written over the course of three months at 2,000 words a day, is a “goodish” length for a book.
Don’t get me wrong, I love longer books. When an author takes full command of a story and writes fascinating characters and amazing plot twists and beautiful language, I want that novel to go on and on, for 180,000 words or longer. Some of my favorite books are long, like The Goldfinch, and The Nix, and my all-time favorite, Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. Long books are my jam.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t advise any of you, especially if you’re unpublished, to aim for 180,000 words for your first draft. It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of energy. 99.95% of you will never get a novel traditionally published if the draft you submit to literary agents and/or editors is 180,000 words. You will be laughed at. Your work will get tossed in the nearest trash can. Unless you’re writing a giant fantasy that simply needs to be super, super long, there really is no reason for your book to be that many words.
Keep in mind, when Stephen King wrote this quote in the late 1990s he had written and published The Stand and It, two of the longest books I’ve certainly ever read. He’s known for at least occasionally writing huge door-stoppers. And you know why he gets to write mega-long books? Because he’s Stephen King, that’s why! If you reach a level of fame and success, then by all means, write a book that’s 180,000 words.
Look at J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is 76,000 words, a longish book for a middle grade title, but still within the realm of normalcy for that age market. If she had tried to sell Sorcerer’s Stone to publishers at 180,000 words in length, we might never have gotten the series we all know and adore. Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban went a little longer, but it wasn’t until Goblet of Fire that the word count really soared, the fourth book in the series coming in at 190,000 words. By the time the fourth book was coming out, the series was a smash hit the world over, so the publishers were able to guarantee a return on their investment, with no need to make Rowling or others trim the fourth book to a shorter length.
Same thing with King. His second book ‘Salem’s Lot is pretty long at 152,000 words, and his third book The Stand came in at 165,000 words (although keep in mind the original length of The Stand was more than 400,000 words before King was forced to cut it down). But where did it all start? With his smash debut novel Carrie, which was only 61,000 words. The book was popular from the beginning, quickly leading to the famous 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek and offering King a wealth of opportunities as a writer.
Of course, things have changed in 2019. I still don’t really believe today that if your first book is a huge bestseller you can then jump right into a 180,000-word follow-up and have every word of it published. I still think most editors will ask that you trim the story down to a more reasonable length.
And if you’re untested, and unpublished, I guarantee you that pitching a 180,000-word novel is going to met with hardship. I’ve heard that many literary agents won’t even look at a query letter from an author who’s pitching a book over 100,000 words, let alone 180,000. There’s so much to do and so little time, and many just want to cut to the chase. They want to see that you’re not only a strong writer but someone who has knowledge of the industry, of the expectations that come with the work of authors, especially newer ones.
I guess there is one benefit to writing a novel that’s 180,000 words — if there’s a clear middle point, you could split the work into two and voila, you have a debut novel and its sequel. However, this is of course easier said than done. If your book has a clear beginning, middle, and end, you might not be able to split it into two stories. And advice I’ve been told from the beginning has been to never write a sequel to an unpublished novel. You should always just write the first one and then wait before getting a publishing deal before you set out to write a second installment.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule. Although not 180,000 words, some runaway hit books as of late have been on the longer side. Look at Tomi Adeyemi’s 134,000-word debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, which was one of the bestselling novels of 2018. And then there’s Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, another blockbuster, which comes in at almost 112,000 words.
It is not the death knell for your book to be longer than 100,000 words, not by any means (although I would still recommend most writers stay under that mark). It’s when you start creeping closer to 150,000 words and up that you’re not going to be taken seriously.
Think of it this way — why put in all that work, all that writing, all those words, when you could find a way to make your story shorter, and ultimately more saleable? At the end of the day, it’s in your best interest to work less, not more. To write a book that can get you an agent, get sold, be a success. Then, and only then, would I advise you to write something longer.
If you’re self-publishing, do what you want. If you’re writing fantasy and science fiction, sure, go longer.
But for most of you, be aware of the publishing industry. Don’t take yourself out of the game because you took your story to the kind of extreme lengths that puts most new authors at the bottom of the slush pile.
Write your book to the length that it should be, and you will have much higher chances for seeing your publication dreams come to fruition!
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.