Novel: How long should a book be?

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

In his book on writing, horror novelist Stephen King advised that any serious writer should spend four to six hours a day doing some mixture of both reading and writing to hone their craft and become good at what they do. As you may imagine, this can be incredibly difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of just sitting around doing both hobbies for a large chunk of the day. I, for one, have two jobs, four kids, a wife, and other interests and activities. So should I just not write? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

I understand the spirit of what King is saying — mainly that it’s important to train in reading and writing to become better, and you can’t do this in tiny measures — but I don’t fully embrace it, either. You do what you can do. I don’t often get as much time to read every day as I might like, but I get a little in here and there — with devotions, audio books, and the occasional 10-minute bursts of Kindle while I’m waiting to pick the kids up, etc. I write a lot, but most of it is for my work, and that’s a much different style than fiction writing. So to make this novel work, I’ve had to restructure my day and carve out some time here and there to get a few more paragraphs done, maybe a page, maybe two. But six hours? No, it’s just not happening.

When I started this novel a month or so ago, it wasn’t with any sort of lofty ambitions. I had a story idea that I wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking of size or scope. But by the time I was deep into the fourth chapter and the structure of the book was coming along, I started to be concerned about the larger picture. Namely, how long should this book be?

That actually matters a lot, because it will influence how fast I progress through the plot and give me a target goal to shoot for. I know that some people might say, “Just write it and see where it ends,” but that has some problems. What if it’s way, way too short to be an actual novel? I would like this book to arrive in the 300-450 page range, and so I did a little bit of research on word counts.

What I found was general recommendations that gave me a better idea of general length:

  • 60,000 words or less is a very short novel or novella — not what I’m going for
  • 80,000-100,000 words is a nice, average length of a novel
  • 100,000-130,000 words is more expected for fantasy novels, as they typically have greater world building and more epic tales

My general concern is that I’m going to fall on the shorter side of the spectrum. What I’m discovering about my writing style is that I like things to happen. I’ll give some descriptions, sure, but I like to keep the plot moving and inject interesting explanations over spending the better part of a page setting the scene. I also keep my dialogue light, which I’m deliberately trying to address although it slows down my writing when my characters enter into a conversation.

So my goal is this: I’m shooting for 100,000 words for a first draft with a daily goal of at least 1,000 words. It’s pretty reasonable, and in fact most days I easily reach 2,000. I think NaNoWriMo had us pumping out 1,667 words a day to get to the 50,000 mark by a month’s end, so this feels about normal for that. With over 30,000 words already done, I should be crossing the finish line for a first draft sometime in June.

I’m not getting obsessed with word count, mind you. It’s just one way to measure progress, and I enjoy tracking it on a spreadsheet every day to see how it grows. Plus, it’s another good little motivational technique to encourage me. Another one of my “daily quests,” if you will.

To answer a question that I’ve been asked: Yes, I’ll make this novel available to the public if (a) it gets finished and (b) I put in a couple of rounds of serious edits and formatting. Even if it never sees the light of day in an official printing, I’ll still shell out some money to have a few copies made up for my wife and kids. So far, it’s a fun read and a fun ride, and I think you might enjoy it.

8 thoughts on “Novel: How long should a book be?

  1. Hey, Syp. Stephen King notwithstanding, 2,000 words a day is a great word count. Just do the math: 2,000 words a day means you are finishing the structure of a 100k word novel every 50 days! By comparison, Inheritance took me about 8 months to write, and it came in at 85,000 words or so.

    My advice? Don’t worry too much about word count per day, or length of your novel. Instead, sit down and write the ending scene or chapter. Now you know what you are aiming for. Then go back and start up the writing engine, always keeping in mind the end goal you’ve set for yourself. Don’t edit while you write…just tell your story for now. Once your story meets up with the ending you’ve created, you are “done”, no matter how many words it took to get there. Generally speaking, shorter is better. We can’t all be George RR Martin or Professor Tolkien.

    Then, of course, the real work of revising and editing starts. I wish you luck! I look forward to reading the finished product.

    – Jeremy

  2. This sounds so much like 10-years-ago me that it’s hard to refrain from giving unsolicited advice. So here’s some unsolicited advice! In my experience it’s far more difficult to craft a complete story from beginning to end than it is to meet a target word count, so I would focus more on that, even if it ends up being 20k long with no descriptions.

  3. I had a friend who was writing a novel for 10 years. It involved the Cold War, spies, intrigue, some science-fiction…and whales. I had a chance to read it…it was very long…probably 2 or 3 books worth. Well-written, easy to be immersed in it. BUT he never published it and never will. During those 10 years, he learned a lot about himself while his characters grew and grew. Publishing it would be like him “revealing too much of himself” to the world.

    Sometimes you can be too passionate about your works of fiction. Like painters who view their works-of-art…never finished…never ready…all messed up and needs to be destroyed. It is hard to know when to stop and allow it to be enjoyed by others! -)


  4. Stephen King is an obsessive, self-admitted.

    Mainstream publishers of fantasy like big word counts. The genre fantasy reader tends to demand big books and long series and publishers pressure their authors to comply.

    On the other hand, Terry Pratchett used to consider his time was worth more than that and stuck rigidly to a set word count which was very muc h at the shorter end of the range.

    Unless you plan on courting a mainstream publisher, though, your book should be just as long as it needs to be for you to be happy with it.

  5. Thanks for the update on your project. I understand your concerns about book length, I hope you find the proper length to your own likings.
    As for descriptions, I know that Stephen King makes a lot of things happen in his descriptions. Many times, he describes his books’ locales or characters through very active anecdotes, and it makes very long descriptions become breathtaking and captivating.
    Looking forward to reading you Justin.

  6. As a life long reader, the answer is “long enough to tell the story”. Length is the lat thing you should be thinking about, unless you are writing for a magazine or publication which requires a particular length. Maybe you’re just used to getting out content on a schedule, and it’s hard for you to just let the story unfold as it will. Write when you can, get caught up in the story for its own sake, and the reader will do so too when it’s all done.

  7. I definitely prefer books where things “happen”. I hate it when books go into long descriptions setting up a scene, because I prefer to imagine these scenes for myself. Not only that, but I hate it when you read an entire chapter, and just think to yourself about how that could have all easily been summed up in one paragraph, and then after you’ve read the entire book, you realised just how little actually happened.

    Unfortunately I seem to be in the minority with that thinking, since the books that seems to get the best reviews or become best sellers, are always those thick books that have been filled to the brim with needless descriptions of every tiny thing. Especially modern books. Books from thirty to forty years ago, seem to be more about what happens rather than the insignificant details. And books back then are noticeably thinner than they are now.

    Maybe I’m just a philistine.
    Whatever the case, I’m glad that your writing style focuses more on what “happens” because that’s the type of books I like to read, but if you’re wanting to sell it, maybe consider adding some filler through the use of needless descriptions. Either way, I recommend beefing up the dialog. Good dialog can add a lot to a word count, and get you more invested in a story and its characters as well. And as much as I like things to happen, I think we can all agree that we don’t like it when a story goes “Then that happened, and then that happened, and finally that happened.”

    Good luck, and keep at it.
    And keep us updated!

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