How Long a Chain

Dean Wesley Smith‘s latest post speaks of story length, and getting it right for each individual story. Every story has its own natural length, and when an author is indie publishing, he can write to the story length instead of any “industry standards.”

That can be important for a story in a number of ways.

For instance, when a story comes in too far short of the “industry standard” 80K words, the author’s going to have to “pad” the story. The gatekeepers will not consider peddling anything under the industry standard length. The cost of producing mass market paperbacks says they have to optimize the runs, and the word count they know works best is that 80-100K word range.

The right number of pages is produced and the right amount of shelf space is occupied. Since legacy publishing only considers physical shelves, without regard for electronic shelves in the 21st century, they still screen hard for something in that word count range.

Similar problems exist if the story is “too long” – that is, over 100K words. Unless you’re Stephen King or George R.R. Martin or some other big-time bestseller, if it’s more than 100K words and it’s not high fantasy or another “long book” genre, the story will have to be trimmed. No matter how much the cutting damages the story.

Before a story ever gets read, the word count can send it into the reject bin.

The analogy Dean used is a freeway. A story is a freeway whose length runs from start to end. If the freeway ends up being 50K words, then staying on the freeway for the entire trip won’t be possible if traditional publishing is sought.

Nope, you’re going to have to get the characters and story off the freeway for 30,000 words and have them meander down side roads and country lanes, then somehow tie that back to the main story. Or worse, according to DWS, you’ll have to add in three 10,000 word side trips, and hope you don’t lose the reader along the way.

I can hear the objections. “That’s what subplots are for.” But…are they? I disagree. Subplots are supposed to enhance and reveal the main story, to support it, not pad word count.

(The best example of subplots explained I’ve ever seen was in David Baboulene’s book “Story,” which I highly recommend. Check it out.)

So, padding can be a dangerous thing for a story, because the sideways trips off the main path can cause the story to be rejected, either by the gatekeeper system, or far worse in my estimation, by readers.

Padding can also take the story in unintended directions. The writer may inject things which either aren’t relevant or are directly detrimental. There’s a greater chance for failure the farther the story drifts from its intended course. Most of the time, the padding won’t add anything to the story, since it shouldn’t be there in the first place, and of course, the “rules” tell writers to cut things that don’t add to the story. Now the writer is on the horns of a dilemma.

It works the other way too. Cutting a long story to make it fit “standards” might cause the writer to remove something important, or lessen the reader experience. It could also cause a writer to spend a portion of their writer’s journey in search of better words to use, to tighten the prose, focusing on the words instead of on the story.

And it doesn’t happen as a natural outcome of progressing on the journey, it’s forced. That stunts the writer’s growth. It’s like chopping off your legs at the shins to fit into a “standard” sized box.

Is it any wonder a lot of stories are never finished and languish in dark drawers or unread sectors of hard drives?

But, when indie publishing, the writer writes to the story, not to word count. That is, we give the story its requirements, and don’t set word count as one of them.

My last book weighed in at a trim 71K words. Not enough for traditional publishing’s requirements, but long enough to tell that story. I found, as I drew near the end, there was no need for expansion.

The story closed itself off nicely, tied up the loose ends, and the few people who offered me reader feedback all said it was a great story with a satisfying ending. No one left wanting more, and no one bored because it drew out too long. The story hit the Goldilocks zone for its own length, and while it won’t meet any publishing requirements, it met the requirements of the story itself, which is all I wanted.

I set out to write the story to its needs, not word count. I don’t recall using that criteria before. I normally keep a nagging total word count spec in the back of my mind when writing, then work toward it. This time, writing into the dark, I only wanted to tell the story. It’s what the writing method prescribed anyway – full story focus.

Let the creative mind find where to start, find where to end. Trust the creative mind, trust the process.

This time, I did.

And it worked really well.


One thought on “How Long a Chain

  1. Word count really should be irrelevant – whether it’s 6 words or 60,000, as long as the story is told and told well. It’s really sad that the gatekeepers try to make writers write to book shelves and not readers.

    Very, very true. I can see problems with cost, really, I can. But I wonder whether readers or publishers decided shorter books weren’t worth publishing. And based on some reader comments I’ve seen all over the Kindle boards in my exploration of them, plenty of people are willing and eager to pay for thick, meaty novels of 200K or more. So…another arbitrary gatekeeping position? or is there legitimate data to back it?

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