Thursday, December 08, 2005

Size Does Matter

How long should your story be?

a) as long as it takes to tell
b) a predetermined length that automatically fills a slot

If you picked b) you have a much better chance of selling your work.

Short stories usually have length limitations, due to space constraints. It's much easier to find a market for something 5k than 15k.

And whenever you speak of length, speak in terms of word count, NOT page numbers. Someone using hevlecta 10pt single space can cram 700 words on a page, while an arial 14pt double-spacer with a lot of dialog might fit 150. (for the record, use courier 12pt double space, 1 inch margins, unless you know it's okay to do otherwise)

You should find out the writer's guidelines for length for a particular market before you begin--after all, why write anything without knowing who might buy it?

But if I am writing without a market in mind, I try to keep my shorts between 1500 and 7500 words.

If I go over 7500, I cut. And if I've learned one thing, it's that EVERYTHING can be cut.

Why keep it that length? I edited an anthology (coming out next year from Bleak House Books) and I learned that if given the choice between two 3000 words stories, and a 6000 words story, I go with the two.

When you pick up an antho or a magazine, do you read it cover to cover? Or do you skip around, sampling this story and that story? And which stories do you read first?

In my case, it's the shortest ones.

Every word should count in a narrative, and if you can make it shorter, you should. Didn't Hemingway have some kind of comment about, "I apologize for the length, I didn't have time to make it shorter?"

As for novels, there are no rules set in stone, but this is what I've noticed.

First novels have a better chance of selling if they are under 90k.

The reason is wholly monetary. Your publisher will probably lose money on your first book. But a 150k book will cost more to print, more to ship, and less will fit in a carton. Cost of production figures heavily into a publisher's decision whether to buy or not to buy.

Some genres, such as fantasy and historical romance, tend to be lengthier.

If your book is under 60k, it will have a harder time finding a buyer, both through a publisher and through a customer.

Fiction has set prices. Around 6 bucks for a paperback, 13 bucks for trade paper, and 24 dollars for a hardcover. Some are slightly more or less. Bestsellers command higher prices (I've seen a lot of 29 dollar price tags) but then they're discounted 30%.

So chances are your book will be about $24. A consumer will look at a thin 60K word book, and a thicker 100K word book, see they're both the same price, and assume bigger is better.

It's unlikely a publisher will price your book lower because it's shorter, for the same reason Shell sells gas comparable to Mobil--they want to stay competitive.

Are there exceptions? Always. But if you're trying to break into this business, which is hard enough, why stack even more odds against yourself?

Whiskey Sour was 68k. The hardcover was 270 pages, and it was 45 chapters.

Bloody Mary was 71k, 307 pages, 53 chapters.

Rusty Nail was 78k, 289 pages, 54 chapters.

Same font size/style/typesetting for all of them, so why do the numbers seem strange?

The page count/word count ratio changes, depending on how much dialog is in a book. Dialog takes up page space, but involves less words.

Rusty Nail was more action in it than Whiskey Sour, which had more dialog.

This brings up another point: White space.

Be aware of white space. Readers like dialog. They like looking at a page and seeing a lot of white space. Long, clunky paragraphs are intimidating.

Have you ever watched someone browse? They'll flip through a few pages, and you can see the gears in their heads turning as they think: Do I have time to read this? Will it be fun or a chore? Can I finish it in one or two sittings? Does it have long chapters, or short ones I can finish before I go to sleep or while I take a bath?

Think about your own reading habits. What do you like to see on a page? What makes a book look inviting, before you've even read a single word?

In my younger days, when I needed to buy some classic for some college class, I'd crack open different editions and find the one that was the most eye-friendly. Big font, not a lot of words crammed on each page.

Dialog makes a book more eye-friendly. At least, to my inner reader.

If I have a paragraph that lasts for more than half the page, I try to break it up. If I have a chapter that lasts longer than 15 pages (3700 words) I try to break it up.

Your words should be good, but also be aware of how they look on the page. Are they enticing your eyes to lock onto random bits of dialog or action? Or do they look boring?

Readers skip long paragraphs.

I randomly picked 5 pages from each of my three novels, to see how many paragraphs they averaged per page (by couting the indents.)

Whiskey Sour averaged 16.8 paragraphs per page. Bloody Mary was 13.4. Rusty Nail was 14.4.

Overall, if you open one of my books, you'll see 14.8 indents per full page.

Let's look at some other authors (hardcover editions.) Here are some bestsellers:

ONE SHOT by Lee Child - 16.6 paraphs per page
CHILL OF FEAR by Kay Hooper - 11.4 per page
TO THE NINES by Jaent Evanovich - 13.8 per page
SCARECROW by Matt Reilly - 16.4 per page
VANISH by Tess Gerritsen - 15.8 per page
STONE COLD by Robert Parker - 17 per page

Here are some debuts:

HUNDREDTH MAN by Jack Kerley - 13.8 per page
BAHAMARAMA by Bob Morris - 13 per page
MISDEMEANOR MAN by Dylan Schaffer - 16.2 per page
KILLER SWELL by Jeff Shelby - 14 per page
STILL RIVER by Harry Hunsicker - 11.8

What does any of this mean?

Well, if you write mysteries or thrillers, it means to avoid long paragraphs, and have a lot of dialog.

Besides looking good on a page, this also has the side-effect of making the books move faster.

By comparision, I went through some POD books that I have from previous contests I've judged.

I looked through three of them. They averaged 7.2 paragraphs a page.

Draw your own conclusions.