How Long Should a Novel Be? (and other anxious doubts)


This weekend marked an enormous milestone for me: I completed the first working draft of my novel.

I did not celebrate.

In fact, I cried.

Here’s why.


Set up and digging in for a marathon weekend of writing my novel, “The Perfect Traveler”

I’ve been working on this story for a year now and finished the first structural draft last fall. It had a different working title then- “Where Do We Go From Here?” but a friend of mine has a happy musical number of that same name and it threw off the sound in my head. My story isn’t necessarily happy. It’s a psychological love story between two travelers and it spins off an idea I got from the recent Amazon Kindle ad campaign #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. It sometimes gets quite dark. So I changed the title. I also scrapped the back half of the draft last May.

My goal was to get a solid second draft of, “The Perfect Traveler” crafted by the end of September so that I could have a cleaned up third draft ready to show to a professional editor by the end of the year. I hadn’t yet decided if I wanted to try and pitch it to Amazon or not (because it’s fun throwing a pebble into a gianormous ocean to see the ripple effect, right?) or if I just want to self-publish and consider it measurable progress towards my lifetime goal of being a successful novelist.

I take goal setting seriously.

I also take my family, full-time employment, friends and a host of other projects (like #100runningdays and #storyswatch) seriously. The calendar was racing past. I ticked off the squares. I saw the holiday decor hit the stores. Someone threw out there were only 12 more Saturdays until Christmas. I broke into hives of anxiety. I was getting close to a full-on freak-out of failure. And then, miraculously, this weekend opened up.

My kids went to see their dad for the first visit in a long while. My husband went to visit his brothers for a football fest. Three whole days opened up. It was the parting of the Red Sea of Obligations for me to be home alone and write. This. Was. My. Chance.

As you can see in the photo above, I was well fortified. Twizzlers, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, a meatball pizza from my favorite brick oven place, Sour Patch Kids, and coffee. I cleaned the house first (can’t write with a dirty sink) and I shut off all the social media. I hid my phone. As they say, I decided to, “put my butt in the chair and write” until that draft was complete, story told, ready to print and mark up.

6 hours on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 10 on Sunday. I could feel the momentum build. Then, my butt went numb. The deeper I got into the story, the more I was loving it. This is meaningful to me because a few years ago I abandoned a manuscript at the 75% mark after coming to loathe it. This one has good juju. I love my characters. I love seeing the progress I’ve made in cutting unnecessary words. My husband came home as I was finishing the second-to-the-last chapter and I hollered, “Baby! You’d better be ready to celebrate because I’m going to make this deadline!”

Context clue: I get frothy about celebrating milestones. I make them up and I make a big deal out of achieving them. My birthday lasts a full month, my projects all get hashtags, and I rejoice over baby steps.

And then, there it was: the final word at the end of chapter 22. I’d told the story from start to finish. Can we say I’d looked forward to that moment for my entire cognizant life? Yes, we can. It was after dark on Sunday night, the pizza and wine were gone, and I’d hid the rest of the Twizzlers from the kids. Everyone came home. Out of time, I told Scrivener to compile and took a look at the word count.

25,000 words.

Nanowrimo lathers writers into 50,000 word drafts in a month. Standard novels have a suggested length of 80,000. There are notable exceptions like Harry Potter’s bloated lengths and Hemingway’s brevity for Old Man and the Sea. But, for average Jo March’s like me, we have to follow the standard rules of publishing.

I’m really short on words. It’s probably the first time in my life I can say that.

Cue the tears and self-doubt. I wrote harder than I’ve ever written in my life this weekend on something I want more than almost any other life accomplishment. Writing comes right after my kids. Maybe I just don’t have the chops to tell a story well at that length. I have other stories that are long; Nano-drafts that sit near 100k of pure crap. But this time I was sparse on purpose, trying to write clean. An editor will still need room to chop. Doubling my word count is essentially re-doing the entire previous year. It’s like telling the marathon runner, “now turn around and run back.” Most would probably walk away.

Today I’ve worked on processing. My daughter sagely suggested that rather than try to overwrite scenes I worked hard to tell sparsely but completely, I should simply try to add in 25 more scenes. My good friends suggested I take note on the devastation I’m feeling and remember that it’s useful. They threw out titles that are beautifully told in fewer words. A few suggested its a novella. Another said maybe Amazon would even prefer a novella so it can be pitched as a quick travel read on the plane. (One can hope.)

I sent it to print. I’ll be taking Stephen King’s advice later today. My draft, which I still feel so proud and protective of, that I love so very much, will be put into a drawer and set aside for a few weeks. I’m going to read, ruminate, work, keep up my projects, and let some insight steep.

I want my story to be whatever length it needs to be.

Story World: Why I Heard My Characters Using the Trans-Atlantic Vocal Accent

My new WIP (Work in Progress) features characters that sprang to life after I saw a travel ad in the Sunday New York Times. They told me their old world names and I wrote their story in a flurry of energy. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve written but the questions started as soon as I was finished.

It was hard for me to place them in a particular setting. Their voices sounded old but their resources were more modern than the era when they were first popular names for children. And, the tension in their sunroom was punctuated with habits and manners that seemed older than the furnishings. Why were these old sounding people in this new sounding environment? I’m not very experienced with this kind of writing flow; I generally sit and predetermine the details and then write. This time, instead of ruminating on what might be a good idea, I found myself in a listening position.

Who are these people? Where do they live? Why do they feel this way? How did they get here?

Those are the questions I asked the air…and then I went to walk the dog, wash the dishes, reboot the laundry, drive carpool…. and listened for the answers. I knew I’d feel it somewhere in the middle of my gut and my brain. This is how I discovered their home city, the kinds of vacations they take, and the clothes they wear.

Unfortunately, (unless I come across some kind of blessed travel budget money) they live in a place where I’ve never been. Here’s another unfamiliar territory: I have always written in a setting I know inside and out. I’m not an experienced fantasy writer and I haven’t created a story world that I didn’t actually have life experience living in since I was a kid playing make believe.

I asked my not-blood-brother for advice because he has lived there. He offered a great insight to a region only the locals would really know, which set me off on a Saturday of fun research and then to the next question: when do these people live?

I texted M: What’s more interesting? Historical fiction in an actual time period or a future time period obsessed with that time in the past?

He texted back: Future. Definitely. Less work for you.

M’s an actor and a major movie buff. He gets the magnitude of research it takes to create an accurately layered story setting and the attention to detail I’d have to give it. He also knows me really, really well and probably responded to some extent on the instinct that I’m much better at big picture visions than tiny image details. I trust him.

A future obsessed with a certain time period in the past, like a rabid trend, a safe place, a goes-around-comes-around cycle…that explains every dilemma my short story presented. I got three more subchapter scenes in from the excitement of that answer alone.

These characters sound the way they do because it’s the sound of their generation. They dress the way they do because it’s the fashion of the time. They have access to what they have because they live in a modern city; not an antiquated past. Their world will contain remnant threads of every generation in between, an amalgamation of elements that are okay to include in my story and allows me to keep the focus on the tension and drama between them. That feels appropriate. The story world is only the back drop. It’s not the point.

Weathered old style beach house on Fernandina Beach, Florida. This is the kind of house I imagine when I read Madeleine L'Engles The Other Side of the Sun.

Weathered old style beach house on Fernandina Beach, Florida. This is the kind of house I imagine when I read Madeleine L’Engle’s The Other Side of the Sun.

Novel Notes: The End of Act 1

I’ve got a scene by scene plan for all of Act 1 and now I have a decision to make. Should I continue plotting acts 2 and 3 now? Or, is it better to write the draft for all of Act 1 and then plot the remaining acts?

It feels like I’m hiking and just came upon a fork. One way ahead is an immediate uphill climb when I’m already a little winded. The other, a loop back to the beginning with enough mileage to satisfy that I’ve put forward a good effort.

There it is: my answer. Finishing a novel means I’m in this for the long haul- not just the glory of being forever in the process. I can take the easy way out and never finish, or I can keep putting one word in front of the other and working my way forward.

Act 2, here I come.

Photo taken at The Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.

Photo taken at The Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.

Novel Notes: Creating a Scene Plan

5 scenes in I can already tell a spreadsheet scene plan is going to be a powerful tool for me to use.  I think I got the idea from Novel Writing for Dummies, though I’m not positive; I’ve got several help-books going at once. By using my 3 act summary in Scrivner and character list, I can now further break down each act into individual scenes, track who the characters are, and what needs to be accomplished within each scene to keep things progressing. One act in, I can already see how this illuminates the path ahead.

Photo taken at Clark's Fish Camp in Mandarin

Photo taken at Clark’s Fish Camp in Mandarin