Thursday, April 29, 2010

Aspiring Advice: How Long Should It Be?

All right, fellow writers and Laire followers. It took me a few days, but that gray and gloomy post-conference cloud has passed, leaving me with a stronger drive than ever before. That's why today I'm going to write this post on time, based on a question from one of our readers.
But first, I would like to welcome a new follower to the Laire: Valerie Wangnet, coming to us from Sydney! It's so cool to have a follower from outside the USA, and we've never met! I happen to have a cousin living around there. One of these days I would love to visit the land down under. I don't know why. I just do. One day, hopefully.
Welcome aboard, Valerie.

And now, the advice:
Just how long should it be, your story, that is? Mckensie, one of our readers and a budding writer, asked me this: How long should my chapters be? How long should my book be? (this may not be your exact words, Mckensie, so I hope I paraphrased well enough). The answer is both simple and tricky. Your chapters should be as long as they need to be, in order to carry out the message you're giving, and your book should be as long as it needs to be, in order to tell the whole story. Read any book and you will see that the purpose behind a chapter is to break a book up into sections, giving the reader a chance to pause if they want to (but end your chapters in a way that the reader will want to come back soon). That means, every chapter ought to focus on one or a few plot points or devices that move your story along. The trick is knowing where to start and stop. Each chapter should have a beginning and an end hook, and something of interest in between.
Let's take Harry Potter, for example. What is the first chapter of The Sorcerer's Stone about? Introduction of the Dursleys and a few wizards who leave a baby on their doorstep. Chapter 2? Harry is almost 11, he and the Dursleys go to the zoo, and Harry talks to a snake. Why did it have to be snakes? Chapter 3? (one of my favorites parts) The letters start coming, the Dursleys flee, and a large man finds them. See how these are all broken up? Can you imagine reading all of this in one chapter?
Pretty grueling, I'd say.

Now, about the length of your story.
Don't worry about how many pages you have. Pages from your computer screen do not equal pages on a printed/bound book. Focus your attention, instead, on your word count. On any word document, or document on a computer, you can look up your word count. Use this as a general gauge to measure your story length. I have a list here of what word count is appropriate for whichever market you're going for (Note: K stands for thousand).
A short story is under 8K words.
A novelette is between 8K and 18K words.
A novella is between 18K and 40K (chapter books).
A novel is between 40K and 90K (MG and YA).
An epic is over 100K words (Adult).
Another thing to remember is Story Arch.
In every (good) story, there is the following:
Introduction = beginning, setting, the start.
Rising Action = events that lead to the climax. Conflicts or struggles of the protagonist.
Climax = the point of greatest tension/turning point in the action.
Falling action = the sequence of events that follow the climax and ends in the resolution.
Resolution = the problem of the story is resolved or worked out.
In today's market, short chapters are the in for middle-grade and YA (about 3K a chapter) but for me, I try to write no more than 5K a chapter. That gives me enough room to say what I want before coming to a close. However, in an epic I've started, the prologue is about 9K words. All the other chapters after that are between 5K and 9K. It's going to be a big book. Right now it stands at 53K, and that's just part 1 of 5! For my current YA novel, I'm aiming for about 85K, which will be my shortest book to date. I need to write more of them.
If you have questions that you would like answered, feel free to drop me a post. I'll be happy to spotlight you and your questions for the next column of Aspiring Advice. Click back next week for some updates and maybe a movie review, as I'm considering writing reviews for movies whenever I get a chance to see one.
I'm David, and there's frost outside!


  1. wow thanks so much i will try to figure it out but i will need some help so when i think i have finished my first chapter will you read it and give me some more advice. your advice is very helpful thanks so much for being so willing to help me out. Well hope to hear from you soon have a good rest of the week.


  2. Mckensie,

    You're very welcome. Anytime.
    Keep jotting. I'm curious to see your finished chapter.