Wednesday, February 8, 2012
You Must Be This Long to Ride This Genre: What to Do When Your Novel's Too Short
Although most word count problems are too many words, the too-short novel does happen. I've talked before about things to do to bulk up a short novel, but today, let's look at a novel that's not just light on something, but is actually, truly too short.
This novel has all the right pieces, a solid plot, good writing, good subplots, a complete and solid story, but it's not where it needs to be word count-wise. Just adding more stuff to it isn't going to solve the problem, because the book is working great right where it's at.
First, try doing a little research.
If the novel really is a solid novel at a lower word count, look to see what the word count range of your target market is. While most fantasies are typically long, you do see smaller novels in that genre. A 65K novel might fit in just fine, and doesn't need to be expanded to 100K. Mainstream novels run a wide range of counts. Same with the MG/YA markets. You might discover that your novel is unusual, but still within the traditional word count range for that genre or market.
If the novel is under 40K, (and not in the middle grade or young adult market) then you likely have a novella. Novellas have always been harder to sell, as there are fewer markets for them. But in today's world of e-books, the novella is starting to make a comeback. It might be worth looking at e-publishers and smaller boutique publishers who aren't as market-constrained as bigger publishers.
If the novel is more in the 50-60K range, (short for most markets outside teens) then you can submit as is, and keep your fingers crossed that this is a book that might be a rare exception. Or you can figure out a way to add enough words to it to squeak into your target market's low-end word count.
A 50K novel is roughly 200 pages (using the standard 250 words per page estimate). 60K is 240. Depending on your genre, you'd probably want to get those numbers up into the 60-70K range. Adding 10K translates to roughly 40-50 words per page, several paragraphs at least.
That's a lot of extra words for a novel that's already working.
While you might be able to add a few thousand to the count by tweaking here and there, adding a line of description or fleshing out bits, you're probably going to have to do a macro addition to reach your target count. A word of caution here. Shoehorning in scenes can feel like scenes shoved in, so be very careful about where and how you add something. It needs to serve the story and not just be extra words.
Easiest places to look for potential additions:
These major plot moments require steps to reach them. Perhaps one more step can be added without hurting the pacing. Chances are you won't find it in act one (there's typically only one thing that triggers your novel's core conflict), but act two is filled with things happening. One or two more scenes or even chapters might be workable.
Since you don't want to put a "just to delay the plot" step in the way, you might try looking at your theme or character arcs here. Perhaps there's a situation that will present a plot obstacle as well as a character issue or thematic illustration. Look forward to your ending, because you might be able to make a later moment more poignant by an earlier failure.
If the opening is working, you might not want to mess with it, but you also might be able to add another chapter to further flesh out the set up or mirror something about the ending.
Perhaps there's more to wrapping up the story than you first thought. You might look for any loose ends or situations you might have alluded to but never followed up on.
A Victory That Could be a Defeat
Again, you don't want to craft a delaying tactic, but look at any situation where the protagonist won without too much of a fight. Are there ways to have them fail or struggle more to get that victory?
If an obstacle comes up and the only reason it's there is to slow the protag down, it's likely a delaying tactic. It might not have any stakes at all, or they might be the same as the last obstacle. Either way, the obstacle doesn't actually do anything to serve the story. If it were gone, no one would notice and the protag wouldn't be affected.
To add a scene with meaning, let that obstacle or situation have an effect. The stakes are different, the outcome matters, it triggers something for the protag. Whatever it is, the protag is changed (no matter how small) because they went through this situation.
Themes and character arcs are great places to look for meaning here. Secondary characters can also help, as you can shift the focus to what they need and what they fear.
A too-short novel can be a troublesome beast, but you can get that word count where you want it to be with a little creative thinking.
Have you ever had a well-plotted too-short novel?