Friday, May 27

What to Do When Your Novel's Too Short

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week’s refresher Friday takes an updated look at what to do when you need to add words to a manuscript. Enjoy!

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 for the market or genre it’s intended for.

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, do a little research.

If the novel is a solid novel at a lower word count, look to see what the word count range of your target market or genre is. For example, while most fantasies are typically long, you do see smaller novels in that genre. A 65K-word fantasy novel might be fine and doesn't need to be expanded to 100K. Mainstream novels run a wide range of counts, so there’s a lot of wiggle room there. Same with the middle grade or young adult markets. You might discover that your novel’s length is unusual, but still within the traditional word count range for that genre or market.

If not...

If the novel is under 40K-words, (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 has made a comeback. In some genres it’s even expected for the author to put out a few in between full-length books. 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 in the 50-60K-word range, (short for most markets outside teens) then you can either submit it 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-word novel is roughly 200 pages (using the standard 250 words per page estimate). 60K-words is 240. Depending on your genre, you'd probably want to get those numbers up into the 60-70K-word range. Adding 10K words translates to roughly 40-50 words per page.

That's a lot of extra words for a novel that's already working, but it’s not insurmountable. Just as you can trim words without hurting, you can add a few back and not hurt anything. You can probably add a few thousand words to the count by tweaking here and there, adding a line of description per page or fleshing out bits of dialogue or internalization.

If that still doesn’t get you to your target word count, there’s a decent chance you will have to add a scene or two. A word of caution here. Shoehorning in scenes can feel like scenes shoved in, so be very careful about where and how you add a scene. It needs to serve the story and not just be extra words.

Diagnose the Problem

Before you add any scenes, try creating an editorial map and looking at the novel’s structure. You might discover your beginning is too short, or there’s not enough happening in the middle. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the perfect place to add a scene and fix the problem. If not, then you’ll at least have a solid map of your book to guide you in your revisions.

(Here’s more on creating an editorial map)

When you’re ready to add words, here are some of the easiest places to potentially flesh out:

Plot Turing Points and Climaxes

These major plot points require steps to reach them, so 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 the novel's core conflict—the inciting event), but act two is filled with most of the plot’s turning points. The middle of the novel is all about trying an failing, so adding one or two more scenes or even chapters might be workable.

Character Arcs and Themes

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 ahead to your ending, because you might be able to make a later moment more poignant by an earlier failure.

(Here’s more on common problems with middles)

The Beginning

If the opening is working, you might not want to mess with it, but you also might be able to further flesh out the set up or mirror something about the ending. Sometimes beginnings jump in too fast and you can slow things down a little without hurting the story.

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 alluded to but never followed up on. Subplots that are wrapped up near the climax are good candidates to add a step or two or make them a tad more complex.

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? Failure here would give you a reason to write at least one additional scene, maybe two or even three.

(Here’s more on creating stronger core conflicts)

Existing Delaying Tactic Scenes

If an obstacle comes up and the only reason it's there is to slow the protagonist down, it's likely a delaying tactic that isn’t actually moving the story along. But this weak spot is a perfect place to add words and fix the problem. Let that obstacle or situation have an effect and do more that just stall the protagonist. Add different stakes, change it so the outcome matters, let it trigger something for the protagonist. Whatever it does, the protagonist is now changed (no matter how small) because they went through this situation.

Secondary Character Arcs

Strong secondary characters might benefit from a character arc of their own, providing smaller subplots or extra layers in existing scenes. Look for any major secondary characters who could show another side of the problem, or mirror the choices the protagonist has to make, or characters who might face problems that would mess up the protagonist’s plans and add conflict to their goals.

(Here’s more on creating character arcs)

Story Themes

Your themes could add a few paragraphs or scenes as well. Look for places where you can deepen or show additional examples of your theme. Perhaps there are places where more description would round out the setting and show how the theme impacts the world on a greater level.

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, but too-short novel?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Okay, so far I've only had the opposite problem. Too many words and unnecessary scenes. But I'll keep this in mind if I have the problem with my current manuscript.

    And congrats on winning the award at The Bookshelf Muse.

  2. This also reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Heather Brewer. Her first book, Eight Grade Bites, was only 180 pages and yet she was able to get it pulished as a YA novel.

    A few months ago, I would had this problem, but I had learn how to flesh out my novel more.

  3. Excellent advice. As a serious over-writer, I marvel at the ability to tell a great story in so few words.

  4. Not to diminish those who've been in this situation, but I WISH I had that problem.

    Seriously though, and this might just be envy on my part, I just can't imagine in this day and age that being "too short" is a problem, even possible, when lots of people, myself included, are struggling for brevity and conciseness.

    That said, I was thinking it might be a good idea to have a future post about what brevity and conciseness mean for the different age groups.

    Since I'm starting to notice that what's concise for grade schoolers (Under 13, but older than 7) can be flat or vague for YA.

    Anyone else find this to be true?

  5. I laughed when I read this. The LAST thing I need to work on is how to add words to a story to bring it up to the genre minimum.(I can get verbal diarrhea at the click of a mouse.) But I do agree on the process of how you need to add words. Don't just dump them in any old place. I personally would start with fleshing out characters, since a too-short work probably has the plot pretty much in place. Better characters will make the plot resonate more with a reader.

  6. Book two of the Deacon Chalk series came in revised at 60,000.

    ONLY 20,000 short. lol.

    I went in, beefed descriptions, found that one thing needed expansion and added a salient flashback and viola! stronger book and it hit my 80,000 word mark.

    So look at what you have and make sure you didn't leave out any big scenes where you can add to the story or characters. Mine had driven from one place to another and that was in flashback, so I went in, told the scene of driving while having a head injury and it was GOLD. lol. Much more interesting than flashbacking.

  7. I had to almost double the length of The Ghost on the Stairs, to match Aladdin's series guidelines for ages 9 to 12. I blogged about the process:

    and also covered it in an essay in my Advanced Plotting book:

    Writing long (and wordy) is more common, but sometimes you do need to expand. More plot is the key!

  8. I just recently beta'ed a novel for someone that was shorter than they wished but worked well, and they had an awesome approach to how they wanted to expand it. They asked me, "As a reader, where/what do you want more?" Quickly, I was able to rattle off five items and that was enough to get her going again.

  9. I do tend to write short. This post actually reminded me a lot of Toy Story (sorry, seen it too many times). The movie could have ended when they escape Sid's yard, but it doesn't. The ensuing action of trying to get back into the truck pushes the ending out, but it also makes a better ending. The movie's about friendship, and trying to get in the truck allows both Woody and Buzz to demonstrate selfless friendship. It also ties up the Woody vs. the Other Toys plotline ("Great, now I have guilt!"). But everything that happened with Sid is still relevant, because we needed that rocket.

    Sorry, I've been thinking a lot about endings!

  10. Oh, yeah. I have about three novellas that I'm thinking about eventually trying to market as a set. The sad part is, I was trying to write short stories at the time...

  11. Maybe I've been too ruthless when it comes to assassinating my darlings, because my novels tend to be on the slim side.
    I think this post ties-in nicely with yesterday's post about speech-tags. My work often includes pages of dialogue. I tend to only use speech-tags sparingly, so my work can look like:
    "speech," (for most of the page)
    by incorporating James B Tuck's suggestions, I can increase my word count by about 10%, and then another 10% with suggestions from today's post. So, I'm lovin this blog!

  12. I've experienced this on a very small level, and going through it and adding scene and mood details helped a lot. Thanks so much for these great tips!

  13. I have the opposite problem...bleh :P Always helpful to read your posts, though!

  14. Useful advice, thank you! Although like many here, I'm more likely to write too long than too short. I've been stricter with myself lately -- there's no need to put every idea I've ever had into my first novel!

  15. This is just what I needed to read. My stalled MG novel is only 10,000. I was beginning to think it would have to be a short story but it really fits the mood of an MG. I know I need to re-work the start and do lots of editing but padding it out sounds like you say to add scenes for the sake of it. I would guess though that a novella for children is harder to sell than a novella for adults. Thanks for the tips!

  16. Natalie, thanks so much! It was quite the surprise. Too many words is more the norm, but short ones do happen :)

    C0, great example. It's more about the book than the word count, and a really great story stands a good chance at finding a home.

    Matthew, one of my favorites quotes is from Mark Twain: "Sorry for the long letter. If I had more time I'd have written a shorter one." Shorter is a lot harder.

    Taurean, that's a great idea! Thanks for the suggestion, and I'll do that for sure. I've noticed a difference in how information in conveyed (and what kinds) myself.

    Chris, hehe, well, I do try to cover everything :)

    Sarah, oh good! See, I knew there were too-shorters out there.

    James, awesome. Great tip.

    Chris E, double? Wow, that's a rough revision, probably harder for being a shorter market to begin with. Thanks for the link!

    Liana, that's a fantastic tip. You don't even need writer betas for that to help. Any reader can answer that question.

    MK, no worries, examples are always helpful. :)

    Chicory, uh-oh, hehe. Maybe you're just a novelist at heart ;)

    Jo-Ann, mine are usually slim as well, and for the same reason. (Do you dislike description by any chance? That's my problem. I always have to go back and add it) That's great that you found tips here. Lovin that too!

    Julie, most welcome. It often takes a lot less work than people think to adjust a word count. Small things add up.

    Laura, you're not alone there, most do have to cut. There are tips here for that as well. :)

    Wendy, exactly! It's hard not to, but it helps to keep an idea file. Of course, then you end up with way too many ideas and not enough time to wrote them, but that's more fun.

  17. Catherine, MG has a wide range of word counts depending on age, so you might look to see where yours fits. If it's younger MG, 10K might not be as short as it feels.

  18. Oh that is so good to hear Janice, thanks! I'll keep plugging away.

  19. Janice, yes! Exactly! I'm poor at descriptions - I'm not a visual thinker at all. I'm much better at dialogue and voice, I guess I'm a verbal thinker. Then again, I assume most writers are as well.

  20. Catherine, good luck!

    Jo-Ann, I think it's probably an even split. I hear a lot of writers talk about how they see the book unfold in their heads. Interesting how the mind works.

  21. I've always been one who doesn't reach the max word count, even in school when writing essays, I tended to just write what I thought needed to be written because I'm a very straight to the point person. This helps keep my focus as I have a very short attention span at times and truthfully, I would love to see a few thinner books available on the market because those thick ones you see most often... they scare me a little.

    As a writer, I do worry that my brevity and lower than normal word counts will count against me but this post has me hopeful that maybe it won't.

    Thanks! ^_^

  22. My current book is at about 43,000 words. Plus, it's a horror novel, so it probably would be unusual fit for the genre. Should I market it as a novella or as a novel? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. :-)

  23. Visionerinthedark, that's short for a novel, so you'd likely have trouble at that word count. Novellas are very hard to sell, though they are on the rise with ebooks. A lot of authors put out a novella between novels.

    If you want to go traditional publishing, I'd suggest developing the story more to hit the average word count for the horror genre. If you want to go self publishing, you could market it as a novella.

  24. Thanks for the supremely helpful post! I often find that my problem is not over-writing but the polar opposite - I'm too terse; and thus my work - aimed usually at 100k words, falls short at 80K or sometimes less.

    I know about Showing VS Telling, but your points really help to illuminate some further possibilities as to the ever elusive "how."

    Thanks again,

  25. Coty, most welcome! Not sure if it applies, but I have noticed a lack of internalization if often found in too-short novels. That might be one area to check on :)

  26. As someone who has run too short on a novel that should have been longer, I don't wish it on anyone. It's a lot easier to cut down than it is to pull the entire book apart and write upwards.

    If you are running significantly too short, look for a major problem with the writing itself (not with the story). I've had problems with structure -- mainly because I'm a pantser, and structure is entirely discussed from only the outliner side. If I follow that standard structure advice, I run too short and my chapters are very choppy, and I can't get subplots into the story. Likewise, I'm very bad at details and tend to leave them all out, so that's contributed to the length issues.

  27. Linda, good tip. I've also noticed that too-short novels tend to be missing a layer. (description, internalization, setting, etc).

    I always have to go back and add details after, too :) Description is my least favorite part.

  28. This is super helpful. I have a comic fantasy that is at roughly 50k. I have a subplot to add, but I'm still concerned that it will be lean. My problem is that I got so excited writing the big scenes that I rushed to those. Now I'm really wishing is just written eadjacent add it came and later priced them together because going back to rewrite thought is confusing.

    Oh, why couldn't I have Scrivener already???

    1. It's easy to download. You can use it for 30 days for free, and those are any day you log in, not consecutive. If you like to write out of order, or move scenes, Scrivener is definitely helpful.

  29. Just found this excellent post, thanks so much! I attempted a novel several years back, and it clocked in at a sad 55k. I've been too scared to try a novel since, though now with this article, it doesn't seem quite as overwhelming. Thanks again!

  30. In attempt to make EVERY word and scene exceptionally important to the plot, I edit so much that I'm left with a nearly bare backbone. I'm at 35,000 words and everything lies neatly in place. This article helped me consider situations that could bulk up my story. I think I can make it to 60k-80k.Thanks!

  31. In attempt to make EVERY word and scene exceptionally important to the plot, I edit so much that I'm left with a nearly bare backbone. I'm at 35,000 words and everything lies neatly in place. This article helped me consider situations that could bulk up my story. I think I can make it to 60k-80k.Thanks!

  32. What about the idea of combining 2 or 3 somewhat linked or related stories into the same novel?

    1. As long as they all make up one overall story, sure. But it's more challenging to do this type of novel. It can come across as three separate books in one. Unless of course, that's the goal, and it's really three linked novellas with their own contained plots set in the same world or following a similar theme or whatnot.

  33. Thank you for this post. I am having this problem, rare as it is.

    1. Hope it helped. Good luck fleshing out the novel :)

  34. My first novel's first draft was about 17k words. The final version ended up more like 79k. >_>

    I've gotten more "accurate" since, but I'm still more prone to writing short than to writing long. I have a story right now that needs about 5k added, and this post should help me find the spots to slip it in. Thanks! ^_^

    1. Wow, that's a lot to add. You pretty much wrote a very detailed synopsis and then the novel, lol.

  35. I typically underwrite first drafts. They come in around 50-55k and I always feel panicky. But when I begin to edit, I discover that I've got action and dialogue, but not much else. By the time I finish polishing I'm around 80k. I guess it's just the way I write. I can't fill in the nuances until I finish the novel.