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Friday, May 27

What to Do When Your Novel's Too Short

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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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