How Long Should A First Novel Be?

Elephant

I think that the shorter, the better. You will have fewer occasions to commit literary blunders.

It might be argued that lengthy novels like Moby Dick, Don Quixote, or War and Peace give us more time to make friends (or enemies) with their protagonists, and thus to remember them after we close the book. But think for a moment of the 112-page story of The Little Prince… He’s one of the most unforgettable characters in world literature.

The Little Prince is ostensibly a children’s book though. But there are other examples of short yet memorable novels: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Camus’ Stranger, and Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

Oliver Colors’ biography now exceeds 112,000 words. That’s roughly 450 pages. It’s way too much for a first novel. Come to think of it, I intended it to be a novella…

I don’t have the heart to cut away 250-300 pages to make it a novella. But I have the good sense to cut at least 100-150 pages.

For as someone wiser than me once wrote,

‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think first novels should be as short as the writer’s ego permits.

Do you agree?

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34 thoughts on “How Long Should A First Novel Be?

  1. Elmore Leonard says to his publisher, when they want a 375-page book, that he will end it when the story is over.

    It seems a remarkable coincidence that a row of books in a library or bookstore represent stories that are of similar length.

    I know a guy who can tell a story in fifty words.

    1. I don’t meant to say that stories should have a predetermined length…

      Only that I myself prefer short and to the point to long and rambling.

      The genre must be taken into account of course, and many other factors…

  2. I love the quote as it fits perfectly with the subject matter. I think for a first novel word count can be important only as it is one of the many things an agent would look at before starting to read so it is good to “play by the rules” but overall, I believe exactly as your quote states and, although editing is good to take out all the stuff that is not needed, the story should continue until it has been told the way it needs to be told – no matter the length.

  3. I love that quote!
    In terms of length I was sitting in an office at Orion the other day, talking about my book, which was at 72,000 words and growing. The editor began shifting in her seat and said – it really doesn’t want to be more than 80,000. I think it’s different once you’ve had a novel published – but things are pretty strict for new writers.

    1. I think that when writing your first novel it’s easier to add to the story all your ideas than to filter out the best ones and abandon the others. I certainly observe this when I write Oliver’s story.

      I can understand why publishers set word limits for first novels.

  4. I agree. Short novels and novellas often have far more disciplined writing. It makes me restless if a novelist waffles on. I wonder why the editor didn’t do his or her job properly.

    Just now, I’m writing a minimalist novel, which might end up as a novella. It has taken me one month to write 5,000 words as I consider the worth of each sentence. Exhausting but satisfying.

    Thanks for the post, which I’m going to reblog.

    1. The genre also matters, I think.

      Fantasy authors need to build a believable story word. That takes space.

      Novelists who place their novels in contemporary settings can focus more on the action.

  5. My Memoir started at over 120,000 words..then it was culled to 80,000+ it takes strength to chop words that you write, my editor did a fine job in outlining the unnecessary. The ego of a writer has a tendency to be prolific..we have to decide what is worthy of reading and what we write for our pleasure and what we feel we think needs to be heard . sometimes it is greater/different than what the reader is ready to absorb.

  6. That kind of a question isI think a moot point. A first novel is no different than any other novel except tothe writer nd in that case not even the author can say how long it may be. It depends on the strength and vision of the author but also on the natural life of the story itself.>KB

    1. In principle, I agree.

      But as a reader, I have noticed that I prefer shorter works from authors I am not familiar with.

      Imagine you’re in a bookshop. Two books written by authors you haven’t heard of before catch your eye. They both have fancy covers and promising first sentences. But one is 500 pages long, and the other only 250 pages. Which will you pick?

      Eight times out of ten I would get the 250 pages one.

  7. I enjoyed reading this. I primarily write poetry, though not always short verse. Several of my current writing projects are long narrative poems. So long that I have decided to let them run on into small books. If it does well, then good. If not, then lesson learned. Thanks for stopping by Nox Canto.

  8. Shorter, while not necessarily always better, is probably safer. Not overstaying your welcome on a first outing and all. If nothing else, it’s usually easier to edit up than down!

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