Sunday, June 10, 2018

Fixing a Novel That's Too Short

You'd be pretty mad if you went to the movie theater, spent $9 on a movie ticket, and settled in with your tub of buttery popcorn, only to have the movie end thirty minutes later. When you see a movie, you expect it to be a certain length.

Similarly, readers expect novels to be a certain length. Agents and publishers also have expectations and may reject an otherwise wonderful book because of a small word count.

What's acceptable will depend on your genre and age group. Romance novels tend to be shorter than epic fantasies, and the children's novels are usually shorter than novels for adults.

When assessing the length of your manuscript, look at the word count, not the page count. Compare this word count to the standard range for your genre.

If you don't know the range for your genre, you should be able to find this information pretty easily. If you're writing for children (picture books to young adult), I recommend using the guidelines on Jennifer Laughran's old blog. Otherwise, you can get a good idea of acceptable word counts for most genres at LitRejections.

If your novel is too short, you'll need to figure out how to add more words. Don't just add fluff! If you do this, you'll have a novel that's long enough, but no one will want to read it because it's boring.

Instead, figure out why it's too short  what is it lacking?

Here are some possible ways to increase your word count.

Add obstacles. If your novel is too short, it may be because the plot is linear. Does the character achieve goals too easily? Is the plot predictable? If so, add some setbacks and complications for the character to overcome. Ideally, some of these problems will stem from the character's own flaws and mistakes.

Add world-building details.
Infodumping -- inserting long summaries explaining the world and background -- is generally a problem, but you do want to include enough details to bring the world to life. Weave details and descriptions in throughout the story. Try to insert them where they are relevant and natural. 


Show, don't tell. Every writer has heard this advice at some point  because it's important. While occasionally it's okay to tell something to convey the information quickly and get it out of the way, too much telling can make a story seem dull.  

telling: 
The house was old and dilapidated.

showing: 
The house used to be green, or maybe it was blue. So much paint had peeled off that no one could say for sure. Shards of glass dangled from the window frames, and there were holes in the roof that raccoons used to access the attic. 

Make sure you're writing scenes, not just summaries. This is a mistake I see a lot from new writers, and it's a big one. It's related to the issue of showing versus telling. When you write a scene, you want the readers to feel as if they're experiencing the scene as it happens, not getting a summary of it after the fact. While some minor events, background information, and transitions may be summarized, the important events should not be written this way. Provide enough detail  including the dialogue, action, and emotions  to bring the scene to life. 

Add characters. Not all tension comes from action. Some of it comes from relationships. Adding a character or two can help increase the word count while adding depth to the main character and the plot. 

Add subplots. These subplots should help develop the plot, characters, and/or themes of the novel. Weave them in throughout the novel. 

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