Monday, December 21, 2009

How Long Will (or Should) My Manuscript Be?

Recently someone asked me “how do I know how long my manuscript will be?” I answered that person privately but thought it might be a good subject to explore here.

The person inquiring is a seat-of-the-pants writer (or, as my friend Megan DiMaria prefers to call herself, an intuitive writer), not a plotter. Whichever way you write, the same principles apply.

The basic answer is: what kind of book do you want to write? The length the market requires varies generally, according to the genre, and specifically, to the publisher you are targeting.

For instance, I write mostly historical romance and (to date) all for Barbour. The length can vary anywhere from 18,000 words to 100,000+.
Christmas novella: 18,000-20,000 words
Heartsong historical romance: 45,000-50,000 words
Trade book: 100,000 words
But if I want to write to Love Inspired Historical, I’ll need 75,000 words.

Do you know the publisher you hope to submit to? If you’re like me, the answer may be “anyone who is interested.” But the length of your manuscript will determine who it’s suited for. Do you write “long” (100,000 or more words)? Or do you write short (70,000 or less)? I tend to write on the “short” side, so aiming for trade books is a growth process for me. Adapting the story idea to the length you need is a topic for another blog, but my point is: what’s your natural style? Start with a publisher who prints books in your comfortable length.

Over time, I have discovered that I naturally write chapters of 2,500-3,000 words. So if I’ve working on a book for Heartsong, I’ll need 17-20 chapters. If my original story idea only seems to have enough material for 14 chapters, I have a couple of choices: one is to add more depth to the story, another plot thread or two, to add chapters. Or to explore the threads I have in more depth, and make those 14 chapters longer. (3,500 words). That doesn’t mean all my chapters are exactly the same length, or that yours need to be that length. But it helps me pace my writing. I plan the number and length of my chapters before I start writing.

If you are a “pantser”, you’re not working from a strict outline; but you probably have a good idea where your story is going to end. Where do you feel you’re at in your story? Has your character barely started to resolve her issues? Has she made significant progress? Almost there? Gauge how far along your story is in the story arc (one third? One half? Ninety percent?) and project the length of the finished story from there.

So the short answer is:
Know yourself.
Know your publisher.
And pace your story accordingly.

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