Rightsizing

Rightsizing

Several weeks ago Asma asked a question related to the length of a piece of writing. She suggested (Asma, please correct me if I got this wrong) that long is daunting. I posted a comment advising her not to worry about length. Good short is as good as good long.

Since then I’ve been thinking about length. Before I’d had anything published, in the mid-1990s when I was working on Ella Enchanted, I was told by my mentor at a conference that my book had better be under two hundred pages, and Ella was longer than that. Maybe that was the rule at the time, but nowadays very long books seem to be fine. Publishers buy them, and they make their way into readers hearts.

The shortest novel for kids that I know of is Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which is sixty-four pages short and won a Newbery award. Of course there is debate about whether it’s a novel or a novella, and I don’t know the answer. I’d guess that you usually need at least 125 pages for a book to be without a doubt a novel.

There is one law about length: Do not pad.

With one exception. If you have a school assignment, like a paper that has to be ten pages long or you will flunk and won’t be able to get into college and will be doomed to a life of drudgery and penury (look it up, kids), and if you do your best, but when you get to page nine-and-a-half, you have exhausted everything you have learned about the subject, then you have my blessing to pad, to string adjectives together and pile on the adverbs, to make your handwriting wide and rounded or to find a font, like this one, that takes up a lot of space. But aside from such an extreme situation, don’t. If your book turns out to be a novella rather than a novel or your short story is super short and yet unfolds fully, celebrate and forget about length.

A truism is that a book (or a story) should be as long as it takes, long enough to tell the tale, and no more. This is less than helpful. “Cinderella,” for example, told as a classic fairy tale, takes up only a few pages. Her story – and most stories – can be summarized in several sentences. Yet I wrote it as a novel, and I found out recently that two more novelized versions have just come out.

When I’m in the midst of writing, I never know how long a book is going to be. More than once I’ve thought I had a trilogy going, and sometimes I’ve worried that my story wasn’t complex enough for a whole book. I even fret that a blog post won’t be long enough to be satisfying.

Satisfaction is the key to length. Your main character shouldn’t solve each of her problems too quickly or your reader will be disappointed. On the other hand, if she tries again and again, and her attempts are similar, the reader may become as frustrated as she is. For instance, I based Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” The hero of the story has to ride a horse to the top of – you guessed it – a glass hill in order to win the princess. Conveniently, he has tamed three marvelous horses, each of which arrived with a full suit of armor, copper armor, silver, and gold. The horses with the copper armor and silver armor are able to climb partway but fail to make it to the top, but the horse with golden armor pulls off the feat. The reader roots for the hero at each attempt, but doesn’t really want him to make it on the first two tries, because the excitement would be over too soon. Success on the third effort is just right. If there were seventeen horses and seventeen attempts, we would want to take a hammer to the hill.

Three is often a pleasing number, so much so that it’s called “the rule of three.” Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The evil stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times. The queen guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name three times.

But, despite the rule, to always create three attempts is formulaic. Sometimes your hero should succeed on his first shot and sometimes on the fifth, and sometimes not at all, at least for the time being. Variety adds richness and interest – and length.

In the upcoming third book about the fairies of Neverland, Gwendolyn, the human character, is searching for the fairies, who are hiding from her. She finds the spot where she thinks they live and speaks to them, but they don’t show themselves. She reveals the gifts she’s brought, which also fails to call them forth, so she looks for a dove who would know where they are, but the dove is hiding too. After wandering to other possible places, she sleeps pathetically alone in the forest. When she wakes up, she returns to the original location, gets angry, and throws a mermaid’s lute. This act brings out a fairy. I count five attempts, the right number in this case.

Later in the story Gwendolyn asks Peter Pan for advice to help her help the fairies. She does this once, and it’s enough.

Prompt: It’s early in your story. Your main character has to find the magic cell phone that will let him start his quest. If you don’t like fantasy, it’s a real cell phone, which he needs so he can reach someone who will give him a clue. The phone is hidden in a public garden. Write his attempts to find the cell phone. Vary the way he tries. Who helps him? Who gets in the way? If you like, turn the exercise into a story. Don’t worry about length. Have fun, and save what you write.

  1. I was so glad to find out that you had started a blog – I had nearly given up after searching for some official-personal website of yours for several years. All your posts have been very encouraging and helpful. Thank you for them!
    One question I had – how have your novels differed from the first draft to the final published version? Was your first draft (for, say, Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my fav books) cringe-worthy? How many times did you have to edit them to make them into the story that we love?
    Or do published authors just have something special in their novels that we mere hopefuls can not compare to? I would love your take on this.
    I bought your book Writing Magic some time ago, and I really enjoyed reading it(especially the 'save what you wrote' bits. And creating new files after every edit? I was thrilled to find you did that too!!). Your book was very helpful, and inspiring!
    Related to this week's post – I think what you said is absolutely true. Length does not matter. However, I still can't stop myself for aiming at 100K – the 'right' size for a novel in my eyes. Unless, of course, I have a story as brilliant as Ella Enchanted, which, if I am not wrong, was less than 100K, but the story was endlessly mesmerizing.

  2. Great post! I often worry about length – I'm currently worrying that my story will be too short. I'm sure in the end it'll be perfect or even too long, as I have found with my college essays… I try to predict what my novel would look like in book form! It's so hard to see how many book pages I'll get out of a Word document, you know?

    Anyway, right now I'm nearing 70k words. I see myself around 85k for the first draft, which I'm comfortable with, especially for a historical romance novel. I just hope everyone else is ok with that!

  3. Hi,
    I was just wondering, how do you convince yourself to start working on something? Usually, as soon as I start a piece I can't stop, but starting is hard for me, especially long pieces. The longer the piece, the harder it is. Whenever I go to my computer, I open the draft, then do my best to subconsiously put off writing. I check my email. I play a game I haven't finished. I check forums. I do homework. I tried your trick of starting from the middle, but it was the same problem over again.
    Any advice?

    Thank you for responding, but I was actually refering to the process of beginning to write, after an idea has formed in your mind. I have attempted your advice to start in the middle, but usually I don't know where to go from there or where I've come from. If I try to begin at the beginning, I usually don't know where to start, get bored, or become obsessed with perfection. I usually don't have this problem with short stories (my reference to length)as the entire plot is so short as to have fully materialized in my mind, and all I have to do is write it down. Longer pieces are my real difficulty.
    Ella Enchanted is actually only about 53,000 words! According to Google, which isn't always accurate, however.
    This is a very interesting blog, I plan on reading it in more detail when possible. Writing Magic was very useful. I find that when I read, I'm more critical- analyzing how the author could have arranged her sentences, analyzing the way certain action sequences were made. I've noticed that a lot of fantasy stories have this problem of making action boring. Robert Jordan, however, is very good at making it interesting- has anyone else read the Wheel of Time series? I've only read the first, however, I plan on reading the rest.

  4. Gail, thanks so much for this post! I read "Sarah Plain and Tall" a while ago, but did not remember it being so short!

    Length has been an issue for my writing for a while.

    Also, I like a bit of mystery in my writing, but cannot seem to hold back information very well, and there is no suspense. Any suggestions?

  5. F–Glad you found me! Some of my drafts that I have actually submitted to editors have been in bad shape. My editor called the main character of THE FAIRY'S RETURN a "buffoon" on the first draft. Check out my posts of 10/14 and 11/18 on this subject.
    Chantal–Here's a trick. If you write in Courier New font, you may be close to an actual page count, ballpark at least.
    Asma–I've added your comment to my list of topics.
    Curious Mind–Check out my post on September 30. I do plan to post about writing a mystery soon.

  6. Pardon me for posting here, but I've no other way to contact you. I've a woman in my life who, hopefully would be my fiance. She has had… a hard life, to put it conservatively. Her most cherished item is your book Ella Enchanted. It has brought her more delight in dark moments than most things. I've searched the web looking for an autographed copy, and have been unsuccessful. Is there anywhere I might be able to get such a copy that you're aware of? I think it would be a wonderful gift if I can find one. Thankyou for your time and advice. I shall keep checking here for a reply or will happily give you an e-mail address with which we can converse more over it. Again, thankyou for your time and attention.
    Dan Smith

  7. Thank you! Those posts are definitely helpful – I had forgotten about the 10/14 one. I think your website will be the first one I stop at for writing tips. Really, this blog is very helpful, thank you for putting it up!!

  8. Dan–Books of Wonder, a great kids' book store in New York City, has five signed copies left from a signing I did a few weeks ago. You can call (212) 989-3270 to arrange the sale and shipping. You can't buy it online from them. I'm so glad your girlfriend finds ELLA ENCHANTED a comfort.

  9. Hello
    You have probably posted a column on this, but how do you come up with creative names for your characters. When you have a story in a certain country you can decide upon a conventional name that is common. But when you make up your own world in a story, how do you create a good name?

  10. You are definitely one of my favorite authors! I received Fairest for Christmas and finished it today! What a wonderful book! Thank-you so much for being such a wonderful and inspiring writer!

  11. Hi Gail!
    I've been a fan for a long time and I was so happy to see that you respond to comments on your blog! It's so kind of you.
    I have two questions, and I'm wondering if you could answer them, please? 🙂
    The first one is about something you wrote in an earlier post. You said:"Stay away from easy morals, and don't highlight them.Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Some may object to moral ambiguity, especially for children, but grays make a story more complex and less ordinary."
    I love to read stories with morals, especially when they are a little more, as you said, ambiguous. As long as they're there, and built up, and rich, I'm happy. But I'm a little confused as to how to give my own stories morals, and to make them a little ambiguous. Do I write the story, and hope that I'll see a moral on the way? And that I'll then be able to more consciously weave it into my story? I think this sounds like a good way, because then the moral builds with the story, but I'm not sure if it will create as rich of a moral as other ways. Should I consciously weave a moral in from the beginning? And if so, how would I go about doing that?
    When I write, I have two issues with finishing. My first is that I almost write the story up in my head, and when I attempt to put it to paper, it feels tedious and I usually leave it unwritten. My next is most likely born from the first. 🙂 It's that, after I've written the whole thing down or put it together inside my head, I realize I also want to do something else with the story. Then the new idea begins to take over, and I start second guessing my original ideas. And then I feel extremely lost!
    Thank you so much for creating this blog, it's truly amazing.

  12. Tenth Muse–I think a lot of the moral making happens in the subconscious, at least for me, and I don't try to influence it. Try these: Try writing a story with a very obvious, very moral moral. Then try writing one with an amoral message, like hurting people is good. This is just an experiment. See how you find yourself handling the stories.
    As for finishing, I'd like to save that for a future post. Thanks for the question!

  13. Gail,
    Thankyou For the phone number and the information. I did call and it seems they have several other books signed by yourself, but not ELLA ENCHANTED. I know I must seem a bother, but is there any other place you might reccomend me to? I'm hopeing to tie an engagement ring to the book marker when I give it to her, and I think it would be the iceing on her cake, as it were, when I ask her to marry me. (I know, hopless romantic huh?)
    Thankyou in advance,
    Dan Smith

  14. Really good post as usual!

    Usually when I write, I end up stopping because I get an idea, start writing a bunch of pages, and then think of a new one that I end up doing instead. I got like, 4 different stories, all not finished, as a result.

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