How Long Should My Novel Be?

I have written so many books over the years, and yet until now I’ve had basically no idea what I’ve been doing, which is probably why until this year none of them have been published. I read as much as I could find about how to write a book and tried to apply the advice, but so much of it was simply too vague.

“Work on it!” they said.
“Plan it!” they said.
“Stick to a writing schedule!” they said.

Yeah, OK. But how do I plan it? How many words long does a book have to be? How many chapters should my novel have? How many words per page? How many pages per chapter? How many chapters per book? How do I know which bit goes where? How will I know when it’s finished? FUUUCCCKKK HELP MEEEEE

That’s pretty much the level I’d achieved when I set about writing a book a couple of years ago. I’m good at sticking to schedules though, and I made myself write every day. And then once it was done I made myself re-read it and edit it, and I didn’t hate it, which I took to be a good sign. But something inside me knew it wasn’t ready, and even though I sent it off to a publisher, I was half-hearted about it and unsurprised when the rejection letter arrived.

2015’s not-very-organised novel writing sessions

Then at the beginning of this year I got an email from Meeta at Packt Publishing. She offered me a book deal, and I refused it. I was surprised by my refusal, because surely BOOK DEAL!!! OMGYESTHISISMYDREAMCOMETRUE!!! etc. But she wanted a book about Windows forensics, and I didn’t feel qualified to write it. Not a whole book of in-depth technical detail.

But Meeta didn’t take no for an answer, and after a few weeks I caved in and said fine, she could have her book as long as I could have a co-author to write the more technical bits. I found Oleg – or he found me, really – through Twitter, and thus a book was born. Well actually, it’s coming out in August, so it’s not technically been born yet. I guess it’s just been… growing? a book-foetus? impregnated… somewhere? OH GOD HAVE I HAD BOOK SEX?

breathe, scar

Anyway, the team at Packt have been brilliant, and they not only sent over example chapters from previous books so we’d know what they wanted, they also shared a very handy Google doc which broke down the book into chapters, and then each chapter into sections. This meant rather than sitting down in front of my computer and randomly bashing out whatever words came into my head on a tangentially-related subject, I knew exactly what I’d be writing about each day.

Thursday morning? Great. It must be Identifying Evidence Sources day. Wednesday afternoon? Time for Event Log Parsing With FTK.

I’d sort of tried to do this with my novel – I’d had an idea of where the story was going, and the chapters had been kind of planned – but it was nowhere near as granular. Instead I’d merrily skipped along, assuming my brain would just come up with something despite the lack of structure and spew it out onto the page in a useful way.

The novel of 2015 had planned chapters like:

  • Goes to the graveyard
  • Has the Horrible Phone Call and goes to plan the funeral
  • Spends night in abandoned house

(It’s a very cheerful novel.)

And I did sort of know what each of those chapters would have in it, but I think I assumed that the actual story part would just kind of unfold itself as I went along. I knew roughly what the beginning, middle and end were, but not in any great detail. This probably showed when people asked me what the book was about, and I’d stumble over my words: “Um, a woman’s friend dies, and then she sort of… goes back there and… remembers… stuff?” *trails off into the distance*

The lack of organisation also lead to things like this in the editing period:

Planning chapters properly should avoid this. I hope.

Now that my first book is a fully formed foetus, crowning out of my mind-vagina and about to be pushed into the world with a scream and a hefty dose of shitting all over a maternity bed (OH GOD STOP WITH THE BIRTH METAPHORS ALREADY), I am of course turning my thoughts to what I’m going to write next.

Side note: I just googled all sorts of weird birth-related terms to work out how to write that horrifically disturbing sentence properly. Apparently an embryo becomes a foetus about nine weeks after conception. Also, do not ever google “baby crowning”. It is a disgusting experience from which your eyes may never recover.

My publishers have tentatively accepted the idea of another couple of technical books, but I want a break from screenshotting bits of forensic software, so I thought I’d resurrect an idea for a novel which came to me in the bath a while ago, and see if I could apply the concept of actually planning what the fuck I’m going to be writing about to this more creative type of book.

Once I’d deciphered the writing, I fleshed it out a bit in my notebook, and then I sat down at my computer to plan chapters and subsections.

And then I thought, hmm. Wait a minute.

The book I’ve just written is a different kind of beast. (Great, now I’m giving birth to a beast. Alright, alright, I’ll stop.) It is a technical manual which contains a lot of screenshots, so probably significantly fewer words than a novel. So when planning my novel, it would make sense to work out how many words I’ll ultimately need to write, and how many chapters they should be split into, and how many pages each chapter should take up.

I’ve googled this stuff before though and not come back with any kind of useful answer, so I decided to do my own fairly basic research on the matter.

First, I grabbed five novels. I tried to get a cross-section of genres and lengths, but nothing hugely variant – i.e. no Confessions by Jaume Cabré, which is one of my favourite books ever but it’s also freakin’ humongous – and also no Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, which is another of my favourite books in the world but the writing is very big and the book fairly skinny.

These were the ones I ended up with:

In case you can’t see because some of them are hiding, they are:

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse
  • All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
  • Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

First I counted the number of chapters in each book. Then I counted the number of pages in each chapter. Then I picked five pages at random from each book, and counted the number of words on those pages. This was made particularly difficult by the appearance of the cat on my lap part way through the exercise.

Not helpful, Fifi
(cute tho)

Once this was done I averaged everything. First I averaged the number of pages per chapter per book. Then I averaged the number of words per page per book. Then I averaged the averages. Confused yet? Yeah, same. Anyway, I ended up with a big spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers on it, and the numbers are the only things you really need to know.

Overall, the average number of chapters per book was 40.

The average number of pages per chapter was 10. 

The average number of words per page was 293. 

Theoretically, therefore, the average novel is around 117,200 words long. 

Some things to bear in mind:

  • This was by no means a rigorous academic study. I just picked a bunch of books that were lying around and averaged stuff out.
  • Although 10 was the average number of pages per chapter, lots of chapters broke this mould. Most of the books had at least a few chapters that were only a couple of pages long. Three of the books had whopping great huge chapters that increased the average. But in general, 10 seems to be a good number to aim for.
  • Part of the point of this was to force myself to write a novel that’s long enough and not to be too lazy about it. For that reason, when I did my spot-check word counts, I discounted any pages that only had a single paragraph on them (for example, pages at the end of a chapter). This means the average isn’t a true average, but if you want to err on the side of caution, it’s probably good to aim for around 300 words per page.

So there we have it. This is what I’m going to keep in mind as I write my next book (tentatively titled True, although I think that will change), and perhaps it will be helpful to someone else too. As long as they can see beyond the hideous birth analogies.

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