What if your Novel is Too Short?
A novel can be a slim volume or an impressive tome, but it must be at least 70,000 words long(unless it's a Mills & Boon style romance, or erotica, when you can get away with 50,000).
If your novel is shorter than that, don't cudgel your brain to create more plot. Lack of story is almost certainly not your problem! You may just be one of those writers who writes "short".
Why is my Novel Not Long Enough?
If your background is in journalism, business writing or academia, you've spent years learning how to write "just the facts, ma'am"! The thing is, a novel isn't just about facts - it's about atmosphere, description and feelings, too.
If you write "short", the problem may be that you know what your characters and locations look like, and you know the inner motivations of your characters, and you forget your reader doesn't. I write short, and my first draft always reads like an action movie, cutting from one scene to another with the minimum of detail.
If readers don't have enough information to imagine your characters or where they are, they won't get involved in the story. If the story jumps too quickly from one scene to the next, they'll feel disoriented and rushed. Either way, they're going to give up on your novel. If they don't finish your book, they're not going to buy the next one - and there goes your writing career!
I didn't realise I wrote short until I read a book set on the same Greek island as my own novel.
The author took a page and a half to describe the harbor. To describe the same harbor, I'd written three lines! Personally, I thought a page and a half was too much. But I had to admit, it was a heck of a lot better than my three lines...
If you write short, you need to work on each scene in detail. Ask yourself what you're unconsciously editing out. What have you forgotten to explain to your reader?
- Scene setting. The reader needs to know where your characters are, even if it's a fairly nondescript room. A good exercise is to see if you can use each of the five senses to describe the setting. You may not use them all in the end, but doing the exercise does make you think!
- Character description. This is part of scene setting, really. When your protagonist meets someone for the first time, they make a mental assessment of that person. Make sure you do, too. A short word picture of each character as they appear will make the story seem more alive.
- Show not tell. Unless you're inside a character's head (which is a legitimate place to be sometimes), don't mind-read. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and describe what they see, not what you know about the characters. For instance, never say, "Christine felt a pain in her chest". Instead, say, "Christine's face spasmed in pain and she clutched her chest". The main benefit of this approach is that it makes the scene more alive, but a by-product is that it also uses more words!
- Use dialogue. Don't report on conversations, show them. And don't just relay the speech - make sure you include the movements and reactions of the characters as they're talking.
Is your Novel is too Long?
If by any chance you have the opposite problem - that your novel is too long - you're lucky, because it's easier to remove words than to add them (though I know it's painful to do the slashing!).
You may think your book is great just the way it is, and doesn't need "slashing" - but you're wrong! I often encounter writers who think their writing must be good because the words come so easily. If I may use a slightly distasteful metaphor, remember that when things flow too well, it's often not a good thing - like when you go to the toilet...
Words that flow on to the page usually need stringent editing.
"Long" writers tend to include every single scene that takes place between their characters, even if its not relevant to the story. They may be determined to include every shred of their research, even if it's not really necessary, or describe every minor characters in scrupulous detail.
You may think it's all fascinating - but to your reader, those unnecessary scenes and details are b-o-r-i-n-g. String a few of them together, and readers will put the book down. If a reader doesn't finish the book, they're not going to recommend it to their friends, and they're not going to want to buy your next novel.