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What if your Novel is Too Short?

Updated on November 04, 2012
Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites, ever since

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.


Submit a Comment

  • Robert Sacchi profile image

    Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

    Thank you. Great tip.

  • Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright 3 months ago from Sydney

    Word economy is a tough habit to break! It's so essential in business writing and non-fiction writing, so the transition to fiction writing is a tough one.

    I've been putting my novel on chapter by chapter recently - it's a great way to find out what's missing. I recommend it

  • Robert Sacchi profile image

    Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

    Thank you. Writing short is a problem that I have been unable to get around. Yes, effective writing classes, word economy. If I understand you correctly instead of writing "a stark apartment" I should describe what is in the apartment, which implicitly tells what is not in the apartment.

  • Ceres Schwarz profile image

    Ceres Schwarz 3 years ago

    Informative and interesting hub. Writing too short or too long isn't good. It's important to describe things well so your readers understand what is going on but it shouldn't be too long that it would just end up boring the readers.

  • Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright 5 years ago from Sydney

    @Sarah, not necessarily. I've known action scenes go that long and the suspense was great.

  • profile image

    Sarah'sDog 5 years ago

    I am only eleven, and have just finished typing my novella into the computer. Seriously, I am a 'short' writer. I had to redo a whole action scene, that, at first, took only a couple paragraphs, but now, it's stretched to a page and a half. Is that too long?"

  • profile image

    Terry 6 years ago

    Excellent article . Easily understood and insightful . Please continue with more .

  • profile image

    Andre Coleman 6 years ago

    Thanks for the information it was very helpful because I thought I was almost done writing my book until I realize I'm only on page 17 and having 12,175 words.

  • Don Simkovich profile image

    Don Simkovich 6 years ago from Pasadena, CA

    Thanks for writing this Marissa. I'm writing my first novel - for an online publisher - I have the interest of an editor who read one of my previous works that didn't fit their genre but she liked my writing. I know what you mean by writing short although I feel I describe well, etc. My background in my undergrad years was Short Story Writing. And I was content to write short all my professional life - radio, brochures, blogs, Hubs!!! I was always scared I would never finish a novel and it took too much time for possibly no payoff. I'm beyond that now. I think mine will be right about 70,000 when I'm done. I've done some rough outlines and I like that.

  • profile image

    Sidney Rayne 7 years ago

    Very informative and you covered a lot of key elements...the five senses comment was dead on the the way I have only gotten to four as well!

  • cindyvine profile image

    Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

    Great advice, Marisa!

  • Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney

    Thanks Sam, glad I could help. I wrote a novel at about your age - I don't think I actually finished it until I was about sixteen though!

  • profile image

    sam 7 years ago

    great advice thanks. I'm 11 years old and ever since I was around four years old I have had a great interest in writing... I went online for some advice as I am currently stuck on the 25th page of my "novel" This advice has really helped me and I am sure I can finish my novel now... cheers sam atherton

  • Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright 8 years ago from Sydney

    Thank you so much, Zsuzsy! I wrote quite a number of articles on novel writing, arising from some serious research I did a few years ago. Unfortunately most of them are on Helium, and I can't delete them - so I've hesitated to put them on HP because of the duplicate content penalty. I must find time to rewrite some of them!

  • Benson Yeung profile image

    Benson Yeung 8 years ago from Hong Kong

    thanks for sharing these ideas. looking forward to reading more of these.


  • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

    Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

    I've been so busy over the past couple of weeks I just now had a mo' to take a look. I must say it is possibly one of your best hubs Marissa. Thanks for sharing all that great info. I've just sent off a kids book, two weeks ago to an editor... so now I'm sitting around with my fingers, eyes and toes crossed. It is really very uncomfortable...

    As I said great hub regards Zsuzsy

  • J.T. profile image

    J.T. 8 years ago

    Brilliant hub, marisa.



  • selvirajan profile image

    selvirajan 8 years ago from India

    Hi Marisa, Thanks for the article. This is what i am exactly searching for a while and i came to read this today. I have written a short story, that was my first ever story, so being a novice i would greatly appreciate your comments.

  • Marisa Wright profile image

    Marisa Wright 8 years ago from Sydney

    Paraglider, I used to read a lot of science fiction, where novellas were common. I agree - a novella is a nice length, long enough to be engaging but not long enough to get tedious. Unfortunately anthologies are no longer fashionable so they seem to have fallen out of favour.

  • Paraglider profile image

    Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

    Hi Marisa - lots of good ideas here. I write short, which is fine for blogs, hubs & poetry, but if I ever have the time to tackle a novel, I'll need to give it some serious thought.

    I do regret the unfashionability of the novella form though, the long short story. Most novels are unnecessarily long, in my view.

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