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I am writing my first novel, which I think likely will end up being several volumes. Although I have a lot of experience in poetry and short stories, this is a very different challenge!

My question is about estimating the length of a work prior to writing.

It is an epic scale story that I have planned out in great detail (while of course remaining flexible). I have outlined it and started to write pieces of it, but still am easily less than 1% into actual writing. In this process I realized that I need to decide if I am going to try to do this in one volume or multiple.

This will help me decide how to structure the overarching storyline, as well as:

  1. When to bring the story arcs together
  2. Whether I need to shape a wrap-up/cliffhanger for each volume
  3. What level of detail to give to elements of the story. If I were to keep it to a single volume, I feel I would have to condense things and be too superficial. On the other hand, if I go into the level of detail that I enjoy (and have used in short stories), it could easily spread into a series of several books.

I attempted comparing it to other works such as LOTR, which I think is only slightly larger in scale, but my limited experience writing long pieces makes it difficult to conceptualize the relative weight of different events in my story.

I looked for advice on this, and I found reading this thread helpful. However, estimating length isn't much addressed. Is there a method for this?

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    Just two anecdotes, one of them is possibly apocryphal. Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon, and after its success announced that it was book one of the Inheritance Trilogy. A few years later, and The Inheritance Cycle includes four books. When George Lucas and friends first sat down to discuss story ideas for Star Wars (the tale of the rise, temptation, fall, and ultimate redemption of a certain character) but when they were done, decided to make six (leading some people to think the tale is about a different character.) The point is, even the so-called pros get it wrong sometimes. – cobaltduck Jul 13 '17 at 12:42
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    The Lord of the Rings in one sentence: "a half-man, Frodo, is sent out to destroy the master Ring, created by the Dark Lord Sauron and infused with his power, in order to forbid Sauron from world domination". How many pages would you guess it takes for Frodo to fulfill his task? – Olivier Grégoire Jul 13 '17 at 14:05
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    @OlivierGrégoire Less then one: Eagles! – user14340 Jul 13 '17 at 14:37
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    @Magicsowon best HISHE video! Love their channel but the one about LoTR had me rolling... Shows them flying on the eagles and dropping the ring into Mount doom, then proclaiming "boy it would have sucked if we had to walk all this way!" man... I was dying of laughter. – ggiaquin16 Jul 13 '17 at 16:53
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    @cobaltduck - the flip is true too. Robert Jordnan's Wheel of Time series was originally meant to be a trilogy. He missed that target by a bit. – Thomo Jul 13 '17 at 22:49

10 Answers 10

19

The main problem with trying to estimate something like this is that, even if two writers used the same very detailed plot summary to write a novel, they might produce works that aren't close to being the same length, because of the way they write.

Some authors are much more "concise" than others; for example, Voltaire's Candide has been described as a 1,000-page epic condensed into 75 pages, while Tolkien's work often rambled with details that weren't even relevant to the full plot (e.g. Bombadil). Admittedly that last example may not sound like it makes much difference, but there's a more relevant observation re: LOTR. If you work out how many words motivated each hour of film adaptation, they were condensed even more than most novels. (Much could be cut, e.g. in the first film characters step into a tunnel and are seen emerging from it a few seconds later, and quite a bit happens therein in the novel!)

Even the structure of a novel can influence how concise it is; for example, if the same events are told from multiple perspectives the word count will probably climb (see e.g. George R R Martin), whereas if characters are writing to each other with descriptions of what happened to them (see e.g. The Color Purple) the word count can fall.

The only thing I can recommend is bullet-pointing the plot in detail, with nested bullets so you can be confident of the relative weight of different chapters. If you then write one of them, you'll have a rough basis for extrapolation. But even chapter by chapter a novel can vary in how quickly it tells its story, so this will only be a rough estimate.

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    I can attest to this, as we have a writer here "Yaşar Kemal" who is known to detail even a single embroidery on a drape for four or five pages, whereas he could just say "it had a rose embroidery on it". Think about it, a single sentence, expanded to four pages... – John Hamilton Jul 13 '17 at 14:13
  • I've seen this writ large a few times with a publisher that likes to pair new authors with more senior ones as a mentoring/visibility boosting activity for the new one that resulted in the junior author writing several novels worth of material from what was intended to be a single book outline. – Dan Neely Jul 13 '17 at 15:11
  • Remind me, what tunnel?? – Anton Sherwood Jul 14 '17 at 7:30
  • @AntonSherwood Maybe I should have said "cave". It's the one they enter with the Elvish word for friend. – J.G. Jul 14 '17 at 8:16
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    @J.G. I seem to recall the film spending a few minutes inside that cave as well. At the very least, when they went in with 9 and came out with 8, I didn't really wonder why they left one of their number behind, because the movie showed me. – Arthur Jul 14 '17 at 12:32
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I suspect not. Certainly I have never found any proportionality between a line of an outline and so many lines of finished text. A concept or event that you sum up in one line could take ten lines or a thousand lines to fully describe in exposition. Sometimes what seems like one chapter in an outline becomes three in the book, and sometimes what seems like three chapters becomes one.

I'm sure that there are some writers who have a pretty good intuitive sense of how long a work is going to be before they begin, at least for certain kinds of work. But I am pretty sure this come from an intuition based on long experience, rather than a transferable method that they could teach to someone else. And it may be that the real skill of such writers is not to estimate well, but to do a good job of hitting their estimates.

Writing is a craft, and part of that craft lies in producing work of salable length. Salable length is different for different markets, different subject, and writers of different reputations, but it is a key factor in the salability and the readability of most written work.

Rather than trying to estimate how long a work is likely to be if you write it down without any attempt to regulate its length, therefore, it may be more appropriate and more fruitful to focus on deciding what length is salable for a first novel in your chosen genre and working out how to bring the project in around that length. Of course, in your first novel you don't have much experience or intuition to draw on to hit those targets, so you are probably going to miss and you are probably going to have to revise to meet them. But then you are likely going to have to revise a lot anyway.

5

I am a writer and a knitter. It occurs to me that you could create the equivalent of a knitting swatch: which is a square of fabric to let you know how many stitches your work contains in 4 square inches in order to compare to the pattern's swatch. You could write some scenes for your first book and average the length you personally produce per scene. Try to include a number of types of scenes, and have a number of them so you get as reasonable an average as possible. This would produce a writing 'swatch' or the number of words you on average produce per scene for estimation purposes. I have used The Marshall Plan, which does list lengths as industry standards depending on the genre, number of characters and estimated scenes in your work, which may be a good resource for you as well. Good luck!

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    Welcome, Erin! Can you tell us more about the Marshall plan? I'm guessing you don't mean the post-WWII program. Also, I love your knitting metaphor. – Neil Fein Jul 14 '17 at 1:06
  • Hello Neil: Thanks for the Welcome! It's great to be here. The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall is widely available, and allows for the planning of a novel scene by scene in its entirety prior to writing. He also has analyzed works in various genres, e.g. thrillers, and averaged their lengths. Thrillers turned out to be 120,000 words. This can then be broken down into scenes, and a novel of that length contains 96 sections or scenes. This information may be helpful to DoctorWhom. – Erin McLeod Jul 15 '17 at 15:36
4

I am not a writer, but I do have some experience with tackling significantly larger projects than ever done before. In my experience, when I've tackled a huge project without intermediate measurable and rewardable goals I get disillusioned quickly.

If you think it's going to likely be several volumes, then break it up now, in detail, how you want each volume to progress, resolve, and cliffhang. If you don't plan on cliffhangers now, it will be significantly harder to write them in later if you decide on the fly where the cliffhangers and volume separations need to be.

Then start writing one of the volumes and get that done and polished so you have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of a job-well-done. It may be the first volume, or it may be the last, depending on your specific novel outline and how you want it to end up. Many start writing at the beginning, but consider starting at the end so you can work in background details and foreshadowing as needed as you build up to the climax of your story without needing to do a bunch of rework later if you decide that you really did want to provide more foreshadowing or changed earlier storyline as you go along.

Besides, as other responses have indicated, there is no set length needed for a novel (unless you're working with a publisher with details specified in your contract with them, but I doubt that's in play here) so you can have volumes of 100 pages, 1000 pages, or somewhat varied between volumes. It's your writing so that's up to you. Just make sure that your writing is rewarding to you so you continue to look forward to it and not just get into it after a week or two and only see the huge outline ahead that seems insurmountable.

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    Welcome to Writers! At first you lost me with "there is no set length needed for a novel" and "you can have volumes of 100 pages, 1000 pages". That'd be novels of 25,000 words (insanely short, more like the first part of a novel" or 250,000 words (some trilogies don't have that many words). However... there's no reason a writer can't combine a few "volumes" in a single book (or swatches, as in Erin's answer), so having units of more or less the same size would let a writer chunk work into book-sized pieces for publication. – Neil Fein Jul 14 '17 at 1:02
4

For what it's worth, novelist and short story writer Mary Robinette Kowal has a mathematical formula she uses to get a ballpark figure for a story's likely word count:

Add the number of characters and the number of locations. Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by 1.5 times the number of [plot] elements the story incorporates.

She goes into detail on this in a recent Writing Excuses episode, giving advice on, for instance, how to define a 'character' for this formula. (She uses the term MICE, which is explained on an earlier episode of the podcast; I have substituted 'plot' in my use of the quote to make it more digestible to people who are unfamiliar with the MICE concept).

As she says, the result will give you just a rough estimate, but it could serve as a useful aid for you. (I tried retroactively using it on the last story I wrote, and it was uncannily accurate. That was short fiction, though – the margin of error may get bigger for epic trilogies...)

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Patricia Wrede addresses this in her blog about writing here. I will summarize some of the points she makes...

1) You may get better at this with experience (not helpful just now, I know, and also some people DON'T really get better at this...I am looking at a certain author who's novels are currently a popular television series).

2) If you want to approach it in a logical way, focus on the types of scenes you have and how you tend to treat those types of scenes (but I would add the caveat that how you treat the same scene in a novel vs a short story may be drastically different). Her example is to consider if you tend to put more detail into character development and gloss over action scenes, then you would adjust your anticipated length according to how many character development scenes vs action scenes you have.

3) It's possible to adjust a lot of stuff in the whole novel writing-revision process...in fact it is pretty much impossible not to! For many writers, whole scenes and chapters move around during editing, or they add or cut 10,000+ words...

I also highly recommend her other posts, especially about how the planning process is different for different writers. You might find another method of planning that appeals to you that will be more flexible when you don't know exactly how/if you're going to break your work up.

2

I would consider that between A --> B, where A is your main characters(s) start and B is the conclusion that between A and B you might have:

• A journey divided into sites or events. • A time span where characters age or time segments progress which would divide your story up. • A character evolution of traits or discoveries (or major clues).

In each (and other story arcs) you will find a natural partitioning. If you consider that a story might have five partitions, if you tell yourself each partition will itself have five segments:

5 x 5 = 25 "parts" or perhaps chapters, with 2000-4000 words per:

25 x 3000 = 75k words or a range of 50k to 100k depending on your per/chapter count.

Of course this is vague, but really so is the question: how long is a string?

In the end, divide and conquer.

1

For you, the answer is no. As you have never written a novel before, you have idea "how" you write, your style.

From experience, I can tell you that I'm not one for scene description or world_building, yet two of my novels exceed 150,000 words.

e.g.

I have a single character scene which could have been condensed to:

"The morning after Charlie's party I woke with the mother of all hangovers. I stumbled out of bed, and headed for the bathroom cabinet in search of Advil."

But the scene, as published, extends to 800 words.

Yet, in the same story the character goes from birth to seventeen years-old in a single chapter.

In another work it takes a character 1200 words to walk to work.

From the tone of your question you seem to want to write in a very structured way. With epic, multi-character stories I have never worked that way.

I was particularly enjoying writing a late-teen novel featuring seven characters: seven characters at differing points in their individual but intersecting journeys. When I noticed the page count pass 350 I felt just like a child.

I'd been playing with my toys. They were everywhere! Mum was going to be home soon. I need to get all the shit neatly back in the box, quick, fast, and in a hurry. The panic produced my best finale to date.

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If you want to sell your work, you'll have to learn to budget your words, as well as the self-discipline it takes to stick to your budget.

Here's an example. Your publisher wants a novel of 80,000 words. Your plot breaks down into 40 chapters. That's an average of 2,000 words per chapter. Now, you don't have to put exactly 2,000 words into each chapter (that would be weird), but when one scene runs long, you have to cut something elsewhere.

If you're a pantser, you'll still need an outline to provide to your agent or a publisher.

While it may sound easy, writing to fit can be hard to do. There's always that temptation to expand on a description, a conversation, an action sequence. You can tell yourself that it will all work out in the rewrite. In the end, it forces you to focus on what is most important.

During the course of writing those 40 chapters, you'll probably come up with new ideas that you want to incorporate. To stay within your budget, though, you can't add new subplots or new characters unless you replace things you already have. It's usually a good idea to have an auxiliary plot that you can add if necessary. In the same vein, you should identify a plot or character that you can write out.

If it sounds like work, well, it is. Publishing is a business. A book is a product. Writing is just providing content. Sad but true.

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Not only is it impossible to predict how long a novel is going to be before writing it, it is also impossible to know its length even after the first draft is written.

After adding everything you thought was needed during the initial writing phase, you now get to edit out everything that turned out to be distracting or unnecessary to the telling of the tale. This can drastically shorten, yet infinitely improve the final work; transforming it from a slightly-bloated collection of almost-right words, into a svelte and economically written arrangement of the right words.

Stop worrying about how much work will go into writing your story or how long the finished product will be. If you write it right, it will be exactly as long as it has to be, to tell the tale you want to tell.

Keep Writing!

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