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I realize this may be a duplicate question. I've seen, for reference [ How long can a first novel be? ] yet I think my situation is a little more specific.

I find myself in a similar situation. My novel is a science fiction about the coming-of-age journey of a young woman searching for her lost mother (as cliché as it sounds) in a very large, unwelcoming setting. It has recently hitten 120k words.

While this is a nice thing per-se (I never got this far, this good), I'm stuck between the desire to finish the novel and wrap it up in a good package and the feeling that something is inevitably missing.


Reading questions here I'm under the impression that 100k / 120k words are enough for a first novel. Worse, that a lot gets trimmed in the editing process. I'm not against editing, of course, but bear with me for a minute.

I've probably been influenced by those factors and by my own desire to finish the first draft as soon as possible, to get a little breathing space and, of course, start the first revision.

While this makes complete sense (maybe marketing-wise), my understanding of the plot can't seem to agree.

If I had to describe the point I'm in actually, I'd say "somewhere in the second act". I had a major climax recently which ended with the death of a character very close to my MC, killed by an hostile, powerful entity. This thing had to happen for several reasons, but it didn't take my MC closer to her goal.

She should find her mother eventually in the third act, where I plan to close the novel.

I could make her reach the goal after the climax and close the second act here. I could wrap things up and (hopefully) use the wide array of open questions and possibilities in my very large setting to think of a sequel. But I can't shake off the feeling that it would feel rushed (a sensation confirmed by my alpha-reader).

The other option would be stop minding the word count and just keep on writing until I'm satisfied. This poses other problems, though. As far as my understanding of story structure goes, a climax should be followed by a brief moment of respite, then another, possibly bigger, climax, and I have no idea how to make that.

I could explore the setting more (there is a lot to be done), I could introduce new characters (there are a lot to to meet) and keep developing the existing ones. But I can't think of a way to raise the tension up again; and if the tension isn't raising, I feel almost like I'm wasting someone's time.

After all, I'm (at least) in the middle of the second act; there's little point in adding more meat to the fire if I won't have time to cook it. What's worse, it feels useless writing more scenes if they will eventually be erased in the editing process. Of course, there is value in exercise, but the thought somewhat blocks me.


TL,DR: I'm stuck between wanting to finish the story and the idea that it is incomplete, and forever will be without another 40k words that I can't even conjure up in my mind. Splitting the work in two books by 90k words each is not an option, since it would make even less sense structure-wise, and I have bigger things to explore in an eventual sequel.

So, summing up:

Is there some sort of rational way to help me understand, and eventually decide, what are the next steps to take? When do you decide that it's time to close your story (as a discovery writer)?

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    On a final note, I realize it may looks a bit opinion based. Let me know how I can improve the question. – Liquid Jan 28 at 11:49
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    Not an author, just a reader. As a reader, I'd say a book should end when it's ready to end, and not a moment sooner. That's to say, it depends on the story, and how it's written. To me, "A Game of Thrones" at 292,727 felt tediously long, but "Order of the Phoenix" at 257,045 words did not. I don't think it's those 35,000 words that made the difference. – AsherMaximum Jan 30 at 21:38
  • If it helps, one of my favorite "novels" is a web-serial called Worm (parahumans.wordpress.com) -- it was over 1.5 MILLION words by the end. His updates/chapters at the start were pretty short, because that's what "everyone else" did, but going back, they feel so weird -- he fell into his stride at very long biweekly updates/chapters, and that's what the STORY needed. (The whole thing is 30 arcs, each about 8-12 chapters long, and probably about every 4ish arcs one could call it a "book"). – April Mar 7 at 16:46
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    Are there other arcs that WOULD count as complete? Perhaps the Quest is only on Arc 2, but one of the Heros has had a significant change, or one Land has been healed? Maybe a battle is won, but the war continues? Look at how TV shows balance a season-long arc vs each episode having something wrapped up. (and when episodes don't feel distinct, then the season is a bit of a blur.) – April Jun 11 at 13:46
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    (I didn't realize I was the last few comments here - I just saw the question. oops.) – April Jun 11 at 13:46
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Remember your goal: you have set out to tell a story. So tell the story. Forget the wordcount. You feel the story needs more meat, give it more meat. You feel you need to explore more themes, go ahead and explore them. (If you don't know what to write, that's a separate problem - a separate question.)

A story should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Fahrenheit 451 and All Quiet on the Western Front are short. The Lord of the Rings and Les Misérables are long. Neither would benefit from trying to fit it to some Procrustean bed wordcount.

When do you close the story? When you've told it. When you've explored what you wished to explore.

I see sometimes books, and films too, that start out setting up a story, they start exploring it, and then suddenly they decide they must rush towards the end, plummeting towards it like the Niagara Falls. Those stories aren't satisfying. After plotlines have been carefully and meticulously laid down, we expect an equally meticulous resolution. You can't rush it, chopping off what doesn't fit. An example: Farscape. After carefully laying in the groundwork for season 5, the series got cancelled at the end of season 4. They had to wrap up the stories of a season in the space of a 3-hour miniseries. They did what they could, but many lose ends got resolved off-screen, and the whole thing felt a bit rushed. You are under no such constraints. Give the story the development and resolution it needs.

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    Many people are of the opinion that Tolkien could have used a good editor! But the extent to which that would have been useful is only really clear in hindsight, with the whole story available. – Graham Jan 29 at 13:22
37

Finish the story. Don't worry about the word count. When it comes time to do revision, rewriting, and editing you can look at ways of possibly splitting it into two or more volumes.

Stories need satisfying endings. They're what sells the reader on reading your next book. Sell them short shrift and they won't be back.

You will only be able to find the answers to your questions by plain old-fashioned writing the story as the story wants to be written. Once that is done, explore ways of fixing any problems.

Take courage in what you are doing. Writing first novels is often practice and exploration. Finish this one. You are learning your craft as a fiction writer in doing so. It might be your next novel that will be your first published novel. Either way it seems you know this novel needs more room to live and breathe, well just let it. They say real writing is rewriting. That's the time to fix whatever seem to stand in your way.

So go forward!

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    Notable examples for the "when it's finished you could split it in two" suggestion: The Lord of the Rings was originally written as a single 455,125 word novel (split into 3 for publishing), and The Belgariad was going to be 3 books at about 200,000 words each (split into 5) – Chronocidal Jan 29 at 14:49
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I am a discovery writer; and one that completes novels.

The key here, I think, is to remember you are discovering the story. If you are in the middle of the second act, then you have discovered half of it.

Also, hopefully, you have some notion of how what you have written could plausibly resolve into the finding of her mother; I always keep some kind of ending in mind. It isn't set in stone, but if the story leads me on a path I see will prevent the ending I have in mind, I have to come up with a better ending, or reverse course and abandon that path.

But you have discovered HALF of it. That doesn't mean you have discovered it well, or efficiently. So now is a good time to review and edit all you have written. Make a backup, change the name to include the date. Then with the outline of the story so far in mind, go look for things to cut, things you wrote that didn't go anywhere, characters you wrote that you can combine into one, or get rid of make some other character provide the role. Make the story more efficient.

What you have left should serve the story, in some sense. Just because it felt natural to write something at the time, doesn't mean it should stay there. Try to figure out how what you wrote actually serves the story: Sets a plot point, conceals something, defines a character trait (non-repetitively), whatever. What is its purpose?

Rewrite. Cut. Streamline. Turn the wandering path into a straighter road. Cut or combine scenes.

While I agree that a story is as long as it needs to be, the key word there is needs. Which is the same advice in Einstein's Razor; "Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler."

If you think a lot will fall in the editing process -- Make it fall now. You know enough. Personally, I go through a full read-and-edit at every significant turning point, which is approximately every 1/8th of the book. If you are at 4/8ths, you are way overdue.

Added to better answer the specific questions:

Perhaps This Answer I wrote a few months ago will help; it outlines how I (a discovery writer) approach a story, consistent with the Three Act Structure (3AS) (But I split the second act into two equal parts; 'Reactive' and 'Proactive').

Understanding the 3AS is the answer to: "Is there some sort of rational way to help me understand, and eventually decide, what are the next steps to take?"

YES! As you progress through each half-act (about 1/8 of the book), ensure you have accomplished what that story segment calls for.

As for "When do you decide that it's time to close your story (as a discovery writer)?", the 3AS tells you that too. Each half-act (eight of them) serves a purpose in the story, and you need to progress from one to the next. For example, the first half of Act I introduces the "normal world" for the protagonist, and ends with an "inciting incident" that will eventually drive her (physically or metaphorically or both) out of her normal world (whether she finds it terrible or great). The second half of Act I shows the rising consequences of the inciting incident, and leads to the hero somehow breaking from her normal world to address the issues. And so on; until the second half of Act III, where the hero figures out how to solve the issue, and confronts whatever "villain" she is fighting (it could be a person, or situation, or internal mental issue). As we began with her "normal world," the conclusion may be a return to that, or often is a description of "the new normal", and where she fits in the world now.

So Streamline what you have done; eliminate extraneous prose. Then Map out what you have done, into the 3AS. Each of (I, IIa, IIb, III) should be 1/4 of the book. (If they are not roughly equal lengths; you likely have tangents and details unnecessary to the plot). Where you are tells you what to write next.

  • Compare Ockham's razor: Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity or "Only add what is needed" – Trish Jan 28 at 15:24
  • To be honest I'm a bit upset I can't downvote your answer. You are not answering the question but instead telling OP to review what he's done so far. It's good advice in general but someone who will look up the closing a novel issue won't be helped. The question is not "What are the steps towards actually closing a novel?" as it would be too opinion-based. – Pierre Arlaud Jan 29 at 9:26
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    @PierreArlaud On the contrary; I am answering the question better than the answers above me, getting far more votes, that basically say don't worry about it! The OP's concern is specifically that he has 120K words and thinks he is halfway through the story, and cannot break it up. My advice is also Yes, a story is as long as it needs to be, but as a fellow discovery writer I know I can alleviate his length concern. Which is a valid one! A few exceptions aside, very long first novels get rejected. Make it a tight story, and length will be less of an issue. – Amadeus Jan 29 at 10:24
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Writing typically has two phases: Writing and editing. A lot of writers mess themselves and their work up by trying to prematurely combine the two. Write expansively right now, as much as you need to tell the story, and don't worry about word count at all. Take as much time and as many words as you need. As a writer, your job is to produce as much material as possible, and make your story as full, and rich, and as well-illuminated as it can be. (I've learned the hard way that writing a successful book --or even a draft --is NOT a race to the finish line.)

When you are finally ready to edit, be ruthless. As an editor, your job is to cut every ounce of fat, and make sure that the final work that reaches the reader doesn't have a single wasted word or unnecessary subplot. Be prepared to potentially discard more than you keep. Your word count might drop from 150k to 60K. That's OK. Your job as an editor is to make sure the reader isn't wasting his or her time. Better to have a slim novel that's pure gold than a longer one that's overstuffed and self-indulgent. But don't you dare put on that editor hat until you're good and ready.

Part of why there are so few great writers is that it's tough for the same person to be great at writing and at editing, they're such different mindsets. It can be instructive to see the two of them divided up: Read the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Then watch the hit movie version, Field of Dreams. The book is an endlessly inventive, sloppily constructed mess, all writing and no editing. The film, in contrast, is a tightly constructed crowd-pleaser. All the magic comes from the book, but all the structure comes from the movie. (Alternate example: The Box of Delights novel, versus the 1984 BBC adaptation.)

6

Word count is a useful tool, but to feel compelled to cram an ending in when you are still in full stride with much of the story as yet unrealized is folly.

Your story will take as long as it takes and should not end before that. Sometimes, when someone tells me ‘see you when you get here’ I respond ‘and not a moment earlier ’. My book will be a series and, going by word count and general plot, I am half way through volume two. Unless it reads better as a larger single volume.

Mitchner could not have cared less for word count - his novels began the setting with the geologic creation of the location.

If Tolstoy had obeyed the rule of word count War & Peace would either never have been written or been released as three volumes - absurd.

Years ago, I was given the second volume of the Deryni Chronicles by Katherine Kurtz. I loved it - rich detail that brought all to life. I read the first volume - a slender thing that had no colour and little detail - just plot and the characters were brushstroked in. Had I read the first volume first, when she seemed unsure of her world and characters - or more concerned about word count - I would not have looked at the others.

Take as many words as your story needs and let it breathe.

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Length and Writing

What are you going to tell? Is it a (maybe short) story that has everything told by now or do you still have 3 acts to tell? Let your tale guide your writing, then use the Red Ink later.

If you have told everything: come to an end. Tie up the last strings of the plot, you are done.

If you have still a long way to go: go on. Some stories just go on and can't be told in 100k words in their rough shape. Only after having told it all, you see what is not needed and can be cut. And then you can get out the red ink and either cut to length or cut it up into different books. Or you leave it be as the large piece that it is.

Length and Publishing

From a publishing standpoint, novel writers often have a limit when it comes to paper prints - but nowadays we got also e-book publication which waters that limit some. Your editor might though find a way to cut up your book into meaningful sub-stories.

If we read the Lord of the Rings in its entirety, it is 455125 words long. That is an average of about 150k words per printed book and 75k for each of its internal structure books (you might remember: the Fellowship of the Ring has the halves labeled Book 1 and Book 2). But why did someone even try to print it in 1 or 3 parts? It has pretty much an extra prologue of 95022 words in The Hobbit. This gave the publisher the confidence to even start print this ambitious work. But the Publishers also didn't cut the book into its 6 sub-books but chose to do double-books, for whatever reason.

Let's look at another book that came out some dozen years ago by then a novice author: Harry Potter. The first book was a rather thick book for teens with its 76944 words, but short enough so a publisher could justify the risk. Its success opened the gates for the successor books and Order of the Phoenix topped at 257045 words - which even the author admits is too long but she couldn't justify to cut more. 200k words are what she kept below in the following ones.

But we got a new market: ebooks don't become more pricy to manufacture as they grow past certain points, they are easy to publish (and self publish) via the digital marketplace. You can publish 3k-word stories for 299 just as much as you can publish a 300k-word story for 299.

Conclusion

Finish your story in what feels natural to you. Then go and revise it with an editor - you might find out that you lose some amount of your length that derives from needless repetition (How often do we need to be told that Bob's golden yellow hair flies in the wind like in all the other 30 scenes so far?). Or you might break up the story into several shorter books. Or you might find whole scenes that might have seemed essential before, but can be paraphrased or dropped entirely.

  • I'm guessing that by this point, it's probably made it clear it isn't a short story. Just saying. – Ed Grimm Jan 29 at 0:26
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the feeling that something is inevitably missing

Is exactly where a second act should end.

I had a major climax recently which ended with the death of a character very close to my MC, killed by an hostile, powerful entity. This thing had to happen for several reasons, but it didn't take my MC closer to her goal.

That's the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Where Luke's father is 'resurrected' into a powerful entity, and not only is he no closer to his goal, he's minus a hand, has a friend frozen in carbonite and then abducted, Yoda's dead, and the plan is to go rescue them with the guy who almost just got them all killed.

It will feel rushed, and you'd better take less than three years to pump out the conclusion, because we're all waiting. I've mentioned the phrase an ESB ending more than a few times at SciFy.SE...

It doesn't sound like you want to, but check out Machete Order if you want to milk it for all it's worth. (after you watch SW and ESB, you watch the prequels to extend the best cliffhanger ever, which ends with RotJ - that begins with a darkly clad Luke whom we're not sure is still the good guy, given his father's behavior we just saw.)

Wrapping up a second act should just toss out plot coupons left and right.

  • The conclusion doesn't have to be a solution. And if you've got another 100k words in you, it shouldn't be. – Mazura Jan 28 at 16:33
  • OP is half way into writing ESB and the first Star Wars (needs to be "several shorter books", +1 @Trish). Or Ben just died and the Death Star isn't even attacking the rebels yet ("Your word count might drop from 150k to 60K." +1 @Chris) – Mazura Jan 28 at 18:41
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    minor nitpick, yoda doesn't die in ESB, you may be conflating ROTJ with it. – Ruadhan2300 Jan 29 at 11:49
  • Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a Complete Cinematic Failure - "#8 Go Rewatch Empire" - "It doesn't have a happy ending. [...] This is a perfect palace for the second movie in your trilogy to go." – Mazura Feb 7 at 1:47
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You've still got plenty of room to run. For example, Elantris, Brandon Sanderson's first novel, is around 200k words, and it doesn't feel too long at all; it's big enough to tell the story being told. It sounds like you're closer to the end than the beginning of the second act, so it's probably about time to start closing your novel, but getting from the start to the end can still take a while. Focus on getting a good story written first and foremost; you'll have time to worry about the length and other details in revision.

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The book and the story need endings, but they don't have to be the same thing. Star Wars ended with a major victory for the heroes, but the Empire still existed. The Fellowship of the Ring ended with Frodo deciding that he must finish the quest alone (with Sam), but the quest was far from over.

Find a decisive, satisfying event that can end your first book -- maybe that "pointless" death you mentioned actually steels the hero's resolve, and the next thing she does is strike out to follow an ambiguous clue. It's chancy, but sitting around won't find Mother. End of Book One.

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