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I'm writing the first draft of my first book. Lately, I have been working hard on it and reached about the 40k mark. At this point, I believe the main character arcs and main story events are done, with no room to add more without detracting from the rest of the story.

However, due to the genre of my story (fantasy), most publishers would not accept a book with such a short word count. By some accounts, a book of that size would not even count as a novel.

I know that I could just "add" more stuff to the book to increase its length. However, like most people, I find it very frustrating when I myself read and discover that an author has added extra "padding," to a story where it doesn't belong.

So, I'm pretty much stuck at a crossroads: do I "sell out" and add more to the book so that it's more likely that the book would be published? Or, do I keep the word count the same and run the risk of making a story that is too short to be published and/or that is unsatisfying readers due to business?

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  • 5
    Martin Amis said once that most long books are just short books that go on for a long time, whereas some long books are long because they need to be.
    – Tom
    Aug 2, 2023 at 10:59
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    Padding can never be more than padding. Your readers will know, and will be as frustrated with your padding as you are when you read somebody else's padding. Moreover, padding won't make your book more marketable. Good writing will. So don't add anything to your book that isn't good. If it needs more, see Phil S response re: more show, less tell.
    – kmunky
    Aug 3, 2023 at 0:45
  • Look at the multi-screen stories on the internet: So and so was aware of the problem, but they were filled with anticipation as they waited. This made them think of ..... They do what could be a 2 or 3 screen story in 26 screens by fillers like this... Aug 3, 2023 at 13:25

4 Answers 4

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Here's my advice: don't worry about adding more just yet. It's your first draft. From my experience, it's going to get longer.

Both my sister and I are working on writing books. My sister's story (a dystopia with both a character and action driven plot) had a first draft of about 50,000 words. Kind of short. Her second draft was 70,000 words. She's currently on her sixth draft which is 100,000 words.

The editing process is going to change your word count, and since you don't have a lot of filler, that word count will probably go up. With my sister's book, she realized after the first draft that she had points of the story that could be expanded upon and entire sections to add. Later on in the editing process, she found that some of her descriptions or character moments needed a little bit of tweaking, generally making those moments longer.

The point to take away from this is that you are not at a point where you need to worry about the word count because it is going to change. The only case I can think of where your word count would go down is if you signed a book deal for a certain amount of words and were above that word count. If your story is fairly short, it is not going to get much shorter.

Good luck with your writing and editing endeavors. And by the way, 40,000 words is nothing to scoff at.

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Some authors tend to "write short" (use the minimal possible words and then need to expand) and some tend to "write long" (write too much then need to cut) when it comes to first drafts - and it seems like you're the former.

Nothing to worry about, and you definitely shouldn't look to 'pad' your story with unnecessary filler. If you come up with ideas you're excited about, that fit well and enrich the story, go ahead and add them, otherwise, leave well enough alone.

Now could be a really good time to get your book critiqued by beta readers, other writers, or an editor if you're willing to pay for their time.

Without reading your work, it's impossible to know for sure, but here's some ideas of what might be missing:

  • You're doing too much 'tell', and not enough 'show'. Are there important events that you've skipped over? Would they benefit from new or expanded scenes? (compare the early series of Game of Thrones compared to the last ones - where we might have had several long scenes over multiple episodes, later on it tended to be a 5 minute montage instead)

  • You're lacking description. Many writers don't include sufficient evocative description for the reader, of characters, scenery and important objects. As a writer it's all clear in your imagination, but doesn't necessarily make it to onto the page.

  • You've skipped story beats. Is your plot really intricate enough? Is your 'muddled middle' really muddled enough?

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Two options that come to mind are intercalary chapters and subplots. They can allow for worldbuilding that improves understanding of the main plot without actually affecting it much (or at all). But for this to work, the additional writing would need to remain consistent with the existing plot, and it would need to be shorter than the existing content to avoid being a distraction from the main story.

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Personal preference, second choice, and then simply own the choice and communicate it that way.

Example, take the view that you want to make your writing like Hemmingway. The below is from his views on writing "icebergs", where the point is avoid all unnecessary padding, and then avoid what other authors would consider "standard" padding:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. —Ernest Hemingway in "Death in the Afternoon"

Or as the New York Times put it, write:

gripping, lean, hard, athletic narrative prose

Or the way that Carlos Baker would describe that style:

get the most from the least, prune language, multiply intensities and tell nothing but the truth in a way that allows for telling more than the truth.

Depending on the publisher, this idea can then probably be pitched, with a cover letter, or other explanatory method, to help the reviewer orient. Many of the publishers, such as Penguin, have lines, and you could sell the concept as short, concise fantasy, with a lean writing style.

The "Dresden Files" might be considered to fall at least somewhat into this category among contemporary fantasy fiction. Short, focus on the main plot, don't waste a lot of time with exposition, padding, or overly length descriptions. "Here to tell a supernatural detective story, that is what is accomplished."

As reference, 40k is on the short side, yet not unreasonable. Examples:

  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, 38,421, Fantasy
  • The Time Machine, 32,149, Apocalyptic Sci-Fi
  • The Tombs of Atuan, 45,939, Fantasy
  • Fahrenheit 451, 46,118, Dystopian Near-Future Sci-Fi
  • Animal Farm, 29,966, Beast Fable

There's a decent number of well written works in this length range, that still feel acceptably long, and in some cases, such as Animal Farm, also manage to tell cleverly complex parables about humanity.

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