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Book Too Short!

It’s what no-one wants to experience – a book that’s too short. We get to the end and feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled by the quality of the journey.

If we want to get lost in a book, it has to be a ‘magnificent forest’, not a ‘mean little wood’.





‘Too Short’ Isn’t the Same as ‘Short’

A short book can be just the right length.








Sister Raven by Karen Rae Levine is a 122-page coming-of-age myth of the most beautifully crafted writing. Amber Foxx’s The Outlaw Women is shaped and written to perfection. Readers tell me that my haunted house story Laying Ghosts packs a lot of layers and chill into less than 40 pages.

What Makes a Book Too Short?

A ‘too short’ book:

  • Tackles something ‘big’ but writes it ‘small’
  • Races through the plot and bypasses enriching detail
  • Feels shallow and two-dimensional without enough layers
  • Doesn’t provide sufficient back story to create context
  • Fails to build emotional depth in the characters to make us care about them
  • Feels un-located in time and place
  • Doesn’t fulfil the expectations of the reader in terms of genre or style

How Long is a Novel?

Airport novels have to be as thick as doorstops. If you’re on a long haul flight you want a complex and involving, if not well-written, read. Literary novels can be long or short, depending on the genre and the story. Mysteries are said to range from 65,000 – 80,000 words. There’s more about word lengths and genre on Anne Allen’s blog.

The Big One: Expectations of the Reader

Irrespective of genre, your readers expect nothing less than the complexity and style that the earlier books have offered them. They’re hanging out for your next book and they want to be satisfied by the journey. Length is part of that. We’ve all read authors whose first books were brilliantly involving but as they become famous, with pressure to put out a book a year, their novels get ‘thin’ in more ways than one and start reading like drafts.

Book Too Short!

I’ve recently come face to face with ‘book too short’ syndrome – and unfortunately it was the book I was WRITING.

My first drafts are usually about 100,000 words and after the editor has done her job, they’re about 10,000 words shorter! The First Lie and The Second Path are both about 90,000 words – a satisfying length for a psychological mystery that takes the reader through several interweaving stories and ties them in knots with multiple layers of clues.


With my work-in-progress The Third Note (to be published in late 2016), I wrote in chunks instead of chapters for the first time, so my sense of the length was different. Some of the chunks fooled me by being 10,000 words and I wrote to the end of the book, quite sure it was going to be too long and give the editor plenty of scope for blood on the floor. (Editors need satisfaction, too.)

Imagine my horror when two weeks out from the editing deadline, I put the chunks together for a final draft – and the whole book was only 60,000 words. Once the editor got to it, it would be ‘way too short’.

First Rule of Writing: Panic

Like all experienced authors who come across a set-back, I panicked! I was totalled by the total and kept redoing my sums. For me the book was satisfying, in a similar style to my other books: Selkie Moon travels to Ireland to investigate an old murder, bumps into some quirky characters and gets caught in a labyrinth of mythical clues. I’d even created a major plot twist to make the plot more tangled. I’d laughed and cried through the journey, I’d written a great ending … but at only 60,000 words (or less) it was going to be over too fast and my readers were going to be dissatisfied.

After the Panic, the Fun

My editor gave me an extra week and I started to find the fun in making the book ‘longer’. The quality of the writing is paramount to me so I didn’t:

  • Pad out every description with duplicated detail
  • Lengthen passages of dialogue beyond what needed to be said
  • Murder the pace with unnecessary internal monologues
  • Move the ending and write a lot of gibberish to fill the gap!

This kind of lengthening would be putting the story on the rack. That wouldn’t be fun and would kill it stone dead. Instead I:

  • Added more twists to the plot – and watched as new layers emerged
  • Dug deeper into Irish mythology for more elements to create clues
  • Found two quirky new characters (under a rock) who drove more threads through the plot with their backstories and interactions
  • Looked for places where a ‘summary’ of events would be more satisfying if turned into a ‘scene’ – by adding dialogue and moment-by-moment detail
  • Found places where I’d been too spare and missed the opportunity for more colour
  • Cut out the boring bits – because quality still trumps length every time

‘So-and-So’ to the Rescue

Three weeks later a manuscript of 80,000 words went to the editor and I paced until it came back. Nicola loved the parts I thought she’d hate and hated parts I won’t negotiate on. Sigh. And she did her usual thing: marked thousands of words to cut (most of the last chapter!), questioned all the things that didn’t make sense, and … found something: a whole thread I’d missed.

“What happens to so-and-so in the middle of the book?” she asked.

“Er,” I said, trying to sound like the author. “I don’t know.”

The most important sub-plot was strong at the beginning and the end, but the character driving it disappeared for most of the middle of the book. (I’d left her out because I didn’t really know what she was doing while Selkie was sinking in mythical quicksand!)

I’m about to start the redraft. When I bring so-and-so back in and weave her whole story through Selkie’s story, a lot of the length will be created – a magnificent forest of it.

As usual, what seemed like a disaster is leading to much more fun in the writing – and much more satisfaction in the reading.


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