The other day a writer I mentored for the Horror Writers Association emailed to ask for advice on how to make novels longer. I thought, “Wow, that’s not a topic I can address in an email. It would make for an excellent blog post, though.”
So here we are.
Fiction writers tend to come in two varieties: Those inclined to write short, and those inclined to write long. The shorties often have to keep adding material, especially if they’re trying to write a novel, while the longies write a bunch and then have to cut it down to the right size. Before we go any farther, let me say this: It’s okay to be a short-writer or a long-writer, and you don’t have to try to make yourself into the opposite if you don’t want to. Some writers predominately write short fiction throughout their careers, while others focus on writing novels. When I started out forty years ago with a goal of becoming a professional author, I was most comfortable with the novel form. I finished my first novel at 19, and it came to around 72,000 words. But I wanted to learn how to write short fiction so I could master all the skills of a fiction writer. But that’s me. You do you. But if you want to write novels and you struggle to create enough material to fill an entire book, I’ve got some tips that will hopefully help you out.
So how long is a novel? In general, traditional publishers consider a novel to be at least 50,000 words, but they’re more often looking for lengths between 80,000 to 120,000 words. If you self-publish ebooks, however, your novels could be as long or as short as you want, as the physical size of the book – and the cost to produce it – is no longer a factor. My novels tend to run around 82K to 90K. That’s a natural range for me, and business-wise, I don’t get a larger advance for writing more words than the minimum. Why would I write 120K words if I’m going to get the same advance for writing 80K? Sometimes I do write more, especially when the story seems to demand it, but not often.
Young adult novels tend to run between 25K to 50K words, and middle-grade novels from 10K TO 30K. My most recent middle-grade novel, I Scream, You Scream, is about 30,000 words. (This book still hasn’t found a publisher yet, so don’t head over to Amazon and wonder why you can’t find it.) My recently-released novel We Will Rise is around 90K words, and the novel I just finished and turned in to my editor at Aethon Books, The Atrocity Engine, runs slightly more than 100,000 words. Most of the tie-in publishers I’ve worked with wanted lengths of around 80K from me.
Now for some advice . . .
1) Aim for the Bare Minimum. If you’re having trouble reaching novel length, I’d advise you to start off aiming for the shorter end of the spectrum. This is one of the reasons the goal for National Novel Writing Month is 50K words. It’s the shortest novel length you can write that isn’t YA or MG. Fifty thousand words isn’t a marketable length in terms of traditional publishing, but some small press publishers might be okay with it, if you’re self-publishing, shorter novels tend to work better anyway. (Shorter but more frequent releases seems to be the most successful business model for self-publishing.) Breaking 50K on a manuscript for the first time can help you overcome the psychological hurdle of writing a novel. For a lot of beginning novelists, the novel form can seem too intimidating. But once you’ve hit 50K, you’ve gotten over the first big psychological hurdle, and you can try to write a longer novel next time.
2) A short story is an event; a novel is a series of events that add up to a much larger journey. If the length of a novel seems intimidating, don’t think of your story as a novel, but rather a series of connected short stories. For example, if you’re writing a novel about a haunting, one scene might be the story of the first time your main character suspects there’s a ghost. Another scene might be the story of how the ghost came to be in the first place. Another scene might be the story of the ghost’s first attempt to kill your main character or perhaps possess them. You can write these stories in any order you want and combine them later. Using this technique, your novel is almost like a short story collection where all the stories are linked and they add up to a plot progression from beginning to end. And if you need to write some connecting scenes so the stories fit together better, so be it. And if you’ve already got a novel draft finished but it’s too short, ask yourself if there are any other small stories related to the overall story that you haven’t told yet, then tell them. For example, maybe the haunting in your novel has been going on for two centuries. This means other people than your main character have encountered the ghost. Why not tell their stories in your book?
3) Add more characters. One of the ways I get length into my novels is to use an ensemble cast. This means I can write scenes from different characters’ viewpoints, and it allows me to show different aspects of the story. I try to keep the number of characters in the ensemble manageable, around ten or less, with three to five main ones. Sometimes I’ll fall in a love with a character who was originally supposed to have only a few scenes or who was even supposed to die. But I see possibilities for expanding the story with them, so I keep them around. Sometimes I’ll introduce a character later in the narrative who’s only going to stick around for a while (maybe they’re going to be killed by the antagonist) but I’ll write a scene of two from their point of view. I want to give them their moment on the stage, give them their dignity, before they have to bow out.
4) Add more obstacles. One of the easiest ways to make a novel longer is to give your characters more hurdles to overcome. On the way home from teaching at my college today, I was listening to an audiobook, a fantasy adventure story. The characters were traveling on foot attempting to sneak past an enemy army at night. Now they could’ve gotten past without incident, but what fun is that for readers? They got noticed by the army, were chased, and got separated. Two had to jump off a cliff into a river, and two others had to disguise themselves and attempt to pass through the army to get to a castle of potential allies under siege. It wasn’t easy, but they all managed to eventually meet back up inside the castle, relatively safe (one of them caught an arrow in the shoulder). The author could’ve simply had the characters all get from point A to point B without trouble, but by making it harder for them, not only did the author make that part of the story more interesting, he made it longer.
5) Use the Triangle Technique. Many writers try to create novels using only two points of conflict. Let’s use the movie Jaws as an example. Two points of conflict: Sherriff vs Shark. But now consider three points of conflict: Sheriff vs Shark and Mayor who wants to keep the beach open during 4th of July holiday weekend at all costs. The novel Jaws has a fourth point of conflict. The oceanographer Hooper dated the Sheriff’s wife in college and they begin an affair. Adding extra points of conflict not only makes your story richer and gives it more depth, it allows you to regulate the pace of your novel by switching back forth between the points of conflict, and it allows you to make your story – you guessed it! – longer.
6) Employ Murphy’s Law. A lot of beginning writers have almost everything go right for their characters. The characters may have some kind of obstacle to overcome to get from point A to point B, but they will get to Point B, usually unscathed (more or less). For example, say you have a scene where a character needs to get to a job interview, and they’re running late. Maybe they almost get involved in a car accident but manage to get there at last. But what if they don’t get to the interview? What if something occurs that completely sidetracks them? They get into an accident. Or someone runs up to them at a stoplight and begs for their help. Having something go truly wrong in a scene can send the story off into interesting and unexpected directions – and lengthen your novel in the process. Some books on novel plotting call this a Disaster, as in scenes should always end with something going wrong, whether large or small. I think that approach is too mechanical and could quickly become repetitious, but the basic concept is sound.
7) Combine story types to develop your novel further. There are many different story motifs, and one way to make a story larger is to combine them. Stereotypical action movies do this well (because the action in and of itself isn’t enough to carry an entire film). Let’s say the main thing our action-adventure hero needs to do is stop vampires from releasing a genetically-modified virus that will lower humanity’s collective IQ to the point where they’re no smarter than cattle (thus making it easier to control them and use them as a food source). If our hero knew all this, though, it would make it too easy to locate the vampires and stop them. So we add a Mystery element. Why are formerly brilliant people turning up on the street with low IQ’s? Why are there mysterious murders where the victims die of blood-loss? And so on. That’s still not enough, though, so let’s add a Love story. A scientist who’s looking into the mysterious low IQ’s gets threatened by a mysterious assailant (who we’ll later learn is a vampire) and our hero ends up saving them and starts for fall for them. Maybe we’ll add a Chase too. The vampires are desperate to get their hands on the scientist. They manage to abduct them and the hero goes after them. Now we’ve got a Rescue, too! So if your novel is too short, add in one or more story types. Following are a few different story types to choose from. I’m sure you can think of more.
· Coming of age
· Quest for object
· Quest for truth
8) Stories within stories. At the start of this blog entry, I talked about how you can think of a novel as a series of stories, and how you can expand your novel by adding more stories. Here are few specific types to choose from.
· Flashbacks: You can show a great deal about characters and setting by adding dramatized flashbacks. Just don’t overdo it and have every other scene be a flashback. And if you have more than one, space them out. And try different techniques. One flashback could be a memory, one could essentially be a monologue as a character tells their story to another character, one could be a separate dramatized scene that you insert without any explanation where it came from (readers will understand you’re simply showing them something from the past), or you could present it as a dream (which means you can add surreal touches to it here and there, maybe combine it with another memory, or turn it into a nightmare). And speaking of dreams . . .
· Dreams: Other ways dreams can be used are as a portent of the future (whether the character’s dream is magic or psychic in nature) or as a reaching into the past (again, via magic or science). You can also have bits and pieces of these dreams – or psychic episodes – occur periodically throughout the book, keeping the mystery of what it all means until later, when all the puzzle pieces are in place. You can have characters communicate in dreams. This could be two living people or it could be a living person and a dead person, or people connecting across time or dimensions. It all depends on the kind of story you’re telling.
· Imaginings: This is the Walter Mitty technique. One of your characters can imagine a dramatized scenario – maybe one they’ve been dreading or one they hope will happen. They can try to imagine something that happened in the past. These scenes may be short – anywhere from a few paragraphs to pages – but when you’re trying to expand your novel, every little bit helps.
· Hallucinations: Your character might be under the influence of some supernatural force or they might be sick, injured, drugged or suffering from some sort of mental illness. Any of these could cause your character to experience a dramatized scene that may not be real, but it’ll show more about them and, depending on how you write the hallucination, even advance the plot. And if your character (or characters) experience periodic hallucinations, so much the better.
· Origin stories. Say you have a character that has a deathly fear of drowning. Instead of telling readers about it in a short summary paragraph, you could write a dramatized flashback showing the origin of this fear. Maybe you’re writing a science fiction novel in which a space colony has for some mysterious reason become deserted. You can alternate between scenes of the current investigation into the disappearances with past scenes of the colonists experiencing the events that lead to their eventual disappearance. (This alternating between past and present storylines can work well for short fiction too.) You can tell the origin of a people, a civilization, a technology, a curse . . . anything, really, just so long as it’s pertinent to the story and above all, interesting to the reader.
· A supporting character’s story: Have an important supporting character? Tell their story, either all at once or in bits and pieces, but tell it in a dramatized scene.
· Use epistolary techniques: Epistolary techniques – making a novel be a collage of documents written the characters – used to be a common storytelling techniqye. It’s still around today, but most people probably know if as found-footage movies. You can use diary/journal entries, excerpts from a fictional book in your world, letters, emails, new articles, web articles, TV news, recorded videos, security footage, records of scientific experiments, etc. Putting excerpts from these things in your novel can enrich it by adding some narrative variety, as well as additional length.
9) Additional expansion tips.
· Have your characters work at cross purposes: Too many writers have all of their characters working well together the entire time, with perhaps a token argument here and there, but nothing so serious that disrupts the group’s forward progress. But you lengthen your story (and add additional conflict and character development) by having your characters argue about the best way to deal with a problem, or having them go their own way to address the problem because they can’t agree on strategy. Maybe your characters have different goals (and maybe they’re concealing their true motives). Having your characters work at cross purposes also complicates your plot, which . . . yep, makes the story longer.
· Twist in the middle: A lot writers save a plot twist for the end of the story, but what good does it do then? The story’s over. But if you include a twist in the middle, it can send your story off in some interesting directions, and make your story longer, especially if the twist is something that plays itself out after a while. What if one of your characters is revealed to have stolen someone else’s identity and in reality, they’re a criminal? Your other characters will no longer trust them once they discover this secret, and additional complications might ensue, such as the police coming to arrest the character or maybe some of their former criminal associates showing up to collect an unpaid debt. These complications are eventually dealt with, the other characters get over their distrust of the deceptive character (maybe by learning their backstory, as I mentioned earlier) and then everyone gets back to the regularly scheduled plot and the story moves on from there.
· Sidetracks: One of the earliest tie-in novels I wrote was a young adult Dragonlance novel for Wizards of the Coast called Temple of the Dragonslayer. This was the first YA novel WotC produced, and after I turned in my draft, my editor contacted me and said, “I know we told you we wanted 40,000 words, but we’ve decided the book should be 50,000 words.” So I had to add another 10K words, but I wanted to avoid significant rewriting. I needed 10K words of story that I could drop into the novel somewhere without changing anything before or after it. My heroes were traveling to a valley where the temple mentioned in the title was located, and in the original version, they reach the edge of the valley (after a long and hazardous journey), look down upon the temple with relief, and head down toward it. For my extra 10K words, I decided to have one of the characters be kidnapped by goblins and dragged down into their subterranean lair. Then I had the other characters go in search of her. (Basically, I added a mini-Rescue story.) I wanted to make this sequence important to the overall book, so I decided to make it an explanation for why goblins always seem to pop up out of nowhere in D&D campaigns. They travel through a series of underground tunnels, come up, cause their mischief, then escape back into the tunnels. The rescue was successful, my characters got back to the edge of the valley, they took a deep breath, relieved that they could finally head down to the temple, and started forward again. I’d plopped an additional mini-story into an already complete draft, but readers had no idea when they read the finished book. I made the rescue exciting and made it pertinent to the overall story by showing something about the world. Having characters get sidetracked, maybe for a lengthy portion of your novel, can work great to add length. It’s a variation on adding more obstacles, but this is a big one, one that might add several chapters to your book instead of a few pages.
· Wrong turns: Even if characters encounter obstacles on the way toward meeting their goals, beginning writers still have their characters make right choices along the way. But you can add length to a novel, and make the story more interesting, if your character makes a mistake that sends them off in a wrong direction, especially if they don’t know they’re headed in the wrong direction. Ever seen a movie in which characters are searching for a treasure, and after deciphering a series of clues, get to what they think is the location of the treasure, only to find it’s not there and in reality it’s located at the place where they started their search? The entire damn story is a wrong turn, sending the characters on an absolutely unnecessary journey. Unnecessary for them, but maybe quite entertaining to an audience. Characters should make mistakes, operate under false assumptions, follow bad (or deceitful) advice on how to proceed, etc.
· Ask yourself, “What couldn’t possibly happen next?” then make it happen. This is a piece of advice I share with aspiring writers all the time. Too often our plots are simple, contrived things, a subconscious recycling of stories we’ve read or viewed before. Let’s say one of your characters is going to confront their spouse about having an affair, and you imagine them having a huge argument that ends with them deciding to divorce. Nothing especially interesting about that, plus it’s not that long. So ask yourself what couldn’t possibly – at least in the way you currently envision the story – happen next, then make it happen. Maybe your character walks into the house and finds their spouse dead. Maybe they find the spouse being held hostage by someone they’ve never seen before. Maybe the spouse isn’t there, and there’s nothing to indicate where they went. Maybe the spouse’s mother has dropped by for a visit and they can’t have a discussion about the affair. Or maybe they do have it with the mother, and maybe she’s the one that unexpectedly starts it. Maybe that’s the moment when an alien race invades Earth. Whatever. This technique works better in the outline stage if you’re a plotter, but you can try it anytime in the drafting process if you’re a pantser. I’m a little of both, but I’m never hesitant to make a sudden swerve in my story if a good change occurs to me, and I need to make my novel larger.
So if your novel turns out to be shorter than you (or your editor) would like, hopefully the tips I’ve given you will help you expand it. Just remember what I said several times above: Anything you add should be pertinent to the story and interesting to the reader, not just random words crammed into your novel only to make it longer. You want your novel to be both bigger and better.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
We Will Rise Release
We Will Rise, my ghost apocalypse novel, is finally out from Flame Tree Press! Early reviews have been good so far. But you don’t have to take my word for it – here’s a sampling:
“We Will Rise is a tense, emotional, scary ride and one of Waggoner’s best.” – Zach Rosenberg, Horror DNA
“The book is CREEPY. It's devastating and brutal, with parts not for the faint hearted. It's definitely a horror, and one of my new favourite horrors that's for sure!” – Melissa
“Such a fun, horrifying rollercoaster of a book! Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.” – Sugar Spice Coffee
“From the first page on Waggoner had me hooked. His imagination is truly off the charts, and never could I have predicted what would happen next.” – Julia C. Lewis
If you read We Will Rise, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave a review/rating somewhere. Reader reviews are the lifeblood of a book, and they help publishers decide whether to bring out more work from an author.
You can also hear me read the first scene from the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqQWpRmZRAc&t=52s
In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.
A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?
Flame Tree Press
Barnes & Noble Paperback
Barnes & Noble Hardcover
workbook is my follow-up to Writing in the Dark, and I’ve gotten some
really good feedback on it so far. While you can use it in conjunction with
Writing in the Dark, I wrote it so it could be used on its own as well. It’s
available at all the usual places online, but here’s a link to the publisher’s
website if you’d like to learn more about it (and order it from them). Plus,
you can download some sample exercises for free!
I hope you’ll help spread the word about the workbook. Like Writing in the Dark, I wrote it to help people improve their horror fiction – or if they’re new to horror, to help them get started in the genre – and I want to help as many people as I can. You can help me do that. And for those of you who’ve already spread the word, thank you so much!
Chicon 8: The 80th World Science Fiction Convention: Chicago, Sept. 1-5.
World Fantasy Convention. New Orleans: Nov. 3-6.
Authorcon 2. Williamsburg, Virgina: March 31-April 2.
Stokercon. Pittsburgh: June 15-18.
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