This past week has been volcanic, with allegiances being shifted and everyone discovering their limits. One opponent has begun to come around; one ally has become oppositional; and one other person, hinted at in the first twenty pages a couple of times, has now appeared, her allegiances not yet fully clear. Even whole communities are shown to be in opposition, neither side blameless.
That’s always a fascinating point. When the good guy reveals her or his shortcomings, when the bad guy shows us why she thinks she’s doing good. Writers build the stakes by showing us the conflict in unambiguous terms, then they build the story by showing us that things aren’t as clear as they’d seemed.
We’re on the glide path to landing now, about 60,000 words in. I don’t really aim for this, it’s not like I’m a TV writer who knows that I have exactly 22 minutes for this episode, but all of my novels have all been of similar length. The shortest, Trailing Spouse, is 61,000; the longest (four of them more or less tied) are at about 90,000. It seems to be the container I’m built to fill.
The generic guidelines for an adult novel put it between 70-100K. But of course, there’s been vast variability across time and writer. The five books in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin have all been over 300,000 words. Atlas Shrugged for a long time, over 560,000 words. At the other end of the scale, three classics of high school English—The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm—all clock in at fewer than 30,000 words.
The general range, 70 to 100, holds a lot of familiar books.
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Joy Luck Club
- The Girl on the Train
- Anne of Green Gables
- The English Patient
- The Catcher in the Rye
- The Color Purple
That’s what you think of as a novel. About an inch thick in paperback (in modern terms; in the old-school compression of the Bantam and Dell paperback era, closer to half an inch, each page dense with ideas). It’s a comfortable space, the detached house of ideas, each family occupying its independent dwelling for us to visit.
Short story compilations, by contrast, seem more like apartment buildings. Smaller boxes, more families, not all of whom get along or even know of one another’s existence. And flash fiction is like seeing people in the subway station as you zip by on the express train; none of them matter, none of them are knowable, they’re just the interesting array of life to consider and then forget. At the length of a novel, I’m with this family long enough to start to learn who they are as they drop their guardedness. It’s an ethnographic form, built for deep learning of a few people.