How long should a debut novel ideally be? 

 

The feedback I’ve had recently from literary agents is that they prefer debut novels to be no longer than 80-90,000 words in length. This is because agents know from experience that long debut novels often contain too many characters, too many POVs, too much telling, more talking than necessary, lots of backstory (when it isn’t really needed on the page), and a plot which isn’t quite as focussed as it might be. Here’s a brief but useful checklist to ensure that your evolving debut manuscript doesn’t fall into any hidden traps: 

 

Characters: the general accepted rule of thumb is that readers can remember six named characters in a novel, but no more. You can feature anonymous ‘extras’ or necessary bit-parts to fill out the landscape, but the more people you include, the higher the chance that the reader will begin to forget them. Novels do exist in which the cast is so expansive that it’s listed before the story starts, but these are in the minority, and they aren’t often signed as debuts. The modern taste is for fast-paced and quickly evolving fiction, with a small, focussed cast. Click here for a brief article on devising character, as explained by the late, great Ursula Le Guin. 

 

Point of View: the simplest way of summarising POV is that it’s either (most popularly) first person narrated, or third person narrated. In first, it’s easier not to go wrong, because you’re writing using ‘I’, which immediately limits the POV to what the main narrator experiences him or herself. In third, because you can choose close third or omniscient, there are pitfalls to be wary of. Click here for a useful article which explains different points of view and how they work (with examples from published novels). Click here to read why using too many POVs which shift regularly is a technique influenced by film, which isn’t so easily pulled off in written fiction. 

 

Telling: it’s impossible to write a novel without using some explanatory telling, but to keep your prose as vivid as possible, use telling sparingly, and above all, avoid big chunks of telling. As an aspiring debut novelist, it’s easy to feature lots of character backstory in your novel. You may be tempted to do this under the assumption that your reader needs to know all about your character’s background, but this isn’t the case. If you explain the upbringing, career or social situation of a character, the story loses vividness because it appears on the page as explanatory telling (sometimes referred to as exposition). Really, this kind of detail belongs in an author-eyes-only document, which you’d use to make sure that your story scaffold is solid. Readers don’t so much want to have to wade through a blow-by-blow account of a character’s past - they want to watch the character you’ve created, who is shaped by the past you’ve invented, get tangled up in a sticky situation in the here-and-now. Your character’s upbringing counts because it will relate to the way they handle themselves in the here-and-now. Read an article on showing and telling, here

 

Talking: novelistic talking is punchy, to the point, and pared right back. Real life sentences are almost endlessly unpunctuated (because speech evolves in the moment). Novels can’t do this, or the reader would become confused. Writers use crisp, heavily condensed, clipped and to-the-point dialogue to emulate real-life speech, but actually, novelistic speech is nothing like real-life talking. If you’re influenced by TV, your written dialogue might similarly meander. Casual chit-chat is often foregrounded in visual drama, allowing the reader to take in every nuance of the scene unfolding on the screen. Viewers are assessing the era, time of day, character, physical location, time of year, danger (or the lack of), and anything else they can glean from the visuals. Over the top of this, casual conversation unfolds nicely because it isn’t really the talking we’re always paying attention to - it’s the things which aren’t being said. Written fiction doesn’t have this luxury, which is why novelists use an unnatural economy of words to portray speech. One thing I notice consistently in the work of aspiring debuts is that the speech is likely to be modelled on TV scripting - sometimes, whole chapters are devoted to nothing but talking. This won’t capture your reader anywhere near so effectively as cutting things right back, and interspersing speech with scene setting in light touches (to remind the reader where the scene is situated). 

 

See this article here for tips on how looking analytically at the craft of writing, and specifically at authors who you admire, can help you to craft your own prose more effectively. 

 

Happy writing!

 

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