Endings and Lengths

Watch City Festival Costume
The author, in a pleasant glow.

I finished my second novel yesterday. By that I do not mean that I will never touch it again, because there is a whole lot of work left to be done on it. But I wrote the final scene, several paragraphs further, sat and stared at it for a while, thinking about how best to wrap the book up, leave it on a high note, but not a cliff hanger, and… I deleted some words, wrote a few more, pushed back from the desk so my co-writer could lean over my shoulder and see what I had done. He suggested a minor change, which I implemented. Suddenly… it was finished.

Months of working, laughing, talking about these characters like they are real people, and it’s all boiled down to an ending line. I was torn between a glow of accomplishment, not only for finishing it, but getting it done on the deadline I had set. I’m traveling to NH from Ohio today, and I start school when I get back, so it had to be done yesterday. The flip side of that glow was a serious case of the jitters. Was it long enough? Would the ending satisfy my readers?

My co-writer asked in my writing group, and the group of readers and writers we trust most, what a good length is for a novel these days. I asked what an ending should look like, both on my blog, and on my personal facebook page, and between those, we got a lot of very interesting input. First of all, the general feeling about endings seems to be that the story is wrapped up, not just cut off, leaving the reader poised on the edge of a cliff, going, “but, but… wha’ happened?”

My mentor’s advice was ‘give them time to smoke a cigarette.’ Which option was the one I chose. Just enough time for resolution of the last climax, but not so much time that the afterglow of that victory had worn off. Time and my beta readers will tell if I got that right. Because I plan at least one sequel to this book, I deliberately did not wrap up all the loose ends, and I also added a tiny epilogue – joking that it was like the teaser after credits in a Marvel movie – that brings the next story and ties it into this one.

The question about length spawned a lengthy (heh!) conversation about novels, short stories, and novellas. Turns out that there is no set length for a novel. There are conventions, which changed in the 1980’s, but with the advent of ebooks, they are changing yet again. Novels historically have ranged from 41000 words and upwards. A friend commented that if he bought a 41K novel he’d be angry at the author, but novella is accepted to be up to 40K words, leaving a huge gap between that, and novel at 80K words (the current convention). Others thought anything under 100K words was just too short.. which brings me to conclusion that there is a lot of confusion out there about this matter.

Dave Freer has written about this a few times at Mad Genius Club (you can find one such post here) and his conclusion has been “I’m also of the opinion that the current length of books is more to do with economics than ideal reads. A book after all is as long as it needs to be.” Yesterday in the conversation he went further, to point out that “IMO the use of e-book readers and flexible pricing is going to make shorter (as Sanford Begley mentioned in Mickey Spillane of early Louis L’Amour or indeed, a lot of Thrills and Swoon) sell to larger numbers of people. Oh there will still be a market for the goatgagger – my worst was 270K, but it will be an expensive thing — as the present lot were, driven by publishers trying to kid readers they were getting extra for their money, while screwing the supplier – who got paid precisely the same % for the 270K book, as for the 60K of yesteryear. A good 270K book is four 100K books work – believe me. At one time the precise values – which were prescribed by the publisher, were driven by typesetting and folios – but that doesn’t even really apply to paper anymore.”

So what do you think? Are ebooks going to bring novels back down in size to something more closely resembling the paperback novels I have on my desk, all published between 1949-1970, none of them thicker than the width of my thumb? I pulled a handful of my favorites for ending lines (see my blog post, above), and realized that my ms, weighing in at 93K words, was twice the size of most of them. I had decided that adding another 20K words to it was unnecessary padding, and would only harm the story. As an Indie writer, I can get away with deciding when and where the story stops.

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