Monday Motivation: The beauty of brevity

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

I’m sometimes asked how long a novel should be. I begin by talking about the length of various pieces of string, but then, after a little humming and hawing say something like this: Somewhere between 75 000 and 95 000 words. Of course, I hasten to add, some books are much longer.

But a book I’ve just read has caused me to review this stock answer. We only say that books should be about 85 000 words long because… that’s what novels usually run to. It’s a convention. It’s the received wisdom. It’s what publishers demand, we say. Mills and Boon, for instance, has very strict parameters: for this imprint, writers should deliver manuscripts that run to 50 000 words; for that, 55 000 words, and so on.

I remember reading Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series (The Castle of Adventure, The Circus of Adventure, etc etc) as a child, and noting the fact that each book in that series was precisely 256 pages long.* Presumably her publishers told the writer what worked best for them – and she dutifully delivered manuscripts edited down to exactly that length.

But there is no absolute rule that novels should be any particular length.

Which brings me to A Man Called Doll, a thriller by Jonathan Ames. I bought it as light relief from The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, which I am slowly working my way through. It was recommended by a New York Times reviewer who announced it as “the first in a dark new private detective series that’s a tightly coiled double helix of offbeat humor and unflinching violence.”

It was a good (if occasionally chilling) read for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the first person narrator’s voice was very strong. Here he is talking about his dog, George:

Then we hit the street and I admired, as I often do, his small, muscular torso and how sleek and handsome he is. His legs are thin and elegant, as are his long-fingered paws, and his coloring — a tan head and body and a white neck — makes him look like he’s wearing a khaki suit and a white shirt, which is a good look for a gentleman like George in the semiarid clime of Los Angeles.

Doll possesses both the characteristics of a typical noir hero – he’s brave, self-deprecating, hard-bitten – but he’s also capable of remarkable tenderness, which is revealed most touchingly in the relationship he has with his dog, George, who shares his bed and occupies a very large part of his heart.

And, in the best traditions of thriller fiction, the book is a page turner.

But perhaps best of all, is its length. It runs to just 158 pages – a little shy of 40 000 words. “Isn’t that just a novella?” I hear someone say, with the hint of a sneer in his voice?

But I can report, fresh from the experience of A Man Called Doll, that there was something wonderfully refreshing about reading something at a sitting. It’s a romp. Entertainment for an evening. A brisk walk in the park.

So if you’re planning a novel, or are actively engaged in writing one, don’t worry about stretching it – Procrustean-style – to match conventional notions. If it runs short, let it run short.** Better to end up with a story of 40 000 exciting or entertaining words, than one twice as long that sags distressingly in the middle.

Happy writing,


*  I was in various hospitals including the Hope Home, in Johannesburg for eighteen months as a child. Every ward – the bedrooms of the once-stately mansion which the Hope Home occupies – contained not only three or four beds, but also bookshelves stuffed with dusty volumes. One day, idle and bored, I took down a book and began reading. I was seven, the book was The Mountain of Adventure, and by the time I finished it the next day, I realised, firstly, that what books offered was a magical escape from the tedium of hospital, and, secondly, even better, that not only were the shelves in my ward bulging with books, but that in every other ward there were similar libraries. In short, I would never run out.

** I’m not sure this advice applies to the other end of the spectrum. If your name doesn’t happen to be James Joyce or Thomas Mann, then it’s probably not a good idea to deliver a manuscript to a publisher that runs, like Ulysses, to 265 000, or The Magic Mountain, to 308 000 words.


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