107. Do Readers Prefer Long Novels?

I am cursed with brevity. It’s really hard for me to write a long book. My novel is currently a svelte 40,000 words. Yet the trend is against me. With long-haul holidays comes the “airport blockbuster”, a novel massive enough to last a flight across the world.

Blockbusters aren’t new. In the days when the reading classes tended to be the leisured classes, blockbusters were de rigeur. Think, for example, of what may be the longest novel in the English language, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa, weighing in at 467,870 words. It’s a Sumo wrestler of a book.

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Not that shorter books haven’t made the literary prize list. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey is an anorexic 18,300 words and John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty Nine Steps is a skinny 29,725 words.

Ian McEwan says “I do love this form, the idea that we are sitting down to a book that you could read at one sitting, or within three hours much as you might go to a movie or opera or long play.”

From the author’s perspective, a book should be “as long as the story needs”. But publishing is a business, and has to respond to market trends. So what are those trends?

Current advice is that fiction for adults should be somewhere in the 70,000 to 110,000 word range, a little longer for fantasy and sci-fi. (See for example Harry Bingham and Chuck Sambuchino)

I took a look at how the trend changed over time, using the Guardian 100 best books list and, for the twenty-first century, the winners of the Man Booker Prize.  The trend indicates that the heyday of shorter books was in the hundred years between 1851 and 1950.

novel lengths table

From Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1615 (and arguably the first novel) to Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons at the end of the eighteenth century there are eight books, with an average length of 213,966 words. Only one book is less than 80,000.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there are 11 books, averaging 130,228 words, with two below 80,000. In the second half of the nineteenth century (16 books) the average rises a little to 176,680 words. But, at the same time there are more books (six) below 80,000 words of which half are below 50,000 words. This may reflect growing literacy among the “lower” classes and tastes for stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

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1880s poster

Come the first half of the twentieth century, and the average of the 23 books falls to 104,189 words. Books below 80,000 words make up over half the list, and books shorter than 50,000 words are over a fifth. Oh that I were alive and writing then! The average length for the 39 books in the second half of the twentieth century doesn’t change much, but the proportion under 80,000 words falls to a third and under 50,000 to a tenth. The airport blockbuster had arrived.

In the twenty-first century, this trend seems to have continued. The average length of the 18 Man Booker winners shows a 13% increase compared with the previous half century, and the proportions below 80,000 and below 50,000 words have continued to drop.

This seems to be at odds with some claims that readers’ attention span has fallen and that there is a trend for shorter books. There is some indication of a rebirth of interest in short stories and other short-form styles, particularly in digital format. Agent Clare Alexander says that the marketing challenge may be that of selling middle-sized works.

However, few publishers are seeking novellas. A quick search unearthed:

So the idea of a growing market for short forms may be an urban myth rather than a reality. Agent Kristen Nelson in 2006 noted a trend for authors submitting shorter books, rather than a trend for publishers wanting them. In fact, other surveys have also noted a trend to increasing length. A study of 2,500 titles on the New York Times bestseller and notable book lists found that between 1999 and 2014, average length increased by a quarter, from 320 pages to 400.

Only in non-fiction is there evidence of a trend towards brevity. A study of 272 non-fiction bestsellers on the New York Times list between 2011 and 2017 found a downward trend in average length, from 467 pages to 273 pages.

 

Do you suffer the curse of brevity? What do you do about it? Do you enjoy short novels? Where do you find them?

96. A Mentor to walk with me

What a great end-of-year present! I got an e-mail today telling me I’d been selected for a place on the Cinnamon Press mentorship programme.

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Photo © Static TV Tropes

This is the second accolade I’ve won for the novel I’m working on, The Tears of Boabdil.  Earlier in the month I won the Plot of Gold competition for the book’s outline.

There are about 20 places in the Cinnamon scheme, run by this independent Welsh press, offering a year’s one-to-one support, with a mentor matched to your project.  Mentors work closely with your manuscript, offering feedback, looking at revisions and advising on structure, etc, offering around 32 hours over the course of the year. I don’t yet know who my mentor will be. I expect the coming year to be exciting and challenging.

The scheme also offers slots for publication of two books by mentored students, and in general students achieve a high rate of publication, around 70% acccording to Cinnamon.

Cinnamon’s is not the only mentoring scheme available in the UK. The Word Factory apprenticeship scheme for four writers is now open for 2018. The highly-respected Cornerstones agency, which I have used and can recommend, offers mentoring at a cost of £50 an hour. There are other commercial schemes that I can’t vouch for, such as Adventures in Fiction which costs £2,125 for around 78 hours, working out at just over £27 an hour.

I’ll keep you posted on how the mentoring goes.

92. How to succeed as a novelist – more facts

In a previous post I summarised Jim Hines’ fascinating survey of the success factors for 246 authors. Now I’ve come across another survey of 150 authors by Graeme Shimmin.

Shimmin
Photo © Graeme Shimmin

The conclusions of the two studies are remarkably similar, despite Hines being from the US and Shimmin from the UK.

Success factor Jim Hines (US)

246 authors

Graeme Shimmin (UK)

150 authors

Average time writing before publication 11.5 years No data
Previous publications track record Only half (52.8%) had published short stories prior to first novel publication Only 28% had published short stories but 86% had some form of prior publication including:

  • 10% self-published novels
  • 11% internet publication
  • 21% journalism
  • 9% non-fiction books

However, paradoxically, 54% said they had no “platform” or that a platform was not a factor in their success

Creative writing qualifications Just under half (48%) had a  relevant degree A third (34%) had a relevant degree.

But 86% had done some sort of writing course mostly non-academic courses or retreats

Networking and contacts  61% had attended a writer’s convention and 59% were members of a writing group.

Three quarters had no contacts before publication.

Less than a quarter of agented authors had been recommended by a friend, and only 5% knew the agent beforehand in a personal capacity.

A quarter (26%) used contacts (of which over half came from working in publishing or a literary agency and a fifth from knowing a published author).

 

Most had some contact with the literary world

 

 

Route to publication Over half (55%) went through an agent. For those achieving breakthrough in the 21st century, agents were involved in two thirds (67%) of the successes

 

No data on competitions or other routes

No specific data on agents

A third (32%)  succeeded with unsolicited submissions (key success factors were the quality of the writing, the commercial nature of the text and the quality of the pitch)

A quarter (26%) went through open submissions or competitions

A quarter (26%) used contacts (see above)

16% were approached by an agent or publisher and asked to submit

Conclusions

  1. Time spent learning your craft is essential. Expect to struggle for years. Joining writing groups, non-academic courses and writers’ retreats may help. Creative writing or English degrees are not necessary.
  2. A track record in publishing short stories is helpful but not necessary, though some form of publication track record may help to create profile and credibility.
  3. Having an agent is increasingly important according to Hines. Shimmin’s survey has no data on agents.
  4. Unsolicited submissions can succeed in a significant minority of cases, especially where the writing has commercial prospects. Entering open submissions and competitions can help, as can working your contacts.
  5. Building up your networks and experience of the writing world may help, though don’t over-emphasise the importance of developing your “platform”

The main difference between the two surveys is Shimmin’s emphasis on networking and contacts, which Hines concludes is not so important. However, this seems to be a question of interpretation, rather than numbers. Their data is similar, indicating that around a quarter of successful submissions went through contacts.

91. The Farnham Short Story Competition

The Fellowship of the Pen, a writers group, meeting in Farnham Surrey, is organising a short story competition in association with The Farnham Herald and Waterstones, Farnham.  The winner will receive an engraved trophy and their story will be published in The Farnham Herald.  The competition opens on 7 September and closes on 2 November.  Names of those short listed will be published on The Farnham Herald website on 7 December.  The winner will be announced at a presentation at Waterstones, Farnham in the middle of December.

Farnham Short story competition

The competition rules are as follows:

  1. The Farnham Short Story Competition is open to anyone in the UK aged 16 or over on 7 September 2017. Members and families of the sponsoring organisations (The Fellowship of the Pen, The Farnham Herald and Waterstones Farnham) may not enter.
  2. The competition opens on 7 September and closes on 2 November. Entries received after this date will not be included.
  3. Stories should be no longer than 1,000 words, excluding the title. Any story exceeding this limit will be rejected.
  4. Stories should be original, have not won a prize in another competition and have not appeared in print or on-line (excluding your own blog).
  5. There is no theme or genre.
  6. Entry to the competition is free. All entries should be sent as an e-mail attachment in Word or PDF format to: farnhamshortstorycompetition@outlook.com. The e-mail must include the title of your story and your name and contact details.  No identifying information must be included in your story.  Please also confirm in the e-mail that you are over 16 years old.
  7. The competition will be judged by the novelist Claire Fuller and writers from The Fellowship of the Pen. All entries will be judged anonymously.  The judges’ decision is final.
  8. The Farnham Herald and The Fellowship of the Pen reserve the right to print the short listed stories. All other copyright will be retained by the entrant.

87. How to succeed as a novelist – the facts

At last, there’s some real data, which busts a lot of myths. Jim Hines, a fantasy writer, published a survey of 246 novelists and now we know what the elements of success look like. The sample is probably not representative, being made of people who chose to respond to Jim, and it seems to be biased towards writers of YA, fantasy, sci-fi and romance. It also defines a successful author as one who earned an advance of at least US$2,000. Though the data is far from clean, it’s a great deal better than the hunches, prejudices, and sheer opinions that I’ve had up till now.

People tell you all kinds of things about how to succeed. Get an agent. Self-publishing is the way to go and you’ll net an offer from a traditional publisher. Others folks say, put in your time publishing short stories to earn your spurs. Do an MFA. It’s all in who you know. There’s no shortage of contradictory opinions. But which, if any, are true?

What the data says is:

  • You do need to put in the time learning your craft. The average time writing before first getting a novel published was 11.5 years.
  • The average age of debut novel publishing was 36.
  • A track record in publishing short stories is not necessary. The average number of stories sold before their novel was accepted was 7.7, but fully 116 of the 246 authors had zero prior sales of short stories. It looks like a portfolio of short story publication hasn’t been necessary since the 1980s. This was a revelation to me, since I decided last year on the basis of good advice to stop writing novels and concentrate on building up a track-record in short stories first.
  • Getting an agent helps a lot. Most of the sample (55%) achieved publication through an agent. Selling the first novel without an agent increased the time spent writing before breakthrough by 3.3 years
Hiines publication survey
Steve Saus
  • Having an agent is not completely necessary. 29% of the sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher. Direct submission to publishers was more common in the past. 100% of those who first published in the 1970s went this route. This dropped in each decade, particularly for YA and fantasy novels, while romance novels showed a small increase in direct sales to publishers. By the 2000’s only 27.7% of the whole sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher, while 67.3% went through an agent.
  • Self-publishing is not a good route to getting an offer from a mainstream publisher. Only 1 of the 246 authors self-published their novel and went on to sell it to a publisher. This is not to say it isn’t a valid route to making sales
  • You don’t need a degree in English or Creative Writing to get published. Only 38% of the sample had such an undergraduate degree and only 10% had a Masters.
  • Networking may help, though the effect isn’t clear. 61% had attended a writer’s convention and 59% were members of a writing group. Having attended conventions reduced the number of years spent writing before publication of the first novel by 2.5.
  • You don’t need to know an agent or publisher beforehand. Less than a quarter of agented authors had been recommended by a friend, and only 5% knew the agent beforehand in a personal capacity. 

     

    For those of you who’re interested, there’s a detailed statistical analysis of his data by Steve Saus

86. Rejection is your friend

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Rejection can be hurtful. But all writers have to learn to accept it. It seems like someone is telling you that your writing is no good. But there’s a huge amount of subjectivity in the decision-making process, which a writer doesn’t normally glimpse.

I just had a story rejected by Every Day Fiction with enough feedback to illuminate the process of decision-making. There are several reasons why a story might get turned down:

  • The writing is no good
  • The writing is good, but the story doesn’t work
  • The writing is good and the story works, but it’s not what the editors are looking for

The first two reasons are objective, the third is subjective. But, of course, the first and second reasons also involve judgements by people and can also be subjective. You rarely discover what has led to a rejection.

In this case, the magazine sent me the reports by the four readers. They had to score the submission between 1 and 5, and their scores varied between 1 and 4: a 4, a 3, a 2 and 1. If scoring were purely objective, this would not be possible.

The reader who scored me 1 said “This is an interesting beginning to a story but not a complete short tale as yet”. So that was a rejection reason two.

The reader who scored me 4 said “I love it when a story takes me by surprise, as yours did. Usually I find the ‘it was a dream’ motif a pretty hard sell. But here, the dream (or initiation) was an integral part of the narrative. Also, you capture quite a story in very few words. Nice. Your prose is gorgeous, too. I was taken in by its imagery and sound quality”. So that was an acceptance.

The remaining two readers also offered variants of rejection reason two. “The ending was a let-down” said one, who also commented “very strong writing”. They offered me the opportunity to rewrite and resubmit. Confident that the writing was good, I looked again at the structure.

I know enough about reactions to my endings to understand I have a problem here. I like open-endings. Readers, by and large, don’t.  I’m working on beefing up the ending now.

Rejection, as Sylvia Plath once wrote, shows that you’re trying. Make rejection your friend. It can help you try better. And editors who tell you the reasons for the rejection are priceless.

78. The Big Push

It was the summer of the big push. The plan for this year was to get across no-man’s-land and find myself an agent. In June, my writing career was poised on the brink of breakthrough.

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The Great War Project

As I reported in this blog the literary consultancy, Cornerstones, asked to see as revised version of my novel The Golden Illusion. They act as scouts for agents. I was thrilled!  The book is a mystery story with a twist. The sleuth is a conjurer who believes he hunts an ancient illusion. Instead, he reveals a conspiracy concealing an atrocity that spans the centuries.

Writing is a cruel game though. At the end of August, Cornerstones decided not to represent the book. Though they were very complimentary about it, it was still a rejection. They said:

“The concept is high – a magician as your protagonist is gripping – he’s intriguing and mysterious and powerful. His voice is accessible and engaging and the ancient magic has an allure. In a way, this is submittable right now and you may well get agent interest.”

Despite that, they felt it needed more work – more than they were willing to risk. So here I am, still in no-man’s-land, all barbed wire and mud and shell craters filled with water. Another big push repulsed. I’ve been through this before when a publisher showed interest and then rejected the book, and also with an agent.

All you can do is pick yourself up again.  And again. And keep heading across the field to the far trenches. But I get better at handling defeat. I have flanking manoeuvres now. Though none of my novels has yet survived going over the top into hostile terrain, I know I can get short stories published. I fired off five stories to magazines. I have another two on the launch pad. With that many, there’s a good chance of some being accepted and cheering myself up. In fact, one story, Bomaru’s Quest Part IV, has already been accepted and published today by Literally Stories. You can read it here.

 

 

 

 

 

76. Why it’s worth writing short stories

Do you suffer anxiety about whether your writing is any good? If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. You get lots of advice and encouragement when you start writing. Most of it is well-meaning. Much of it is wrong – at least for you. There’s one thing I wished I’d known when I started. Of course, like most well-meaning advice, it may not be valid for you. But my advice is write and publish short stories, even if your main interest is novels.

Short story Stephen King

Why? Many reasons, but these were the main ones for me:

  • Polish your craft.
  • Boost your confidence
  • Measure your ability.
  • Build a track record.

Polish your craft

Short stories are short. You can write them faster than a novel and revise them more easily. It’s a simpler apprenticeship to serve.

Boost your confidence

Publishing and selling a novel is hard. It takes lots of work, and lots of luck. Mostly, you get negative feedback from agents and publishers (if you’re going the conventional route) or reviewers and sales (if you’re self-publishing). It can dent even the toughest hide and the most humble spirit. Self-doubt eats away at your confidence. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s easier to publish short stories than novels – there are many more outlets, both print and on-line magazines. The website Duotrope lists 5,821 markets. There will almost certainly be one that will publish you. Nothing beats the boost of seeing yourself in print. If you’re just starting out, these magazines accept over half of the work submitted to them.

Measure your ability

Pick your market. Different outlets for stories have different acceptance rates.  I didn’t know about acceptance rates when I started out. Until 2015 I was unwittingly submitting stories to prestige magazines that accept less than 1% of everything submitted to them. No wonder I wasn’t getting published. No wonder I was dejected and felt talentless. In 2015 it all began to change when I got hold of data on acceptance rates. Duotrope  publishes these figures. Armed with them, I can target where I sent my stories.

place in market

Last year, I had stories accepted by Alfie Dog and The Opening Line. Not so hard to do since both accepted around half the material sent to them. I got bolder. Gold Dust, with an acceptance rate of 12.5%, accepted a story, Zhuang Zhu’s Dream, about a man who has memories he believes are not his own. Then this year Structo accepted Interstices, a slipstream kind of story, to be published in issue 16. At the time of submission, Structo accepted only 3.85% of the material submitted, and currently the number is (an impossible) 0%. Now I can place myself in the market, so I’m no longer anxious about whether I’m any good as writer.

Build a track record

The publications give me a track record. Now, when I submit book manuscripts to agents and publishers, I can claim some credits attesting to my ability. The outlets with 50% acceptance rates don’t help this, but the two below 20% do.

75. The Sunday Times Prize – tempting the muse with breadcrumbs

It’s worth £30,000 to the winner. At £5 a word for a 6,000 word story, the Sunday Times EFG Award is the richest prize in short story writing. Hilary Mantel was only a runner-up in a previous year’s competition. So you might say it’s hubris for a tyro writer to enter such a competition. And you might be right. But I’m doing it anyhow.

Partly, I’m doing it because I can. Last year, I would not have been eligible. Entrants must already have been published by an established house or magazine. This time last year I hadn’t reached that mark.

Partly, I’m doing it because there’s a story I’m struggling to tell, and the competition gives me a spur to doing it. Assuming (reasonably) that I don’t win, at least I will have written the story.

The idea responds to my plea for new stories about post-Brexit Britain. My first attempt at writing read so much like a rant that one of my writing friends didn’t even realise it was supposed to be a story.   So I tore the thing apart and started again. This time, I created a version with which I’m happier.

Land Girl is a tale of Margaret and Malina. Margaret is a British pensioner with traditional working class values, but also a strong streak of prejudice against the immigrants who she feels threaten her way of life. Malina is a Roma immigrant and Margaret’s carer, threatened by racist abuse. Margaret loves music and dance. Malina’s singing is beautiful. Finally, this brings them together. Allie, a community activist, is the catalyst for challenging Margaret’s attitude to immigration. The political rant is now buried in one small section and narrative is now foregrounded.

Alright as far as it goes – a tale of a decent person overcoming prejudice and recognising the humanity of a foreigner. But it’s not a winner. Friends’ comments have helped to improved and polished it (thanks Derek and Paula).  I’ve checked that there is a narrative spine that drives the story forward, and short ribs of added tension that add depth – a technique I described in an earlier post. I’ve looked for opportunities to create repeating motifs that reflect each other in the hall of mirrors. None of this is enough.

Cordoba

What else can I add?  I wonder.  I know I need another narrative axis at right angles to the first. A hall of mirrors may not only reflect, but also distort and change perspectives. I’m still searching for what that right angled theme may be.  My intuition is that it may be to do with music.  Or with land and maps. Nothing is gelling yet. You can’t always tempt the muse down with breadcrumbs.