Book length: how long is too long?

We chose Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY for reading while we were on vacation and were astounded to discover that the paperback is 1,474 pages long (591,552 words). One elderly relative had to rip it into sections so she could hold it while she read it. Wikipedia does not equivocate about this book but calls it “one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language.” WAR AND PEACE is shorter by about 30,000 words.

This brings up the subject of book length. A question we get all the time is “how long should my book be.” Our standard answer is “as long as it takes to tell your story.” In other words, don’t sweat the length, tell the story.

But once you have finished telling your story and you have a first draft, it is almost certainly too long, no matter what the word count. Most writers overdo it. They put in too much explanation, use extraneous words and often include unnecessary scenes. This is where editing comes in. A recent client was told by an agent that she would take him on, but only if he cut 200 pages from his book. When he and we had finished, it was a better book – and still 100,000 words long.

If you find yourself approaching 500,000 words, be aware that this is extreme, and the number of books of that length in print is few. There are just not too many stories that require that kind of length.

Is Seth’s book one of them, or is it too long? Friends and relatives utterly love this 1993 novel and report they could not put it down. We did put it down, but with the intent to take it up again because we did see merit in it. But as a result, we have nothing to report about the book except that its length is daunting.