I was thinking back to when I started writing at the ripe old age of fourteen. Back to when words flowed from my cranium like teeth from a drunkard's mouth. Every thing I wrote down was agonizingly painful. By the time I finished whatever tome upon which I'd been working, I was exhausted. And I could only hope my work was long enough to qualify as a novel.
Often, it wasn't.
So, what do you do if you complete your Great American What's-It and find it's only 39,000 words long? Is that long enough to qualify? Before sitting back on your laurels, think about a story my agent once told me about a fledgling writer who once submitted a 45,000-word manuscript to a conventional publisher. The editor sent it back with the note, "This isn't a novel; it's a pamphlet."
Ouch! Painful. Especially since a little bit of inquiring would have prevented that.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, the question becomes, What am I going to do about it? You can't submit your work to a conventional publisher as a novel, and few publishers these days publish novellas, a label that's more in keeping with your work's length. I'm guessing you had your heart set on becoming a published "novelist," anyway, which is difficult to pull off without a novel under your belt.
True, you can publish it yourself and label it anything you want, but you won't be fooling anyone, and you certainly won't be setting yourself up as a successful novelist. So, my guess is that you wouldn't mind expanding the book to sixty or seventy thousand words or more so you can submit it for conventional publication. Am I right?
My next guess is that you don't have a clue as to how to go about doing that since you already poured everything you have into your story—beginning, middle, and end—and don't have much left in the tank. Right again?
Wrong! You have a lot more in the tank than you realize. And you could very easily expand your short work into a novel-length tome. Simply start at the beginning, see where you can add a line or two here, a word or two there, and by the time you've gotten to the end, you'll most likely have added an additional two or three hundred words to your total.
Hmm. Okay. On second thought, that won't work. But here's what will.
Outline your story, assuming you haven't already done so. Go through the outline and mark the most important points. Then, ask yourself What if … What if at every turn. Think in terms of adding significant chunks or mini-stories. In short, you're creating sub-plots that will add not only words but also richness and intrigue to your original story.
For example, lets assume that your current story's main character, Jake, is arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and thrown in jail. From there, you charge full-speed ahead, showing how a surprise witness comes to Jake's rescue by telling the cops what he knows about who actually committed the crime. But should you? Instead, perhaps you should digress.
How? I'm glad you asked.
Create a flashback. While Jake is out on bail awaiting charges, have him recall an incident that his father or uncle or brother or best friend Mike told him about, relating to Jake's plight. Show how Mike was in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnessed a crime for which he was arrested. Then, show what he did to get released by using his brains and logic, eventually fingering the actual criminal.
Or, better yet, show how Mike didn't get released despite trying his best to produce new evidence and was found guilty. Maybe his sentence followed him right to the brink of execution when the governor stepped in to pardon him, pending the discovery of new evidence. Or, better yet, show how the governor didn't step in. That would really do a number on Jake's mind as he awaits his fate.
See what I'm getting at here? You can create a sub-plot, have it rattle around Jake's brain while he's awaiting charges, remembering back to what happened to Mike. The results can be five to ten or even twenty thousand additional words added to your book along with a tie-in between the two incidents that makes your main plot all the more vital.
Remember: The easiest way to lengthen and strengthen an existing story is to add large chunks of previously undisclosed information to tie into the main tale.
Of course, even though you may agree that's a great idea, the question remains: Where do I begin? The answer? Right here:
Review each of the spots you marked in your outline. You should have a dozen or more viable possibilities. Evaluate the most interesting candidates with the greatest potential for expansion, and start writing. If adding one sub-plot or scene doesn't add the additional words you need to qualify your book as a novel (I'll say sixty thousand minimum for an adult work and preferably more), go to another spot and add a second one.
Just make sure that, by the story's end, you tie all the additional material together. There are few things that annoy me more—and most other readers—than finishing a book with the nagging question, "Now, why on earth did he put that in there and never explain why?" When you add new material, make sure you give it its own conclusion: "Mike's attorney got him released only twenty-four hours before he was scheduled to be charged. He wrapped his arms around her, gave her a big kiss, and proposed right then and there. The two moved to Lake Tahoe where they've lived for the past thirty-three years."
If, by the way, you follow my advice and still can't conjure a single spot in your outline where you can cut away to another place, event, time, or character, I'm going to go out on a limb and say you're not ready for Prime Time. Your alternatives include hiring a professional book doctor to expand what you've done (or at least offer suggestions for you to follow), write one or two more novellas to combine into an anthology to pitch to conventional book publishers, or punt. It's your call.
Remember: Writers write with their minds. They think creatively. Creativity is boundless, stretching past infinity. If you can't identify with that, take your novella and self-publish it as a book, or try peddling it as a long short story to a magazine that publishes fiction because it's never going to see the light of day as a conventionally published novel.
That's my take on things, anyway.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.