Writer Wednesdays: Word counts

Let’s talk word counts. Right about now, half of you are thinking, “Thank God, another source for my obsessive surfing on word counts.” The other half of you are saying, “Word count? Who cares about word count? The bigger, the better! I write fat!”

You’re both crazy.

Word counts matter. Publishers, especially print publishers, are not going to publish a 240,000-word first novel from an unknown writer with no track record. Paper and ink are expensive. And book stores don’t like to devote so much shelf space to an unknown. Have you ever noticed how skinny the first Harry Potter was compared to the last one? She earned those extra words by selling a crap-load of books with the first one. You haven’t earned it yet.

On the other hand, there is some leeway in electronic publishing. They prefer a minimum of 60k, and they routinely go to 100k or 120k. Still, there aren’t too many stories that really need more than 120,000 words. Seriously, there’s some fat in there — cut it out. You’d have to have an epic cast of characters and plot twists to warrant that, and that’s an issue in itself. The reader gets lost in the forest of people — was Jim the rock star or the drug dealer? — and trying to keep track of who is doing what where and why.

Now, science fiction or fantasy with big worlds to build need more words as building blocks. But it still has to be tightly written. Don’t use the SF label to excuse lazy writing.

What about books that are too short? I finished a YA boy book recently and was horrified to find that it was only 28K. That’s not a novel; that’s a novella! What the heck am I going to do? Well, I realized there were some angles I’d skimped on. I can give more backstory to my characters, flesh out some emotions a little more, and I have a whole section I realized I wanted to add. I think it will still be short — that’s how I write — but it will feel more “explored,” more satisfying. It’s a nice position to be in, needing to add rather than trying to cut 10k by shaving a word here and a sentence there.

There is no real market for novellas in print, but e-publishing is another story.

A blog I like is from Colleen Lindsay, a former agent and part of the business development team at Penguin Group (USA). She had a great post at http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html. She goes into crazy detail, but I’ll give the cliff notes here:

middle grade fiction = 25k to 40k (average at 35k)

YA fiction = 45k to 80k; paranormal/fantasy 100k to 120k 

romance = 85k to 100k

category romance = 55k to 75k

horror = 80k to 100k

mystery/thriller/crime fiction = 90k – 100k

science fiction & fantasy = 100k-120k

What I’m noticing is that 100k is a good number for a lot of genres. So try not to stress too much about the number. Make sure you cut the fat, write a tight, well-edited book, and fully tell the story. Try not to go too far out of range, but if it’s a good story, send it out. They’ll let you know if you need to cut. Oh, yes they will.

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About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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