Tuesday, June 09, 2009

is there a word count cap for a debut novel?

I got this note the other day:

Hi Moonie,

Could you tell me - are there big word count issues for a first novel? Mine is accessible literary fiction. The thing is. it's edited down to 135,000 words from approximately 150,000 words. I'm wondering if I've gotten it down to an acceptable size. My novel is a period piece, and it has required a good number of words to capture the characters as well as the place, period, and action. Does this sound all right to you? Am I in a reasonable ball park?



Sorry, this is harder to hear than it is for me to say. Honestly, no, you're not in the ballpark, regardless of your topic--you'll get blanket rejections before people even look.

I would say that the absolute upper limit of OK is 100,000 for a debut novel, but you'll find some people turned off to it if it's anything above 80,000.

I'm not making these numbers up from my experience--I've read identical stats on a lot of agent blogs. It's pretty much an industry standard. But (with only a very few exceptions) I think you'll find in a survey of successful literary debut novels, the average page count is between 250 and 400. Often, authors get really famous for longer opuses--but those aren't their debuts. Those are their second or third books.

There are practical reasons for this rule! It's not (entirely) that editors are close-minded pigs. The reason is 100,000 words casts off at about 480 typeset pages. That would make your book...well, a lot of pages--astronomically expensive to produce. Since literary fiction (particularly debuts) sell in smaller numbers than genre fiction, the potential profit margin on your book would be even lower than on another debut. Publishers would be very, very wary of the financial risk they were undertaking.

Furthermore, think of your audience--you're an unknown writer at the onset. But readers are probably going to be more willing to take a chance on you if the commitment is relatively small.

This is really hard for you, the author, in terms of your story, but what I would do is try to whittle it down for your submission. If an agent or later an editor is like, "awesome story, but why didn't you develop the romance between Billy and Matilda [or Craig or Alice or Pete] more?" then you can stick stuff back in.

Also, ask yourself if maybe you've written two books--can you strike out one element of this book and spin a whole other plot out of it? Might as well make all your hard work work for you.

One last word for the wise--I wish that all publishing was based on beautiful writing and wonderful ideas, not on marketability and production costs. I wish literature as the pure art and publishing as the industry had a little bit larger of an overlap. BUT. More content does not always mean better content. So please, revisers who read this and want to accuse me of being mercenary, please believe me when I say there are craft and readability issues central to this as well as production/money ones.

I don't mean this to apply to anyone in particular--and indeed, it may not apply to you--but try to keep in mind as you're revising that probably the most universal flaw in early-career writing is overwriting or over-inclusion of material.

I find that I, personally, feel less regretful about taking a knife to a manuscript (my own or someone else's) when I keep a separate document where I deposit everything I've parted with. There's no reason you can't use good material in something else later, and there's no reason you need it now (unless you NEED it now--and be honest with yourself about the difference between "need" and "really really want").

Hope this helps. Any thoughts out there in the blogosphere?


Christa said...

Well said, Moornat. This is also consistent with what I've read elsewhere as well.

I agree that we beginner writers tend to over-include non-essential information. I don't know how many times I've cut stuff, gone forward with other things and come back a month or two later and found even MORE stuff I now felt extraneous.

Editing, then setting it aside to percolate and coming back to it later has been a wonderful process for me as a writer. Not only do I feel my prose tighten up and improve with each revision, but I see big improvements in my first draft writing as well. Meaning, what I learn from my editing I'm able to apply to new plot as I write.

Carrie said...

I'm on the other side of the word count issue -- my novel is 60K, and I've been told that 80K is the MINIMUM for a debut novel.

Specifically I've received one (very polite) query rejection that was partially on the basis of length,, and I had one (to my mind, impolite) exchange on an agent's blog where I was made to feel quite stupid for thinking any new author could ever get published with such a low wordcount.

For now I'm keeping my novel short, but trying to avoid agents who have said on their blogs or websites that they simply wouldn't be interested. I don't feel comfortable bulking it up just for wordcount reasons... yet.

There definitely appears to be a 80K-100K "sweet spot."

Mary Witzl said...

This is good to hear! I've been whittling down a 110,000 word ms and it's now close to 90,000 words. I'm glad all my hard work hasn't been for nothing.

Anonymous said...

My debut novel was about 180+K words, and yet it was accepted by a large publisher and the editor seemed to think historical fiction readers embraced longer books. So I will venture a contrary opinion and say that 130 or 150K isn't the kiss of death in this genre.

On the OTHER HAND, when the book was made into an audio version (through another publisher), they cut tons. (Can't remember how much -- maybe down to 100K?) And the lesson for me was this: the book didn't change all that much. In other words, the original could have been much slimmer. I've heard more experienced authors say the same thing after being cut for audio. It teaches you what is less essential than you thought.

The current economy may have changed things, but I'd say write the best book you can, tighten where it doesn't hurt too much, and keep the rich period and place detail that you love. Hopefully, an editor will assist with later trims.

Justus M. Bowman said...

Aside: Even though Christa called you "Moornat," I won't put her in a sleeper hold. Or should I? You decide.

Unaside: Everything you posted here made sense to me, except that, like Carrie, I've heard 80,000 words is the minimum word count for a debut novel. What ever shall I do?!

Ello said...

I think anonymous was talking about a different time. Sadly, a different time was only a year ago! Now agents and editors won't look at anything that isn't as tight as a drum. So I'm going to refute what anonymous said. That may have been true a few years back but not in this particular economy. Editors don't have the time to hold your hand and really edit you like they could in the past. They are looking to find MSs that they can publish as is or with very little changes. A huge word count signals to them that the MS is probably not as tight as it could be. So follow Moonie's advice and cut and revise. It will be worth it.

Aerin said...

Carrie and Justus - in your query, just tell them "Moonrat said so." I'm /sure/ agents will bend having read that.

(don't mind me. i'm cranky that Moonrat gets Ello's Youngest child.)

JES said...


It wasn't my question; but as I was reading this thoroughly lucid, level-headed post all I could think was, "Something else to worry about..."

The first draft of the WIP didn't have a page or word count; it had kilogrammage. But that was years ago, and I'm redoing it from scratch. All I can hope is that I've learned something about brevity in 15(ish) years, but in the meantime I just want to stick my fingers in my ears and do the la-la-la song when I encounter advice (however correct) like this.

Will revisit at the end of this draft. If it's still in kilograms rather than pounds then I'll start to sweat. :)

David R. Slayton said...

I think the comment on saving material is especially useful. I keep a pretty large "outtakes" file for my books and these ideas often fit better in another story. They were good ideas to begin with, but there is a reason they got cut. In my last project I had an idea that added too many words by about 5,000. I cut it out and realized that it actually makes a great centerpiece for the opening of my current project.

Rick Daley said...

My novel is a thriller / suspense. The first draft was 135k words. My first revision got it to 125k, and then to 120k when I started querying.

I had a partial request, but the agent felt the narrative was too "sprawling." I re-read it and agreed wholeheartedly.

Now I'm re-writing. Not revising- I'm re-writing from scratch. My goal is under 100k, will probably clock in around 80k.

I have a file on my laptop called "Trimmings" where I put the things I cut out. Plus I save all of my old drafts on my PC and on a flash drive, just in case.

Matt said...

I had a member of my group bring a novel in at about that same length and I gave him the same advice. It was an excellent novel, great story, but it was just too long. It could, with a little work, easily have been two good books rather than one, but I didn't see any way it would get past the slush pile with a cover letter that stated it was one book with 135,000 words.

You hit on some other good points that I hadn't considered - the cost of printing large books from first time authors, page counts, etc.

It is tough to hear that you've over-written a book, but hopefully the author took your advice to heart. Thanks for the post!

Rebecca Knight said...

Helpful post, Moonrat!

I do have a follow up question/comment. Does this depend on genre? I know I've heard that 65k-80k is optimal for romances, but that fantasy novel debuts usually clock in between 85k-125k. I heard the last from an editor and agent at a writer's conference.

Is there truth in this? Is it more genre-specific?

I have heard, that universally anything over 125k is a hard sell. That's a whole lotta book.

Dennis Cass said...

Great post and very timely. I've been wondering what's going to happen to genres (like historical fiction, epic fantasy, etc.) that need more room to deliver on their promises. Do we see fewer of these kinds of books because they are more expensive to produce?

BuffySquirrel said...

80k is about right for a literary novel. You can go higher with genre.

I always save lines and paras that I cut. I have tons of it :D. Sometimes it gets reused.

Cutting out unnecessary words is almost always possible. You could probably take twenty thousand out of this just by shortening every para.

JES said...

Dennis: I wonder about that, too. Presumably what we think of as "literature" is undergoing revision from day to day. It's interesting that print exploded in the first place because (among other reasons) the printing press just cranked out the words so much faster and less expensively than the scribes could; the medium now seems to be a victim of its own success as much as of any outside forces like the economy, the environment, and so on.

It's tempting to say, like, "When all books are e-books then length won't make much difference at all!"

Which will be true cost-wise. But it doesn't account for one thing: that readers' attention spans have been shrinking in parallel with publishing budgets.

The thought of breaking my current book in two does give me the heebie-jeebies. But reality is reality. (Profound, eh?)

Hélène Boudreau said...

If you are struggling to trim your MS, consider whether you've started your novel at the right spot. Often, the first three chapters or so may be backstory, kind of a 'warming' up period for the author. I often have to chop off a big chunk from the beginning of my manuscripts during revisions and it (usually) doesn't hurt a bit.

Gabrielle Faust said...

My first novel was around 90,000 words. I started out with about 135,000 or so. I learned a lot about "killing your darlings" during that first editing process, but it by and far made for a better book!

Anonymous said...

I know this has been discussed other places, but I still haven't been able to find a real answer. What is the word count that agents actually want? My manuscript is a little over 75,000 words according to the counter in Word. But if I do the 250 words per page equation, it comes out to about 90,000. According to this article, one word count would be acceptable and one would be too long. Any thoughts on the matter would be greatly appreciated.

Rickie said...

Hi, I just happen to have read a book about writing an I've heard the average is 50,000 so the upper limit of 100,000 seems about right. I'm sure it may have already been said but have you thought about splitting in 2 or 3?

Anonymous said...

Low word count doesn't always equal fewer pages if thick paper and larger type are used, opposite for high word counts. Book dimensions, paper, typeset, etc, all make a difference.

I think if a long story is well paced throughout, then it's great. Too many of Stephen King's books, for example, should be cut, and cut, and cut... not at all insomnia inducing.

green_knight said...

Ok, this is the hill I'm willing to die on. I write Fantasy - a particular kind of fantasy, and I really see no way of getting 115-120K down to 90K without, well, butchering the story. I've _read_ those kinds of books, and hated them - too thin, missing out too much, and in one case I went several times to look for the chapter between where we left the protagonist and where we are now, because a whole chunk of story was just excised from the file, and if it had been an electronic file, I'd have asked the author to resend with the missing bits.

And I don't care how many authors overwrite - not everybody does. I dare anyone to cut 25K from Pride and Prejudice without butchering the story.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Yep, with you on this one Moonie. My first novel was a mammoth 150k+. It's edited down to 100k, but I'd be happy to prune further if that's what publishers want now :)

moonrat said...

Woo! Time for me to jump in. Sorry I let comments get stacked up!

So re: finding word count: I like the counting function in Word.

I publish literary novels (among other things). My "sweet spot" seems to be 72,000 words. It happens time and again. I think that's a good length for a literary novel--or an "upscale commercial fiction" novel, to borrow a turn of phrase.

I would say I get wary if a ms is below 50,000 words when I get it; the truth is I tend to strike out text, since even short novels aren't necessarily NOT victims of overwriting. I'd say 60,000 is kind of a "definitive" novel length, and 50,000 is a bare minimum in the industry.

This is only for literary and commercial "slash" literary fiction. Genre is, indeed, different, depending on the genre.

I don't work on much genre myself, so I shouldn't speak to it, but I agree with whoever it was who said 125,000 was an absolute upper limit even for longer genres like sci-fi.

Christa said...

Ack -- Justus is right. I misspelled your name, Moonrat. SORRY!

I do agree with Rick, as I also keep copies of each version I've made.

So much easier to edit and track stuff with computers. I couldn't imagine attempting this process with just pen and paper.

Green Knight, I agree to a point. I write epic fantasy and personally prefer to get 'lost in a world' as I read. For that reason, I think writing an epic fantasy at 80,000 or less probably can't be done without sacrificing much of the value of the genre.

My goal on word count is between 100-120,000. I think that is reasonable for epic fantasy without shorting the reader or the story.

Stuart Neville said...

I tend to underwrite in early drafts. THE TWELVE was about 75k at the time of the first or second draft, but the version about to be published is around 95k.

This is because I tend to write action first and foremost. I use the word action loosely, here. I regard action as not just physical stuff happening, but anything that's maintaining forward momentum. That could be dialogue or a character's internal realisation. In later drafts I add the description and the character detail.

My agent has told me he'd like book two to be longer, and my contract with Harvill Secker/Random House stipulates 90k as a minimum word count - it's actually in black and white, it has to be at least that long.

From talking to my agent, he tells me he only gets concerned if the word count is heading far north of 100k. I think for a thriller, 80k to 100k is probably the right range. If went much higher than 100k I think you'd start to lose pace. Some crime writers, like James Ellroy in his new book, seem to be able to manage 130k to 150k, but still keep it tight. But I think they're the exception.

Interestingly, I noticed my publisher kept the type setting in my book fairly small so that the 95k fits into 336 pages. I think this might be for two reasons: one, to keep productions costs down. And two, probably more importantly, to give the impression of a fast read - a slimmer book always feels like its going to be quick, where as something more chunky feels like it's going to be harder work. Moonrat - does that make sense? Is that aspect ever a consideration?

Pamala Knight said...

Very wise words indeed. I keep a file to save all the stuff that I take out too so that if some other change I've made reinvigorates that particular thread or makes more sense if I add the edited material once again.

But what do I know--I'm still terrified of writing a query letter since my synopsis makes not only my characters but me, by extension, sound insane.

So, we'll just take your word for it Moonie, because you know what you're talking about.

Andy said...

I found your blog recently while hunting for useful info on this whole process.

I wanted to thank you for all the helpful stuff you put out there.

I've just finished my 1st attempt at a novel, genre fiction (sci/horror/fant/something), coming in right at 100k. That's the typo corrected (hopefully!) rough draft. I'm currently trying to trim it down past that & tighten up a few points.

I'm seeing the potential wisdom of "chopping off the front" - the background stuff - because that's the only place it seems that I could really cut & not have things be choppy.

However, I tend to find a lot fo value in the background in the genre books I read, so I'm wary of either submitting a potentially cumbersome vs. potentially background light piece. Waiting for some reader feedback.

/end ramble

Anonymous said...

"accessible literary fiction"


Is that a genre?!

Seriously, I'm only in the market for inaccessible lit fiction right now, so I'm going to have to pass.

I believe the pohrase you want to go with should be, "upmarket literary fiction."

And yes, in case you're wondering, if you don't even know how to market or label what you've written, chances are you don't need so many words, either. That's how the agents will call that one.

verdict: change the genre description, cut about 25K words, and thank me later.

Anonymous said...

80K is mighty thin for a novel. Maybe a lean mean thriller might be pulled off at 80k, but even those are more like 90k these days, for debuts.

Anonymous said...

Word count dilemma writer:

Word count in Word says 75k, 250 words/page says 90k, what to do?

first of all, make sure yor formatting is standard: new courier or Times 12 pt font, double-spaced with 1" margins all around the page.

If it is and you still have a discrepancy, I'd split the differene to be safe and call it 83K words, then let the agent/editor/pub worry about it.

WendyCinNYC said...

Thanks, Moonie. It's always good to know this kind of thing while it's still fixable.

I tend to write short, so I had to beef mine UP to 80,000 without changing the story. It was quite a task, but I'm pleased with how the novel turned out.

Anonymous said...

I find it easier to add stuff in than to take stuff out, so writing the first draft short works for me, and than backstories, subplots can be added in rewrites to flesh it out.

HWPetty said...

This is such a hard issue, mostly because there are some glaring exceptions. But what I keep telling myself is that those are "exceptions."

I love the idea of keeping a file of cut material.

But I'm in a similar place. I cut down from 140 (first draft) to 115k, and need to cut at least 15-25k more. I just don't know where to cut anymore, and neither does my crit group or beta partner. At this point I'm just looking for some kind of editorial direction.

What do you do when you get to the point where cutting diminishes the story?

Anonymous said...

I agree that 80K is too short--almost into novella territory.

for a debut, if you had to pick a single number to hit, I'd go with 90K.

It's unquesitonably novel length--no whiners that they didn't get their money's worth, but it's also not excessively wordy, taking up too much of people's time and making it too expensive to produce.

90K, the debut word count of choice!

susannah eanes said...

This is actually really good news for me - I have a manuscript that is only about 90k words and I thought it was too short. Was trying to think of something to stretch it to at least 100k - looks like that won't be necessary.

In fact, a bit of trim may be in order, which is quite gratifying. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


Why do you "need" to cut 25K more?

Are you contracted and that's what the contract stipulates?

At any rate, what you might do is to create a chapter by chapter outline--just write a 1 sentence description of what happens in each chapter, as you have it now, and then read it with an eye toward what might be cut while leaving the story intact.

Anonymous said...

"My novel is a thriller / suspense. The first draft was 135k words. My first revision got it to 125k, and then to 120k when I started querying."

Geez man, that's WAY too long for a debut thriller.

The suspense is probably choking somewhere in all those extra words. 80K seems reaaaaaaaly short, though--I'd shoot for 90K, the debut novel length of champions!

the wanderer said...

This is great information Colleen Lindsay did a great blog post on Word Count in terms of different genres as well.


Whirlochre said...

Is 80,001 OK if the 80,001st word is nebulosity, grope or kumquat?

moonrat said...

Whirlocre--if it is "nebulosity," i suppose so. the other two simply won't do.

moonrat said...

I'm going to leave the genre folk to hash out their own rules here--it seems that there are other (and higher) opinions for thrillers.

Stuart, I appreciate the data from your contract--that should be at least one kind of indicator for thriller goals.

and as far as tiny font on pages go--i HATE small font. it's a reason (for me) to put books down. althoughnow that i've seen the magic of a Kindle first hand, i might just switch to ebooks so i can make my font gihugic all the time.

Being Beth said...

Excellent post, Moonrat.

One thing that has helped me keep my novel tight has been to write flash fiction. To tell a story in 500 words or less, you soon learn just how much can be omitted without changing the story.

I do keep a folder with all of the stuff I've cut. It's full of poetic sentences that I adore -- most of them overwritten.

BookEnds, LLC said...

As a genre agent I'll step in. This is a great post and honestly, I don't think you can go wrong in the 80k range for anything you're writing whether it's literary, thriller, romance, mystery, etc. It's a safe number so when in doubt go 80k. And it's certainly not a novella.

That being said I do think some genre books (like lighter mysteries) can go as low as 70k and yes, epic fantasy can go as high as 125k. But the truth is if you're asking about word count the safe place to be is about the 80k-100k range. No one is going to balk at any book in that range.

I'm not going to discuss category romance at all since each has a very specific word count.


Tara Maya said...

I've seen both sides. I've seen the newbie novels which are too long because of clunky writing, so I understand the fear.

But as a reader, I agree with green kninght, certain genres, such as fantasy, suffer anemia if deprived of too many words. I love a good, thick, epic.

There are many pros and cons to ebooks, but I would hope that one pro would be an end to the need to limit word count (on either end) in this arbitrary fashion, and let the work speak for itself. I know, not all costs disappear for greater length without printing -- editing is still more -- but at least the shelf space argument would be gone.

Amie Stuart said...

>>It's a safe number so when in doubt go 80k. And it's certainly not a novella.

WORD!!! Novellas usually run about 100 pages. 80k is about 320.

Anonymous said...

To me a "full-length novel" should be at least 85k.

Less than that and you have short novels, down to about 65k, I guess, and below that are your novellas, down to about 25k, I guess, and below that are the short stories.

I have seen several publishers indicate on their websites that they are only interested in "full-length novels," although oftentimes no actual word count is given.

cindy said...

i can only give numbers from personal experience. i originally wrote silver phoenix as straight adult fantasy, so 95k word count seemed reasonable enough to me. =) i subbed to 121 agents, straight fantasy and then to YA. only ONE agent mentioned my word count.

it went to auction and the mss was sent to press at 79k words. i queried january - april 2008. sold the novel in may 2008.

i would say definitely have the tightest cleanest mss you can! and aim for 75k - 85k. if the editor loves it enough, i believe s/he will revise with you. because no matter how tight your mss is, it's still going to be revised, trust me.

good luck to everyone!!

Ruth said...

That's interesting - on most other agent blogs I've read, I thought an acceptable word limit for a debut was around the 80-130k mark.

My first draft weighed in at 111,000 words, but that's cos I chucked in a whole lotta backstory and useless words that I'll be taking out and re-editing.

Once it's revised and polished I expect it to end up at around the 85-90k mark. I was worried this would be too short - I write fantasy, and most fantasy books seem to be a little longer than other genres. But that word limit should be fine, or even a little too long, then?

Anonymous said...

Author of letter here.

Thanks, Moonrat, for the honest advice. And thanks to your friends at BookEnds as well - I just read their word count note - and it works with the range you gave me - 80K to 100K.

That's where I'm heading. One way or the other.

Anonymous said...

80K to 100K.

How could anyone think there's anywhere else to be in genre fiction! Anything outside of that sets off the "Danger Will Robinson! Experimental Art Project!!" warning bells!

JoeW said...

I seem to have had the opposite experience of many: My first novel--yes, it's historical, set in NYC in the 1920s--was 140,000 words and sold at auction to Touchstone in January. After editing, it's about 128,000.

Interestingly, when I was celebrating with my agent, she asked how many words it was. I told her, and she was startled. She'd read it on a Kindle, which doesn't use word or page counts, only percentages. In the eBook future, will length matter less?

Anonymous said...

Author here again. Joe, sounds good.

I've been told I won't even receive an audience (a reading, a chance to be read...) unless the word count is whittled - so - to be published - I'm gonna have to deal with it.

JoeW said...

Good luck, author! Hope it works out wonderfully for you.

I was very lucky...I had an agent willing to read anything I showed her--and then she loved the book and became a fierce advocate for it. I had no idea that there were word-count rules.

Anonymous said...

There's always exceptions.

But if you draw a bell curve graph of # novels published vs. word counts for debut novels, Joe with his 140K is definitely out on the right tail of the bell. Most are in the middle hump, which is your 80-100k range.

Linda said...

Great and depressing post, Moonie... I'd heard the range for lit (from agents and editors) was 80-120k. My first novel falls in that range, though not in the 80-100k range. It's marinating now, though, so we'll hone the blade in a few months and draw some blood... Peace, Linda

misti said...

I concur--bread pudding is legit. I dream of it.

Colleen_Katana said...

In both publishing houses that I worked (one literary, one commercial), the max for any debut was, indeed, 100k. Less typically for the commercial fiction, but they make small exceptions for mindblowing manuscripts.

JoeW said...

Wow, I'm retroactively shaken by all these other experiences! Maybe my novel would be better 30,000 words shorter--I can't even imagine--but I'm glad my agent or editors didn't say ahead of time, "Cut it down to 100K. That's the rule."

Though I totally understand all the arguments on the other side of this issue. It's a challenge.

s.w. vaughn said...

Just to toss out more numbers, in case anyone isn't confused enough:

My debut novel (urban fantasy) is right around 100K (pre-revisions, at the moment). My contract calls for the sequel to also be around 100K.

But when I finished the version of the debut novel that I sent to my agent, it was around 85K. We ended up adding more during edits with her.

Are we sufficiently confused? :-)

green_knight said...


What do you do when you get to the point where cutting diminishes the story?

You either cut and damage the story, decide that you can tell a different, shorter story that shares many of the elements of your book, or make that book as good as you can and look for someone who loves it as much as you do.

Jeff said...

As a typesetter, my experience is that 100,000 words is no where near 480 pages. That length can be typeset at anywhere from 400 pages (very large type) to even less than 300 pages (small but readable type if the right font is chosen.)

All publishers know how to manipulate the typesetting to reduce or expand the book to the desired size.

BTW, I know of at least one debut novel (literary fiction) contracted earlier this year for 6 figures that is just over 110,000 words.

And take a look at Arthur Phillips debut PRAGUE...huge word count. Perhaps it depends upon the genre, but focus on the story rather than word count.

Justus M. Bowman said...

I agree with Moonrat: tiny font counteracts the charm of a thin book. Bring on fat font, fat books!

Kate said...

This is really interesting to know. Great post :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I guess I don't have much to say. I don't think I could write a book that long.

Rachael King said...

My beautifully designed and typeset debut hardcover with William Morrow was 116,000 words and 340 pages. It looks quite slim in fact. At no point when I submitted by novel through agent to publishers did anybody reject it for being too long. In fact. nobody even asked me how long it was - it was as long as it needed to be. It is a historical novel - perhaps, as others have suggested, that genre is an exception.

mapelba said...

I keep thinking about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

But anyway... make every word earn its right to be there. Tell a good story.

It is so hard to get an agent's attention--and word count is just one issue. It takes more than a magic number.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Wading in here.

The more pages, the more it costs to make the book - and yes, the more trees! Also, the fatter the book, the fewer they can fit on the shelves in bookstores.

Let that thought percolate for a moment.
You will only have three copies on the shelf, where someone else might have five in the same amount of space. Therefore you will need to write the most incredibly amazing, grippingly fabulous story ever told to sell more books and keep the book shop ordering in your title.

It's a tough world out there. Don't make it any harder on yourself.

Don't give an editor or agent a reason to recoil by sending in a whopper. As other authors here have already said, all books can use a trim.

Don't give a reader or potential buyer an excuse to move on to the next book on the shelf because yours is so heavy and dense they'll snap their wrists just holding the damn thing.

Don't give potential buyers a heart attack when they turn the book over and see the price sticker.

Yes, there are always exceptions to this rule, but these are a small percentage. That's why they're called exceptions.

Now I'm going to take a dose of my own medicine :-)

JoeW said...

I guess the counterpoint to Ebony's point about price points (!) is that the difference in price between a fat book and a thin one isn't huge. Edgar Sawtelle, 570 pages, costs $25.95, while Ruth Reichl's new book about her mother is $19.95 for 128 pages. You're not going to get an 80,000-word novel selling for much less than a 120,000-word one.

As far as the idea that the store will order fewer of a fat book, maybe. But I've also heard it argued by booksellers that readers want to feel like they're getting their money's worth, that they like being enveloped by fiction, that they don't want it to end too soon. Water for Elephants, Edgar Sawtelle, The Given Day, The Book Thief, etc, etc, are all big, big books that did well. She's Come Undone. Lonesome Dove.

I guess some part of me still feels that "Write to the length of your book" is the best advice of all. At least it did work for me.

BuffySquirrel said...

Seems to me that the solution to shrinking attention spans (if in fact they are shrinking) isn't shorter books. It's books of whatever length that hold the reader's interest. A longer attention span can be developed, but not if it's never called upon.

Pink Ink said...

This is a really helpful post, thanks.

My most recent WIP clocks in at 98K and I have decided my next WIP will be shorter just so that the copying costs won't be a killer :-P

Jackie Gamber said...

I can't agree more with the idea of cutting word count to a more marketable length. As a small press publisher, I often receive queries for long novels with the disclaimer: the writer feels their work needs the depth and/or breadth of the word count. Generally, however, it's often a case of too much inclusion.

I find prologues and first chapters are often the biggest villians of "too much".

Matilda McCloud said...

Every time I read my novel I slice and dice it, so it keeps getting slimmer and slimmer...now it's barely 70K. I envy those people who can write such long novels! I know I need to bulk it up a bit, but it's so much easier for me to delete than add ("when in doubt, strike it out" seems to be my mantra). But perhaps in this economy, my slim book may be more enticing? I hope?

A. Grey said...

Just found your blog. VERY informative, if a little intimidating for an aspiring author.

So word count. I understand on some levels, but it kills me on others. My first draft (Epic Fantasy) was somewhere up around 180k. Totally whack, I'm aware. I've carved and sculpted and it's down around 123k now. I've revised it dozens of times and the truth is that it's getting better and tighter each go round.

Trouble is, I'm to the point where I'm going to start loosing cohesion if I cut out more scenes. I'm sure that an expert could avoid that, but if I was an expert, I'd be published and yadayadayada...

Which brings me to the frustration of things like *ahem* Twilight. I'm NOT criticizing. But those books are 160k and LONGER, and trust me 60k could have been hacked easy, I've read them, I know. So is it really dumb luck that books of any genre over 80k get picked up by anyone, anywhere?

Anonymous said...

Author again.

I agree, BuffySquirrel.

Now, if only we had some company...

moonrat said...

welcome, new friends.

i think the discussion here is interesting, because obviously other people have more genre experience than i do. i appreciate all the chipping in.

re: the really long literary debut blockbusters: JONATHAN STRANGE, THE HISTORIAN, uhh... there are probably others, but. i think it's interesting to look at the authors' histories, and the fact that they have a particular kind of platform and story built up behind them. (in both those mentioned cases, i believe it was long-suffering english professor who had done a great deal of nonfiction or scholarly writing and who had been working quietly in a garret for 10 years or something). in both those cases (and probably others--help, anyone?) there was a LOT of buzz built up beforehand, and the authors were NOT without platform. also, those were slightly different times.

there are, of course, exceptions. but. you know. "exceptions."

mapelba said...

There are always exceptions. One person wins the lottery doesn't mean I'm going to. And every overnight success isn't overnight. But when I go into a bookstore I only see the book. I don't know if the author worked for six months or ten years--unless I'm a writer and read up on these things.

Buzz. Maybe if I start living my life in a bumblebee suit I'll finally get some buzz.

Of course, usually when I hear a buzz I get stung.

Beth Kephart said...

Sometimes, on rainy days, you make your way over to the perfectly timed post (even if you are a few days late). This is one of them. I have always written shorter than longer—a literary minimalist if there is such a thing. Now, 20,000 words into my 13th book, I am thinking bigger and broader and wondering just how broad I can reasonably go. This has been a fabulous discussion.

Josh said...

I'm reading this post a couple of months after it's essentially been put to bed, but I'd like your professional opinion.

I am very near what I believe is the halfway point in my first novel, based on what I know still needs to happen. However, my word count currently sits at 60,000. I feel I'm looking at a completed work of 120 to 140k.

Now I know this is too much, and I already have an idea what pieces I've written so far will go on the chopping block, but my quesiton is when should that happen? I'm definitely trying to be more mindful of not letting things run away now that I'm settling in to the second half, but as far as what I've already written, is it better to hack it to pieces now, or just get it all out and assess what needs a good cutting once it is all down?

Thanks so much for your opinion!

moonrat said...

Josh--(comments get sent to me via email so it doesn't matter how late you are; no thread is dead!)--I would say write to the end. Don't cut until you've finished. Also, don't crimp your ending because you feel word pressure.

When you do cut, have someone read it first. Depending on your style of writing, cutting may be scenes, chapters, or just lines per paragraph. But don't think that your STORY should be the first thing to go. (It probably shouldn't.)

Anonymous said...

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare - 130K

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer - 120K

Both debut novels published before either of them got big.

Anonymous said...

Cassandra Clare's City of Bones was just a bit over 130K

Twilight was 119K

So...it depends.

onefinemess said...

This is such a useful post & thread - thank you!

I wonder if anyone knows if there's still any kind of market for what I call "pulp" fantasy & sci-fi. By this I mean the books I remember reading as a kid that I suspect were originally targeted at adults.

Things like Saberhagens' Swords series, Zelazny's Amber stuff. Things that didn't look thick on the shelf (and I think ran under 300 pages). Things that I could read in one sitting these days.

Myself, I love epic fantasy, but sometimes it wears on me, and it seems like the entire fantasy publishing genre is chasing after these monolithic series. I wanted something lighter. Literally.

So, I set out to write something like that, and it looks like it will clock in right around 60k.

Does this seem worth pursuing in this manner to anyone else?

I suppose I could recast it for YA, but it does have scenes of graphic fantasy violence. Which I kind of like... :P.

hapax legomenon said...

Word economy is easy. The hard part is figuring out which actions and plot elements can be safely skipped over. Also, some transitions aren't really necessary. But I can usually eliminate most of this in second or third drafts. At the end of revising, you tend to focus on problem sentences. A lot of times I play with several versions of the same sentence, and then for kicks, I ask, "if I threw out the line/paragraph/scene altogether, what would happen to the story?" I do this for every single paragraph.

As for story length, the real question is: does the story work as well as it should? Overlong stories seem tedious, and if you haven't cut things out, your story won't seem as lovely. A writer just has to know when the story can't be made any better (it requires several cold reads at least). It's not really a question of word count.

After a strong first draft, I keep a running word count at the top of the page. Every day I note the new word count. It's a game I play. Eventually you reach a point where you can't cut any more...or where cutting does more harm than good.

In my genre of erotic writing, conveying sensory details is important, yet if you say too much, you make things seem syrupy/awful. I've learned to minimize the number of times I expand on a thought or emotion. Once or twice in a story, you can get away with this expansion, but if you do it too much or too often, it hurts the overall story.

I can't think of the marketing reasons for word count except to say with ebooks it's less of a factor than before. But contemporary readers have little tolerance for narratives that lingers at too many places too often.

30wpm! said...

Hello Moonrat and others...

I came to read this blog by googling the average word count of novels. Most of what I've read has told me between 80k and 100k is optimal. My current work is only now in the finished 1st draft stage, and falls fairly short of that target range. The idea is that once I have the skeleton, I can add the muscle, then the skin.

I am actually an amateur animator, and this project started as a story synopsis for my debut full length animation project. After I began writing it and I got deeper into the story, I've realized I have something of a science fiction novel.

My question is about length in proportion to events. As of now I have 9 major events, revolving around 4 main characters, and my word count after detail beefing (due to advice I found in this blog site) will be roughly 85k. In a matter of opinion, would this be too many major events(battles, story archs) to cram into 85k?

I do understand that the content is far more important than numbers, but if I'm going to ask this question, it'd might as well be here.


Kevin said...

I admit, all of this conversation really concerns me. My historical fiction novel comes in at 200K right now. There are a couple areas that I can (ie. will) cut, but that might account for about 5K-10K only. I've even already cut out about a dozen sections that weren't essential under the "if it doesn't move it, lose it!" axiom. My plot relies on the development of two opposing characters, and I can't cut much more without making the story seem forced or jerky.

And what about the dozen or so first-novel historical fiction stories that I have on my bookshelf, published within the last five years, that are about 250K in length or more? I can't seem to reconcile the propensity for these long tracts with the commentary I'm hearing here and elsewhere.

I'm almost forced to agree with the folks who replied, "Write to the length of your novel". Otherwise, how do you explain these other novels?

Anonymous said...

Hmm... so my wife's 457k first draft of her first book is a little long? This will be an interesting editing process...

Anonymous said...

Okay, this is when I start to think about why I even write.... I have a YA novel that clocks in at 153 000 words.

It started out as a cute little thing on 50k and quickly took up speed. When I finished it nearly a year ago, I was stunned to see the word count. Even now I feel like there's much I've missed out on telling the readers.

I could divide it into two or three novels, I guess... the story's divided into three parts because of the three "years" in the novel, so I'd have to write some more and divide it at appropriate places... But I can't bring myself to cut a massive 60k from it, I can't! The novel would crumble and die from it, I'm sure. Most people who've read it feel that it's an "okay" lenght, but yeah, I know - 153k is A LOT!

AlyMae said...

I've been working on becoming a more sadistic writer so that I can actually enjoy killing my darlings in order to produce a more perfected piece of writing. Sounds sick, but as much as I love them, they are only words and they won't bleed, and they aren't truly dead, just moved out of the way.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had read these comments two years ago when I started writing. Now I'm just starting on the 4th book of a quartet - each book being around 180k after much editing. It looks like I'll have to make it an 8 book series. The trouble is, they don't read long - they read to the length of the story. Slash and burn, slash and burn.