If you’re an aspiring author like me, eventually two words are going to cross your path if they haven’t already: word count.
If you’re really new to this biz, you may still be telling people about how many pages your book is. And that probably works better for friends and family. But all that agents, editors, and publishers want to hear about is word count.
Why? Because you might be writing in Courier, Times New Roman, Squiggly Wiggly (please don’t), but the one thing that stays uniform across the board is word count. How many words have you crammed into that Word Document that is your novel? But more importantly, how many should you have crammed in there?
As is with a lot of things in the writing world, the answer is it depends. It depends on your genre, your age range, and whether or not you’re JK Rowling or Plain Tryingtagetpublished Jane. But is there any kind of guide for how many words a novel should be?
According to Writer’s Digest, this is a typical guide for novel lengths:
Adult: Commercial & Literary ~80,000-89,000 (for you newbies, if you have it double-spaced with Times New Roman, this will be around 300 pgs, depending on your formatting)
Sci-Fi/Fantasy ~100,000-115,000 although lean toward the short end of that figure
Middle Grade ~20,000-50,000 depending on age range
YA (they say the most flexible of ranges) 55,000 – 69,999 although the trend is getting closer to the top of the 80Ks for the max. Again this depends on genre, story, etc.
Picture Books ~500-600
BUT WHAT ABOUT (INSERT BOOK TITLE)? IT WAS WAY LONGER/SHORTER!
The thing is you can’t use other authors to argue the length of your book because 99% of the time your arguments are invalid. Especially if the author in questions is 1) super famous, or 2) wrote something a long, long time ago. When you’re a household name, you can write a 160,000 word book because odds are your name is the money-maker the publishing world sees (although for your reader’s sake, please don’t).
But if you’re trying to get your book published, even if you are going the self-pub route, the advice I’ve received from a lot of people—both agents and writers—is:
Keep it under 100,000.
Even if you’re sci-fi or fantasy, keep it under 100,000. I’ve read dozens of books I found more than a few scenes that could have easily been snipped. It may be interesting to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to the reader, let alone an agent/publisher. I guarantee there’s something in your novel that can be cut, whether or not you want to own up to it right now.
THE LENGTHINESS OF JAE
I have no problem whatsoever crafting a 100,000+ word story. In my early days it was easy to hit 180,000. And in my naivety I queried that puppy out. Granted, it was fantasy which gave it a little more help.
But not much.
Finally a few kind-hearted agents told me while they thought the idea was interesting, it was simply just TOO LONG. One even suggested trilogy. I finally heeded the advice and I’m so glad I did. When it comes to commercial fiction, readers tend to like multiple books about characters they’ve grown to love—at least I especially do. So take a very sharp katsu and hack that long baby up into more manageable pieces. Even if you can only get it down to 99,000, that will sit a lot better with agents than 100,000. It’s a magical threshold that gives you an extra chance of getting your foot through the door.
MAKE IT WORD COUNT
I know it’s a hard thing to do. That’s why they call it “killing your darlings.” If it was easy, they’d call it, “killing that dead weight you don’t care about anyway.” Go through your work, maybe even label each scene on a 3 x 5 card and then ask yourself: Do I really need this scene? What is this accomplishing for my story? Can I combine it with another scene and achieve the same effect? Is this scene still here because it’s needed or because I want it?
Maybe even cut the scene (whether mentally or physically) and see what you’d have to fix if you got rid of it. I’m currently in the midst of doing this now. It’s a lot of pain-staking work, but necessary if you really want to tell a good story. And especially if you want to wow readers.
Involve beta readers if you’re not sure which scenes those are. They’re in there, I promise. Good luck to us both!
Have you ever had to ‘kill your darlings’? Do you have any techniques you use for identifying dead weight scenes? Do you agree/disagree with the 100K word limit? Why? Give us your added advice below.