Monday, March 23, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff Week: Word Up! Word Counts

I'm in the mood for a theme week, so I'm going to talk about the stuff that writers typically agonize over at some point. These are the things we debate on the boards, but ultimately don't matter as much as we think they do.

On the list for the week:

Word counts
Exclamation points
Back story
Fonts and formatting

Word Counts

One of the first things writers do is figure out how big the book is going to be. You don't always know, but you usually have a general idea to shoot for. Going over or under can send a writer into a fit of panic. And there's so much contradictory info out there. For every person who says you'll never get published with a 145,000 word book, another says BestsellerBob was 145,000 words, so don't worry. The really frustrating part, is that they're both right. But it's all depends on the book. (Doesn't it always?)

Basic word count for a typical novel runs between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Mysteries often go as low as 60,000 and historical fiction and epic fantasy rise as high as 140,000. Children's fiction runs 30,000 to 50,000 for middle grade, and 50,000 to 80,000 for young adult. Chapter books run 5,000 to 25,000 words. Picture books come in under 500.

Now, none of these are set in stone, as evidenced that The Shifter, my middle grade novel, is 71,000 words. But it still falls under the basic YA guidelines. You'll also find plenty of people who offer different ranges, which is okay. These are all just rough guidelines to give you a basic idea of how big a typical book runs. Plenty of books fall outside of these averages and nobody cares about that if the book is good.

Here's something I've learned since selling my own novel and working with top-notch, professional editors who do this for a living.

It's not about how many words you have, but what those words do, that counts.

This, folks, is the holy grail of word counts.

The goal of any story is to grab the reader from the start, offer them a story they just can't put down, and hold that attention until the end. The trick is to make sure every word you use does exactly that. You can have 75,000 words that don't grab a reader and the book will fail. You can have 140,000 words that grab a reader and don't let go and the book will succeed. It's the story that matters. A great book is a great book.

That said, a published novel is a product, and as a product, certain rules apply. These rules exist to cover things like cost of making the book vs. what they can sell it for, and if a book will cost twice as much, it's not economical to sell it. Readers won't pay $16 for a 2500-page paperback. (forget how they'd even hold the thing)

Agent Rachelle Gardner has a fabulous post about that commercial restraints here. To summarize, she equates books to songs, movies and TV shows, all which have very strict requirements on length to make them commercially viable. And how no one in those industries whines or worries about it. The commercial restrictions don't stymie creativity, it's just the format needed for the product.

Writing may be an art, but publishing is a business. Your book is a product within that business. Do whatever you want to express yourself creatively, but if you want to sell it, it needs to meet certain criteria. But unlike the extremely strict requirements of TV, novel criteria are more flexible. They aren't do or die unless you're really outside the norm. And word counts help you figure out that norm.

Word count guidelines provide a framework in which to plan a novel, and can actually make it easier for a writer, because you have a structure within which to work. But ultimately, you need to tell the story to the best of your ability, however many words that is. If a word isn't pulling its weight, cut it. If it's a star performer, let it shine. Take the general ranges of your chosen genre into account, as they will guide to to what readers -- and publishers -- expect and are willing to pay for, but don't freak out if you go over or under. Just make sure the extra words are there to help your story, and not because you don't feel like editing any tighter. It's not about cutting it down to reach a certain limit, it's about tightening to make the story better.

So, how many words should your book be?

As many as it needs.


  1. I've always believed in making each word earn its place in my books. I tend toward minimalism, I suppose. But, you are so right that the realities of the marketplace can't be ignored. Great article.

    Marcia Calhoun Forecki
    Better Than Magic

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  3. It's good that you are writing this blog. I think many authors focus too much on the small stuff and over-analyze all writing. For example, I had a beta reader refuse to beta read my manuscript unless I removed the prologue simply because 'prologues are a sign of a beginning writer'.

    Not too long ago, I read an article about cartooning where the author pointed out that many artists focus too much on trying to gain the approval of their peers and not enough on trying to gain the approval of their target audience. I think this statement also applies to the publishing world.

    From what I've seen in online writer communities, too many authors dance around the pet peeves of agents and publishers, but focus very little on who the target audience is and what they care about. I used to wonder why most books don't earn their advances, but after spending years reading agent blogs and writer websites, I'm no longer surprised.

  4. Your book should be however many words it needs to be.

    Note that I said needs. Once you develop it like a well-fluffed pillow and trim all the excess threads (and/or fabric), it'll likely be within a standard word limit. If it isn't, you should be able to identify an objective reason for that.

    And I've been a member on some of those writer communities. The most critical feedback came from folks who I can objectively say had no idea what they were talking about. In many cases, if I'd taken their advice, I would've wrecked my writing, because they were so focused on what was correct in general that they couldn't see what would be correct for my specific story.

    That said, my best beta is a fellow writer of YA fantasy. She writes on the Twilight end of the spectrum (romantic fluff). I write fantasy closer to the Neverwhere end (darkly disturbing). We both want to be more balanced. I therefore restrain my beta from taking a swan dive off the Cliff of Infatuation Angst, and she makes sure I don't defect to the Dark Side of the Plot.

  5. Great post - when I finished my epic fantasy [or so I hope] I had over 211,000 words. My plans are to have a series anyway and cutting the book into two books didn't really seem as an option. So, I am cutting, cutting, rewriting, and cutting some more.

  6. How long must a book be? How long's a piece of string?

  7. The main danger to having wordcount "boundaries" is that some authors might start padding to get up to a certain count when the story really doesn't need them. Or they do so in a way that is counter-productive.

    Always beware of filler. NEVER sacrifice tightness to get up to a specific word count goal!

  8. That's a good point, but that applies no matter what the word count it. And a whole other post :)