General, The Publishing Process, The Writer's Life

910 Words About Word Count

Okay, let’s do the math. (Approximate word counts noted.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling – 257,000 words.

The Stand, Stephen King – 464,000 words.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy – 560,000 words.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – 68,000  words.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,000 words.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker – 67,000 words.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 108,000 words.

Your Novel, Your Name – ???

If you’ve finished a novel, you know how much ink, sweat and tears goes into the process of putting all those words to paper. So just how many words do you have in that book, anyway? If you’re like a lot of unpublished authors, you may have more words than you ought. (Or in rare cases, too few.)

Now, before I go one step further, I need to tell you my philosophy on word count. I believe a novel ought to include exactly as many words as necessary to tell the tale well.

No more. No less.

However, if you’re seeking publishing through traditional methods, you will soon discover that there is a generally-accepted word count for the book you just finished. Yup. That women’s lit masterpiece you just did a word-count check on? If it doesn’t fall within the 80,000-100,000 range, you may soon be experiencing that familiar writer-pang called rejection. I say may be because there’s a slim chance your 150,000-word novel is the perfect length. But unless it’s excellent, and I mean The Time Traveler’s Wife excellent, edigents (see yesterday’s post for definition of that word) will likely pass simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable range. The same is true for your 50K word novel (which most publishers would qualify as a novella).*

I hear you. I really do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you based on word count alone that your novel isn’t worth publishing. The list above includes a few rather spectacular novels – and every one of them falls outside the “sweet spot” publishers have informally adopted (for a variety of reasons, including market acceptance, printing cost, and even a little thing called “postage”). But if you want to avoid the “easy pass” from edigents, your best bet is to submit a novel that falls somewhere in that sweet spot.

So, what do you do with that 150,000-word novel you love so dearly? Well, you have two choices: cut 50,000 words, or set it aside. Cutting that many words from a novel isn’t easy. But it can be done.

I am working with two contracted novelists right now. One is writing his first full-length novel (his first published book was a novella – he was allowed outside of the sweet spot because his story had a compelling premise and offered a fresh take on the genre – so right there is living proof that there are exceptions). His first delivered draft for this new novel was over 140,000 words. I’m working away on his second draft and it’s already down to about 104,000 words. In my line edit, I probably will cut another 5,000 words or so. And here’s the best news: the novel is much stronger at 100,000 words than it was at 140,000.

Another previously-published author recently turned in his after-my-editorial-notes second draft. His task was a bit more daunting. The first version came in at a whopping 200,000 words. This is not that unusual for the genre he’s writing (fantasy), but his contract asked for a 100,000-word book, so he had work to do. Could we have convinced the publisher to increase the size of the book? Maybe. (And we did get approval to land closer to 120,000 words.) But to do that would require an increase in the cover price for the book (paper ain’t cheap). And that means (potentially) fewer sales. It’s all a balancing act, to be sure, but guess what? The author trimmed 80,000 words! Yes, you read that right. I’m reading and doing the line edit on the novel now. And as I am, I’m discovering it is…wait for it…better than it was (and it was already quite good). It’s dense – as fantasy novels often are – but in a good way. Like a fine wine reduction. (What? You’re surprised I know about wine reductions? Hey, I cook sometimes. Actual meals that don’t utilize the microwave.)

So my point is – it is possible to cut words from your hefty tome without killing it. I have two vivid examples right here in front of me. And out west there are two happy authors who like the result of their (admittedly painful and difficult) trimming work.

As I said above, though, you don’t have to trim your word count if you don’t want to. Set that novel aside. Or self-publish it. But if you want to improve your chances of getting published? Write a novel in the 80,000-100,000 word range and submit that. Then someday when you’re uber-successful, you can send your extra-long novel in for consideration. Just be prepared… even then, your editor might suggest trimming a few thousand words.

It’s what we do best.

Have a nice day.

*The word count range for Young Adult novels tends to be lower, in the 50,000-80,000 word range. Fantasies can sometimes tip the scales at 120,000 words. And historical fiction (not historical romance so much) may even go higher, upwards of 140,000 words. These are all estimates and please keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rule. The problem is…everyone thinks their book is the exception. This is not the case, otherwise it would be the rule, not the exception. Got it?

20 thoughts on “910 Words About Word Count

  1. Impossible! In fantasy, the more words, the better!

    Someday, the world will recognize the true genius of Mervyn “Verbosity” Peake’s Gormenghast novels. That is… if anyone ever lives long enough to finish reading the Gormenghast novels… I started reading them in the early 90s and I’m almost finished with the first volume.

  2. Good work all around, fellas.

    For women’s fiction and some suspense, many of us are moving toward between 70 and 80K, finding that the leaner, well-paced story is hitting the right target.

    Twilighters and Jodi Picoult fans are scoffing, but those stories pack too much fat, even if they sell.

    1. Thanks for the word count update, Shannon. I’m all for leaner, well-paced women, too. What? Oh, right. I meant leaner, well-paced stories.

      I think I need an editor.

  3. I could go on & on about the subject. I have trouble shutting up sometimes. I’ll probably have a big job on my hands when I finish writing my novel. Especially since it’s for YA.

    Anyway… I just want to say that, every time I read your word “edigent”, it makes me think of “indigent”. Just saying…

    1. Yes. Well, many editors and agents are destitute, so the word association is not so far off the mark. I know one editor in particular who won’t be paying his rent on time unless a check arrives in the next 10 days. Hmm, I wonder if my friends at Starbucks will let me sleep in the back room…

    2. Also, please feel free to share your thoughts about word count. We’re all friends here. And if you get too wordy, I’ll just edit your comment. (I’m kidding. Please don’t hit me with your Robert Jordan novels!)

  4. When I finished editing my first novel I was over 100 pages shorter than the initial draft. At that time I had no idea about word count and genre. Lucky for me, I edited right into the criteria. And I too found my writing and story much stronger after all that. It wasn’t about chopping, it was about only including what really needed to be there and making everything more concise.

    1. You make a good point here. Editing isn’t about chopping. Chopping is for wood-chippers. Or maybe that’s chipping. Anyway, editing is all about eliminating what’s not needed, adding what’s essential, moving things around so they fit just perfectly.

  5. I agree that most writers can and likely should cut their work, but I’m not one of them.

    Every time I significantly cut something I’ve written, it loses something vital. I have to fight to put a novel’s worth of content in a novel’s amount of words. Readers have complained about me being too concise, where they need to reread a chapter 2-3 times before they get everything.

    So too much cutting–or being too short for your story–is a problem, too.

    1. Yes, it’s true. You can cut too much from a novel. Vital story elements are like arteries. If you slice through one, the story can die. Concise isn’t a bad thing if that’s what a scene calls for. But the art of editing includes knowing when NOT to cut, as well as when to suggest adding a new plot element or scene…or even character.

  6. I’m working my novel currently and it’s just short of 50,000 words. It’s a bit daunting knowing the fantasy market requires much more. Still, I guess Ray Bradbury’s novel give me a feel good boost. His only 46k and it’s one of my all time favorites. Even so, I have my work cut out for me.

    1. Unless your novel is for the Middle Grade or Young Adult audience…you probably do need to keep writing. Or maybe you could just contact Jeffrey (above) and see if he can send some of the words he cut from his novel?

  7. When I read John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” I kept thinkin’ “Will this guy every get to the end?” Same thing with Pat Conroy…when he starts waxing Southernly-poetic, I get a little twitchy and I start skipping over some beautiful language.

    Then again, I’m a word luvah, so the same can be said of my little blog posts.

    And… comments can tend to err on the side of bloviatory thought, too ;).

    Perhaps the reason I will nevernonever write a novel. But I like reading your suggestions for if I ever change my mind ;).

    1. Never say “nevernonever” Ms. Robin. I’ve read your words. I’ve also seen the future. I can’t tell you exactly what I saw in the future (it could cause a catastrophic ripple in the time-space continuum, resulting in a twisted world where rabbits rule and humans just hop around mutely and procreate profusely), but I will say this: keep putting those bloviatory thoughts on the virtual page.

      Hey, look. There’s a cute bunny outside my window. Wait…is that a laptop he’s carrying? It seems I’ve already said too much…

  8. “I apologize for the length of this letter. I lacked the time to make it brief” (or words to that effect). — Blaise Pascal

    1. Indeed. (See how brief my reply was? Except for this parenthetical bit. That makes the reply really long. I should probably cut this parenthetical bit so my reply will not only underscore the value of brevity, but display my cleverness in replying to comments.)

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