I’m not a stickler for word count. Yes, there are certain word count expectations for certain genres, some are stricter than others, you can look these up on the Internet if you’re interested, but my modus operandi on word count is my usual refrain about writing: if it works it works.
Within reason. If your (adult) novel is less than 40,000 words you’re in novella land (where publishers worry about how a bookstore is going to stock your book when it will have such a skinny spine). Children’s novels are generally shorter, but shouldn’t be TOO short. If your novel is going to be over 150,000 words and your name is not David Foster Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, or Vikram (Chandra or Seth), there had better be a darn good reason for it.
Well, in the last couple of weeks people have been just blowing me away with their word counts. They’re so high I have a physical reaction, similar to what would happen if someone took a query beginning with a rhetorical question, attached it to a sledgehammer, and hit me across the head with it. We’re talking LONG. Just in the past week alone: 291,000 words, 223,470, 314,000 (first in a trilogy), 250,000, 213,000, and more!
PEOPLE. Not only do some agents automatically reject if your novel is too long (for the record I’m not one of them), you really have to ask yourself if you wrote that long of a novel because it was necessary and true to the story and you’re able to keep the reader engaged over that huge length or because you need to take your laptop into the shop to fix the Backspace button.
Due in part to physical constrains (i.e. shelf space) and the resulting preference of national chains, some people in publishing feel there is a trend toward shorter books going on at the moment. While I don’t advocate following trends too closely (all it would take is a couple of blockbuster doorstoppers to start a new trend), especially for a first novel you probably want to try to avoid giving people one easy reason to pass on your work.
Again, if it works it works, but the odds of it working when your debut novel is over 150,000 words drops dramatically.