Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Novel Word Count

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.






112 comments:

Merry Monteleone said...

Okay, I'm going to ask a stupid question that I should know the answer to, only because I keep finding various answers - what is the right word count / page count length for middle grade? I've seen people say as low as 17,000 words which seems like early chapter books to me...

Thanks Nathan, in advance, for your insight and advice.

Nathan Bransford said...

merry-

Length of books for young readers vary greatly, but tend to be shorter than adult books. As a professed non-word-count-stickler, that's about as specific as I'd get.

JaxPop said...

Merry beat me to it - but I'll ask anyway - is there a preferred word count for YA. My MS is between 60,000 & 65,000 words. Thanks

Nathan Bransford said...

Sorry, this isn't the place for word count questions. I don't believe in ideal lengths -- the ideal length is however long you need to tell a really great story. Within reason, that's all that matters.

lauramanivong said...

17K is not in the "normal" range for MG novels, but there are exceptions to everything, always. SARAH PLAIN AND TALL is very short, I venture to say even under 10K. But in general, MGs comfortably run from 25K to 45K with leeway on both both ends. Then there are novels written in verse that look rather thick, but it's all in the white space.

lauramanivong said...

Oops. Sorry Nathan, to engage in specifics. I didn't see your answer before I posted.

Nathan Bransford said...

lauramanivong-

No no, that's fine -- if people want to chime in with genre-specific guidelines that's great, I'm sure people will find them helpful. I just wanted to keep my own stance consistent.

Merry Monteleone said...

Thanks for answering, Nathan... and for the record, I like your stance - at least we know you won't see our word count and roll your eyes while hitting delete :-)

lauramanivong said...

Here's why you shouldn't sweat it:

Sarah Plain & Tall = 8377 words
Criss Cross = 48,221 words

Both middle grade novels.
Both Newbery winners.

But if you insist, or need a place to procrastinate ;~), check word counts here...

http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp

Dave F. said...

In every aspect of my writing, I had to learn to write less and not explain it all. I suspect that's what happening with these writers. They are explaining it all.

The hardest thing for me to do, is to cut things out. The hardest thing for any writer is to cut their own words.

Katie Alender said...

In the otherwise miraculous book "On Writing", Stephen King gives two pieces of advice that seem to be on a lot of agents' no-no lists: (1) he suggests querying with a few chapters written, and (2) he suggests writing 2,000 words a day for three months, giving you a nice 180k word novel. Whenever I see someone mention a supersized novel, I wonder if that advice is behind it.

Niteowl said...

But there are some writers who DO explain absolutely everything, and do quite well. Terry Goodkind comes to mind.

benwah said...

Why is it that fantasy works tend to run so long? Not a criticism, just curious.

Adaora A. said...

You're breaking out in hives and getting cold chills. Or are you drowning in the 'cultured man's' bourbon?

What if the word count meant the amount of money you were going to get from them for making you sit through it?

Just kidding!

Conduit said...

Nathan, I asked this question over at the Moonrat blog post you linked too, but I'd be grateful for your take on it too, as opinions seem to vary widely...

How do you calculate word count? I've gotten into the habit of just using MS Word's count and rounding to the nearest thousand (or hundred for shorts). I've read others stating that you should always make it 250 times your page count (assuming you're using a standard manuscript layout), and still others that say you should count the words in ten lines of dense text and average it over the page, then the whole book.

Or should I be worrying about something that actually matters instead?! :)

Nathan Bransford said...

Conduit-

Using the Word word-count tool is fine. Depending on how you formatted your manuscript the 250 words a page rule may or may not apply.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Katie,

I loved that book, but I didn't think he meant to keep all 2,000 words... I think you wind up editing down or out a lot of your first draft writing.

Conduit,

I thought that was a great question - you get so many variations, down to different wordcounts per page depending on the font you use. I've been going with 250 per page in New Times Roman, but I could be wrong.

I spent two months obsessed over how to use my maiden name rather than my married name without confusing the agents/editors... so I'd say this question is more on par with something to obsess over anyway.

Aimless Writer said...

Guilty here! But I didn't send it anywhere simply because I thought it was too long for a first novel. So there it sits on my shelf, waiting for a home.
I'm thinking of pitching it as a screen play. . . eh.
Too long!
Too short!
What's your perfect size, Nathan?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Trend Toward Shorter Books

Hmm, does this mean poetry is going to make a comeback? Poetry seems perfectly suited to MDL (Mobile Device Lit).

My idea of a MDL novel, is one where there's all this cool stuff in the novel that people can PURCHASE right through their mobile device! They can even send it as a gift to someone across the country (or globe), with a little note that says: "Reading this cool novel, and this was in it! Check it out!"

Kind of like Harry & David at Christmas, but it's fun items out of novels. Like a fantasy novel that describes some gorgeous tarot deck...and then you can order it right with your Kindle! Kool!

Tiffany Kenzie said...

I believe the 250 word count is for using Courier/New Courier@25 lines per page... TNR has about 300-350/page so it doesn't work for that rule. Publishers specify (okay so I only know the romance world of pub's) if you have to have one font over another and word count or so many pages with the 250WC rule... hmmm, I think I just confused myself in that... lol!

Passionate Pen's got some good info on that... http://www.passionatepen.com/formatarticle.htm

Ulysses said...

314,000 words that are merely the first part of a trilogy?

Give unto the author a copy of Strunk & White.

Give unto him a chainsaw and set before him his manuscript.

Let rule thirteen be written in fire across his spleen, for surely there is no other path to enlightenment.

I'd request a full by snail mail just to see the size of the mailman who delivers it.

My first novel was about 140,000 words. I loved each and every one of them. Unfortunately, taken all together, they constituted an unreadable mess. It lurks now in the dark sectors of my hard drive, frightening personal correspondence and looming over my tax records. I could easily have told the story in about 50k words, had there been a story in there to begin with.

Stephen King said he'd received a note from an editor which said, "2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%" I think the percentage is a little conservative.

Re: Word count methods
I wonder if the accuracy of the count matters? If you count 100,000 words, but your manuscript is actually 100,200, will the agent or editor or publisher request a prune or reject your work? How about 101,000? Miss Snark has some posts on the accuracy of various methods.

I subscribe to Newhart's theory of accounting: "As long as it's within a couple of bucks, that's good enough. . ."

Just_Me said...

The first novel I wrote I finished in high school and I went by page count, I wanted a full 500 page novel. When I learned better and went to do a word count it was a whooping 185,000. Needless to say, that's in the process of been rewritten and edited.

It was a good learning experience and lots of fun, but I won't even let my critique group read it until it's been cleaned up and chopped down a bit. I aim for between 75,000 and 100,000 for sci-fi and fantasy. If I've done my math right that's between 300 and 400 pages which is a comfortable length for a novel.

Benwah- My guess is that fantasy worlds take more description to build. Very few sci-fi authors get into the rich description of Tolkein-esque fantasy, especially since the average view of the future involves lots of ugly metal buildings, clean lines, and no knick-knacks. But that's just my take on it, there may be a better reason.

Mark Terry said...

Nathan seems unwilling to be drawn (today) into the quagmire of calculating word count. I got myself worked up about this for no particular reason recently, when I had already published 3 novels without being worried about it.

If you use Times New Roman, which I happen to think is a pretty font, with 1-inch margins, you'll get somewhere in the range of 300 to 350 words per page.

If you use Courier or Courier New, you get about 250 words per page.

If you use Microsoft Word's word function, you'll get something completely different--and to make matters worse and/or weirder, if you do it in TNR, then reformat the manuscript in Courier and take the Microsoft Word's wordcount function for each of them, they will be different. Not hugely different, but a little different.

My latest novel manuscript is in Courier and runs 363 manuscript pages long, which would make it, by the 250 words per page formula, slightly over 90,000 words, which is just fine for a mystery novel. If you use the Word wordcount function, it's something like 67,000 words.

I asked my agent about it and she thought I was insane. It was the right length, she said, and left it at that.

Really, you can drive yourself crazy with that. Just don't think you can write novels as long as Stephen King does and sell them... unless you're Stephen King. And remember, "Carrie" wasn't a particularly long novel. (And I recently tried to read the 7th book of the Dark Tower and got totally bogged down; if I had been editing it, it would have been a hell of a lot shorter).

Merry Monteleone said...

Mark,

Oy, seems I'm longer than I thought I was... ah well, I was cutting things anyway.

Thanks for the expertise.

C.J. said...

nathan -

any advice for finding a home for a novella... does it help if i'll throw in antoine walker?

Nathan Bransford said...

C.J.-

A novella is going to cost you AT LEAST Al Jefferson.

Strategies for placing novellas vary, especially depending on genre. It can be helpful to place them in anthologies, or to round them out with short stories to create a properly-sized collection. But it all depends on the actual work, and I have to say it's difficult (though not impossible) to debut with a novella. It's easier to manage when you're an established name.

Dr. Dume said...

314,000 words? I don't think I know that many words. Even if I include all the swear words and the words for 'Beer' and 'Chips' in half a dozen languages.

I have one MS languishing here at 70,000 words, and one at 90,000 words but not all in the right places yet.

I queried an agent with the 70,000 word one and was told I needed to add 10,000 words. Well, I tried, but it was all just added babble so I took them out again. It can 'rest' a while longer. A little subplot will come to me in time.

I use Word's count, and say so in the query so if anyone ever does request a full, they'll know what to expect.

I wonder, though, if starting the query "Read this book what I wrote. It has many words." might be stifling my chances?

no-bull-steve said...

I, like Khrushchev at the United Nations, vehemently object to Nathan’s rigid and misogynic rules regarding book lengths!

Okay, okay, I don’t. I just miss the contention of the simile debate….

Jessica said...

As someone who hates revising, I'm just thinking of how daunting the task of revising a 300,000 word novel would be!!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Yeah.

Stephen King is also a huge advocate of revising down--at least ten percent.

Most short stories in my slush could use a good trim. Nothing like writing short stories to help you learn how to write using only the words you need.

Steph Leite said...

Well, if you're an established novelist, writing an established series, the 200k+ might work. (Libba Bray did this with THE SWEET FAR THING.)

But wow, people sending 200k tomes for first novel publishing ... They're especially courageous! Power to them... I guess. :)

Laurel Amberdine said...

Dying of giggles here.

314,000 words! The first of a trilogy! That's admirable, in a way. I don't have the attention span to write something near that long.

Gosh, imagine the synopsis.

benwah,

I read a lot of fantasy, and it tends toward lengthiness for many reasons: lots of characters (each with their own POV), huge scope, often covering a significant portion of the world, and epic events which may take decades to unfold. Also, since it's a non-Earth setting, with magic, showing all the cool bits takes some wordage.

Mssr.Jay said...

It's pretty comforting to know you aren't one of the agents who immediately sends a query to the fiery depths of rejection hell based on word count alone. Though really, I couldn't blame you for auto-rejecting something that was over 300k. Good lord. I'm trying to figure out just how many books that is.

Out of sheer, morbid curiosity, is there anything in a query that WOULD make you reject it immediately? Apart from rhetorical questions, I mean. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

Mssr. Jay-

That's a good question, as even a rhetorical question opener isn't grounds for an immediate rejection. Aside from things I don't obviously represent, just about the only immediate deal-deal breaker is obvious signs of insanity. I wish I could say I don't often have people to reject on this basis, but...

Dr. Dume said...

just about the only immediate deal-deal breaker is obvious signs of insanity.

Oh dear. Best move you down my list until the doctors find a cure, or get a friend to submit for me.

I have some reasonably sane friends left, I think.

Well, one.

Ulysses said...

Oops. According to the version I found on the web, Strunk’s 13th rule is “Omit needless words.” My 4th edition paper S&W gives rule 13 as “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.” Er. . . I meant the “needless words” one. (Sheesh, who knew they’d renumber the rules with different editions? I wonder if the 23rd psalm started as the 5th psalm before revisions).

Giving outright rejections for obvious signs of insanity automatically takes you, Nathan, out of the running for O.J. Simpson’s next book. I assume you are relieved.

Linda said...

The esteemed Mr. King actually said cut every first draft by 20%, which is about right if your first draft is written sans editing. Which is how I tend to write. The first draft of the novel I'm now shopping clocked in at 183k; it is now 50k slimmer. But it wasn't until about revision 6 that I was able to take the hacksaw to my MS; indeed, those few weeks would've made a great episode of Nip and Tuck... lots of blood, fat, and tissue left on the operating floor. Now, it's much easier to 'kill my darlings'... Peace...

Furious D said...

I guess what you're trying to say is that you're looking for a word count that you won't have to go to NASA to calculate to the last digit?

As for editing a long novel, I once wrote a very long novel, but now it's at about 100,000 words even. Which I think is a healthy range because it has a lot going on.

AstonWest said...

Can you imagine having to be the editor that plows through 300,000+ words, if they accepted ones that large?

Yikes.

Do the old adages of at least 80K words still apply? Or are the "trends" toward smaller works driving that number down?

My latest novel (which I'm going back through again) rings in just under 60K and I've been told that just isn't enough...

crapshooter said...

Nathan again is giving good advice that is echoed by other agents.

Having said that, Tom Clancy's first book, The Hunt For Red October, was rejected many dozens of times because of its length, some 500,000 words. 'Ol Tom trimmed it some, not much, but some, and the rest is history. Most of his books run a half million words - or more. Thank goodness, because they're some of my all time favorites.

I prefer long books from my favorite writers. When looking for new authors to read, I look for the thick books with small print. If I find a winner, I want it to last as long as possible.

crapshooter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

crapshooter-

You bring up a great point, and this is why I wouldn't reject a project on word length alone. Neal Stephenson is another author who writes really long books, and he's one of my absolute favorite authors. I would never want to miss out on someone like that. But when an author is asking an agent and editor and publishing house to invest in an extra-long book, the bar is that much higher. If you can jump that high go for it, but keep in mind that it's harder to do.

pjd said...

just about the only immediate deal-deal breaker is obvious signs of insanity

Oh, sh*t. It all becomes clear now.

Nathan Bransford said...

haha, not you pjd.

Anonymous said...

Here's one for you Word gurus that's been buggin' me a long time:

When I have my ms .dov file open, the word count = 76K. But when I close the file and right-click the icon and select properties, it gives the word count as 89K. That's a significant difference, so which one do I go by? Split the differene?

Anonymous said...

Sorry that was suppoed to be .doc file, above.

Kimber An said...

I'm glad to hear about a shift to shorter novels. Mine are always on the short end of the spectrum.

Thanks for the informative link too.

joylocke2000 said...

I knew that too long could be the death knell of my book. But my concern is the brevetiy of length for my fantasy fiction novel. It's only 75,000 words. Is that too short. Where is a happy medium. I have heard a variety of opinions on that subject.

lk said...

anonymous, I think the 89K figure you see is probably the file size, not the word count.

Anonymous said...

A good deal of the problem with novels that are too long has to do with not knowing how to copyedit.
If most writers just edited all the times they used the word "that" for no reason, the book would become tighter. Things like, "He closed the door behind him," can be edited to, "He closed the door." There are many other examples, but all these words add up, and they don't help the storyline.

The concept of word economy and knowing how to really edit takes practice, and it should never distract from the storyline. There's a good book to help writers get started, titled, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, by Noah Lukeman. I wouldn't follow all of his advice about querying, but his advice about editing is priceless.

Taylor K. said...

This is a good topic, and I must say that a long book is less of a deal breaker for me then long chapters. I hate reading books with overly long chapters. That's why it took me years to get through Chris Claremont's "Shadow War" trilogy. I read tons of other books over this time, and was able to do it easily because they all had chapters shorter then 50 pages. I like being able to stop reading more often then every few hours.

On the issue of the length of fantasy novels, I think a lot of it has to do with how much things have to be described. The writer has to make the reader understand a lot. The writer has to explain the aspects of the world, the qualities of the characters, and many other things. Having recently finished writing a fantasy novel I can tell you that it is a pretty daunting task.

Other fantasy novel difficulties have to with the the necessity of prologues (a necessary evil in my case), and trying not to tell too much. Any book set in a another world has to deal with this. The 5th Harry Potter book, for instance, would have been no fun if the reader knew what the Order of the Phoenix was from day one. Same goes for all the other Harry Potter books. I could go on, but I feel I've rambled enough. Hope this explanation helps whoever asked the question.

Chris said...

Alas, no more books written in the tradition of Dickens, 1,000 pages plus. But as you say, for the time and the market, it worked.

mlh said...

I've also heard about the word count rule of 250/Courier and 300-350/Times New Roman. I don't pay attention to it anymore. All I'm worried about is how many pages instead of how many words. If my project ever approaches the 500-page range, then I better come up with a darn good reason for it. If I don't, then it is time for some serious editing.

Nathan, please distinguish between insanity and humorous joking around. Because after that comment, I feel there is no hope for me now.

My agent query list will soon be shrinking.

Heidi the Hick said...

I'd like to second that. I need to know what constitutes obvious insanity, the kind that demands a rejection! Like, you don't mean fun-crazy, right? You're talking about obsessive demanding individuals that tell you they know where you live and where you hide the key, right? Like, scary-crazy???? Like, represent my book or the dog gets it-crazy? The kind of crazy that you simply could not work with?

My novel is 600,000 words worth of genius-crazy?

(I hope you don't mean obviously crazy as in, loveably neurotic...)

jason evans said...

Picking up on Mary Terry's comment, I really wish the industry would take a position on calculating word counts, because it's not insane at all. The 250words/page method can varying hugely from the computer-generated count. By tens of thousands of words.

I'm a strong proponent of the 250words/page rule (with courier font, double spaced, 1 inch margins). The reason is that actual word count is completely irrelevant. What we are counting are pages that will go into a book. More pages=more $$$ to print. For example, take two books with 100,000 computer-generated word counts. One is very densely written at 350 pages. The other has a lot of white space, and fills 450 pages. The second will be much more expensive to print. The 250 words/page method accurately reflects the difference. The computer method does not.

In any event, it's confusing when a publisher is targeting a minimum word count of say 75,000 words, and one counting method yields 80,000 and the other yield 62,000. Is the book too short? Do we just pick the word count that best suits our purposes?

The methods are not interchangeable. However, for some reason, there is not much patience out there to deal with the issue.

Anonymous said...

nathan, i've suspected this was your feeling about length, and i've suspected that it's the feeling most agents have about it - "if your name isn't david foster wallace, forget it".

i brought this up to you before, in public, and you claimed that if the writing was great, agents will not care about the length:

here on the blog and
also the conversation that begins here.

i still think you're a charitable guy, so i'm sure not criticizing you personally, but agents in general all say that they'd love to reprsent a book like "the corrections" but i believe that none of them actually want to do the work of reading and discovering such a book. you could query the first three pages of that book and you tell the agent that it's 250,000 words long and all of them would reject it. why?

and if the trend now is for short books, why not be ahead of the trend with a huge old-fashioned totally different kind of book?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yeah, I feel like I've been pretty consistent on this one -- the bar is a little higher on long books, but I would never in a million years want to miss out on a book like CRYPTONOMICON or THE CORRECTIONS just because it's long. Some agents might, but since I don't (regrettably) represent Neal Stephenson and Jonathan Franzen, clearly there are agents out there who, like me, are willing to rep long books.

And you're also right that sometimes it pays to examine current trends and then put a stick in the eye of those trends and write something completely different. I do think that physical trends (i.e. shelfspace) and cultural trends (i.e. competing media) favor shorter books, but who's to say that the next big thing won't be a 1,000 page doorstopper? I'm certainly not going to be the agent who passes on it just because it's long.

Anonymous said...

Neal Stephenson published several well-received books that were the "ordinary" length before Cryptonomicon.

Jonathan Franzen published at least one well-reviewed book that was the "ordinary" length before The Corrections.

The rules are different for successful published writers and first-timers.

The first Harry Potter book is about 80K words; the last is about 200K.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Very good point, although THE HISTORIAN was Elizabeth Kostova's first novel and it was extremely long. I think the basic point is that it's harder to get a long novel published, especially for a first novel, but it can be done and done well.

benwah said...

I'll echo what Jason Evans said about the 250 words/page in Courier 12. It was the industry standard prior to the ease of changing fonts and formats with word processing, and it lets the publisher get a sense of how big (physically) the book's going to be. I also appreciate the easy math: 4 pages = 1000 words.

But in the end, a book's going to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story with an economy of wrods.

w/r/t the length of fantasy novels: I always thought it had something to do with the characters having names like "Eldregran, son of Zuckerkandl the Blacksmith the fabled Stone of Quantificatt" instead of "Bob."

Julie Weathers said...

Benwaw--

Why is it that fantasy works tend to run so long? Not a criticism, just curious.

For me, it takes me a while to tell my story and reveal my world in an interesting manner. Kind of like a slow strip tease as one writer said.

Fantasies take a bit longer to set the scenes since the reader is new to the world.

Having said that, my suspense novel hit at 406 pages, which is probably long. In my defense, it was set in a world not familiar to many people.

I'm glad agents like Nathan aren't completely locked into predetermined molds. Sometimes it just takes a bit longer to tell the story.

Julie
Julie

StephB said...

Nathan, great posts about word counts. I've come to be very flexable with them. My first rough draft of my werewolf story was 175,000 and let's face it, I'm not Stephen King. Chopping it down to 125,000 was a challenge, but I did it. Love your blog. Rock on. Steph

fas said...

I got out my copy of War and Peace, did some math, and came up with a word count of about 700,000. So, if Tolstoy signed his name to a query dated today, I suppose things would have turned out a bit differently for him. Well okay then, I'll just have to consider it some kind of concilation to be in such lofty company.

John said...

I know I'm late to this party, but I saw fit to add. I got boofed by one agent because she said she would only consider first novels if they were 84,000 words or shorter. (I'm guessing 84K/280 words per page = 300 pages).

And now I hear they have to be at least 80,000? Crazy man, crazy.

Tight word counts make sense in newspapers and magazines, but who ever bought a book only if it was between 285 and 300 pages long?

Steve said...

I truly love this blog... It fills me with warm fuzzies and cold tremors all at the same time. I recently finished a choose-your-own-adventure story geared for a young adult fantasy audience. With three main story arcs at about 70,000 words each, it means a large work in the end, 217,000. Yeah... I guess it needs a diet...

Edward said...

Would you say 90,ooo words on a first novel is within reason? The genre is probably considered suspense/horror fiction. Stephen King-esque as far as the book's genre, not the writing.
Also, will it help or hurt that I'm 18 when I begin to look for representation?

Andre said...

Do you have a preferred word count for first novels? One agent told me editors are currently looking for 83,000 words for first time novels. Do you share this view? Is 84-85,000 too long? I'm talking for historical fantasy (not epic).

Thanks

Anonymous said...

I'm working on a novel that's targeted towards older teens and so far I'm at 30,000 words typed on Chapter 15. If I continue at that pace I'll be at roughly 50,000 words by the end. This makes me feel pretty good.

I tend to admire authors like Hemmingway and Cormac McCarthy who write more with less. I have participated in online text based roleplaying and watch people describe the details of the same characters' backstories in every post just to fill space. We dub it a "Case of the Dickens." I personally hate to read pages and pages of description, especially if it doesn't seem to enrich the story.

Scott said...

I tend to write concisely, or so I'm told. I like to get my arms around an impression rather than throw everything I can on the wall so that some of it sticks in the reader's senses. I'm selling something, in a way, and I want to keep the line tight, but not too tight.

At the same time, I like sentences with tons of rhythm. The reader should slide down them, hitting all the appropriate bumps. So it's a balancing act to get my vision across without working everything into one sentence. But a great, meaty and slightly dense sentence is so important to me, and it's very much a part of my style.

I think my latest will come out a little over 60k and I'm afraid to beef it up because I feel it will weaken it. Here's hoping what Nathan says holds true: to thine own story – and style – be true.

Amanda said...

Mr. Bransford - First, thank you for posting such a helpful and informative blog. I'm sure you are a busy man, and I truly appreciate the information.

My question is, once I have gone through the step of completing a first draft of a novel that is geared toward young adults and slightly older, what is the first step toward publication? Should I hire an agent? Get a copyright first? Just send it to the publishing companies?

Again, your info is greatly appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Nathan

- I have a question that worries me because it may be the reason why I'm still not published!!! What do you feel is obvious signs of insanity? I have a feeling that's my problem. Not that I'm insane but some may feel that my story is probably kind of crazy.


(BTW I haven't sent you a query because I just found your agency but I'll give it try. Can't hurt can it?)

Tagalog said...

Thanks for the FAQ on word counts. I'm starting to edit my first novel and it was about 145,000 words (suspense genre). I thought it was too long at first, but by my estimates it'll wind out around 300 to 350 book length pages and so I'm completely unconcerned now. Cheers!

Fatboydim said...

Nathan

Thank you so much for this blog. I am writing my first novels at this moment in time. One is being Co-Written with a published author, the other is my baby. I've been writing for TV and film for the last 20 years - So moving on to writing novels has been a fascinating process. I have learned so much already from reading your blog.

I now understand why my own agent [UK] has taken so long to read my first three chapters and proposal document. I need to finish the MS.

LOL.

Once again thank you.

Angel L. Landrey said...

Interesting comments. My first novel (yet to be published) was 173K words in first draft. Had several folks read it and make comments and by the time I got through draft 5 it is now 223K words.
Seems everyone I talk to wants big long books. They say they want shorter, less descriptive which is my preference (everyone can picture a leaf falling and we don't need to describe it) but when they critique they always seem to think something is left out.

Patrick said...

Word counts are such a tricky thing and I hate that as a writer you really do need to worry about them. I spent much time googling word counts which actually led me to Mr. Bransford's blog and it seems like everyone has a different answer to what is considered the appropriate word count for an unpublished author.

But the clear consensus is you shouldn't go over 100,000 words and you should come in at under 70,000 words. If you manage to get your manuscript in that sweet spot you are less likely to meet rejection do to first impressions and the first impression of any manuscript is its word count. It's the same if you were to go into a book store and pick up a 300 page novel and a 1000 page novel, it's the very first thing you notice.

I finished my manuscript coming in at just 65,000 words which I know can be frowned upon as too short. It an effort to increase my word count to something more in the normal acceptance range I actually ended up writing one of my favorite chapters of the entire book.

I was worried about padding for padding's sake just to meet some arbitrary idea of how long a novel should be. But in an effort to increase my word count I did find out my novel was too short and that there was something more too add.

You also have to understand it from an agent's perspective if the novel is 300,000 words that means a lot of work to try and sell the novel. They could read three or four manuscripts in the time it takes them to read yours and then they still have to convince publishers the novel is worthy of such a huge word count.

You are going to likely have to knock their socks off with your query letter just to get them to consider spending four times the time and effort they would have spent on a normal client with a normal length manuscript.

And I am sure editing a manuscript of that size is a nightmare.

The same goes for manuscripts that fall in the category of being too short. They have to spend more time convincing publishers that your work is worthy despite its lack of depth and word count.

But in the end its all up to us as writers to determine if our manuscripts are too long or too short. Is there too much story or not enough and what can we do about it. I refuse to add chapters and story just to increase word count and if I were to write a 200,000 word manuscript I would hate to cut anything that I felt was essential to the story.

Word counts are a nightmare. They cause undo stress and until we are as big as Stephen King or JK Rowling or any author who is popular enough that they can sell massive tomes or short and concise manuscripts and be worry free about their lengths it is a nightmare we have to live and deal with.

I am glad Mr. Bransford doesn't worry about word counts so much but he is likely in the minority in that aspect.

Dehenna said...

I'm writing what I hope to be a teen fiction, and am currently on 15885, which I know is way too low, but I still have a lot of her story to tell!
Would somewhere around that 100,000 mark be reasonable for the final word count?
Thanks a bunch!
Dee

Lela said...

"or because you need to take your laptop into the shop to fix the Backspace button"

Okay - that just cracked me up out loud! And I certainly needed it as I'm deep into writing a query letter.

Thanks for all the generous advice here.

MLeaves2 said...

I know I'm very later replying to this post, but I wanted some guidance on word count and this is the most useful and entertaining thing I've found so far!

Underneath it all, I know that a novel should be whatever length it needs to be to tell a compelling story in an interesting voice. Right now, my murder mystery is shaping up to be about 60-70,000 words, which is about the length of an Agatha Christie novel. I can only hope it's as good as one...

Anonymous said...

Hi, Nathan, I have a quick question:

What is the standard length for a first-time thriller or action/adventure novel?

Ivory said...

I tried re-writing my first novel because it was "too-long". I tried elliminating characters and events and made a terrible mess. I made a second attempt and again created a mess.

I put it away and wrote another novel which was not so big.

My wife loved the first one and insisted I go back to it.

I went back, decided to keep all the characters and events in place, but tried trimming it a bit and it grew about 400 words.

So I find Nathans site, he says he doesn't worry too much about size (whew that is a relief) as long as it's not over 150,000 words. Yikes! I'm at arond 164,000 words.

So, who has the list of agents that WON'T automatically reject a manuscript on size?

Or (drum roll please)...
Should I send out the first 120,000 words, hope to get them hooked and then offer them the ending?

Fortunately, my second book won't take long to finsh revisions, I guess I'll just keep sending querries on the first. As long as I keep to e-mail, there's no cost.

SpamHammer said...

I'm writing the first of 7 books in a series of sc-fi/fantasy novels for middle grade (they don't fit into either genre completely so I'm going to have fun trying to explain them to the agent) and I'm aiming for a nice round 100k to begin with. Once I'm happy enough that it's good content, I'll look at anything else that's needs trimming to smarten it up. At that stage it's hack and slash time and I have to br brutal! I always end up cutting bits and pieces out during editing, so I'll probabaly end up with something in the high 80-90k range for the finished product. Not sure if it helps anyone else, but that process seems to work for me.

Edward Owen said...

Wow! Talk about hitting a nerve. I am currently on the last chapter of a sci-fi/horror novel that is at 133K words. I do make the mistake of editing as I go (can't help myself), so there has been some trimming. I am a huge fan of say more with less (this post notwithstanding), but I will have to decide if some sections are really necessary to the story or do I just like killing people? I would be done if I stopped surfing the net.......

Stephanie L said...

I am about two weeks from finished with the historical fiction novel of King Tutankhamun and his wife. My word count is 188,000 aprox, but I deeply enjoy each and every one of those words. I have not found my agent yet. Do you have any suggestions for how to represent myself and find an agent who dive in to my work and help me publish it?

Stephanie L said...

sorry for the typo... who WILL dive in.. multitasking and confused at this word of publishing!

Josephe said...

Love this blog! it makes me laugh and feel sick all at the same time. And here's why. I have just finished a fiction MS that has gotten some pretty nice thumbs up responses from some independent readers...but, and it's a big but- the mother clocks in at about an un-edited 460k word count, and I could easily write more!! Soooo, what do you think? Two books in one? or the next great trend-setting tome? Everytime I sugest cutting something my wife says "NO! I love that part!" Now this thing IS going to be carved, either into two, or one big one, because I can not for the life of me see how the same level of story is going to happen if it gets cut to 100k words...somehow. thank you for your time!

Vincent J.P. Morrone said...

I've written a novel where the word count is just over 150,000 words. I know!! Whoa is right. I went through and took out a few scenes which although I thought helped the story, cut it down to 142,000. I'm pretty confident that it's a good read. It's a paranormal/teen/romance thing that would appeal to the same readers that liked the "Twilight" books (no, no vampires in there at all) Should I even bother to send this out or what?

Amanda Sablan said...

If the point has not already been hit home hard enough:

What matters most is CONTENT. Don't wory so much about word count. My first novel, an epic action/drama sprinkled with contemporary fantasy which will be the first in a series of four books, has just over 165,000 words, and yet each and every one of those words is, I feel, necessary to the telling of the story and the examination of its many, many characters.

Here's what I advise: only write a novel with over 150,000 words if your prose is exceptionally good. Nobody wants to read a long, drawn-out book with stale descriptions and whatnot. Make your pages come alive, and the reader will stay tuned for the long haul. I would.

Snark43 said...

my that's just fantastic, everything I never wanted to know about word count, all in one place, thank you all so very much. I agree with comments highlighting my conflicting amusement and trepidation. Just wanted to quote McCartney for fun: It's a thousand pages, give or take a few.
I'll be writing more in a week or two.
I could make it longer if you like the style.
I can change it 'round,
And I want to be a paperback writer

Amanda Sablan said...

Ha, I said that, but I'm still paring my novel down. Still, content is most important.

sympathypains said...

You mention that acceptance of a first novel is based on word count due to shelf space, yet many authors that have had success in the past have books with 250k word count, i.e. Rowling, and these are kids books. What I'm trying to say is that, what is the difference in word count acceptance based on first novels alone. Does it have more to do with the fact that you're a greater marketing risk?

Sympathypains said...

In anticipation of a response, I wanted to ask this...
If confronted by a publisher that only accepts a certain number word count and one's novel is twice that, is it wise to create a sequel and submit only the first half as a first part in said sequel, indicating there is a second part?
Or, would it be better to send the entire draft regardless of the acceptance level?

Commercially it would be more profitable on the up side.

Peter Cooke said...

Couldn't agree more with you about the focus on novel lengths. While I believe you should aim for a general target for you genre, I find the length of the book is dictated by how the book works out. They have a life of their own and sometimes finish in surprising ways and lengths.

adamkapellasios said...

Let's say you revise your epic novel into 4 novels at about 80,000 words each. In your query, do your hook and synopsis relate the whole story or just book 1? You know the agent has to sell your #1 first. How do you weight the info on #s 2, 3, 4?

Sarah said...

I got a completed novelette written, but I can't seem to figure out certain things about making a manuscript. Would a work be automatically rejected if I hired a ghost writer to due the manuscript?

karenlee said...

I have the sweaty hands of a girl who's just learned that her YA novel at 84,000 words may not be for YA readers at all, but for "upper middle grade" --since there is no sex or violence and the protagonist is on the cusp of turning 13. But my word count may be much too long for the MG (at 84,000). I'm finding some relief with your belief, in telling a story, the word count shouldn't matter. The story is a mystery and has paranormal influences as well as some political references to unpopular beliefs. ?? Any advice. Thank you--Oh, i will be entering your first paragraph contest-ha!

Anonymous said...

The whole concept of word count is frustrating. I know it is important to the publisher and should be paid attention to by the writer, but I also know if one lets the word count control the book it will. I wrote an epic fantasy and without editing it is at 69,889 word count. I know after editing this may change and most likely will but I feel after many revisions that I love my book. I just hope the right agent will too even with a word count like this.

Rhonda9080 said...

I have a monster novel I'm trying to reduce (300k - computer wc), but don't want to go less than 200K to 250K, due to nature of involved plot, large cast of characters, etc. Will my nonfiction background (news reporter, feature writer, etc.) be of any help? The book setting is my specialty area - middle east. It's an allegory of sorts incorporating old-style genre techniques of bodice-ripper style romance, Rambo-type action adventure, the old-style western, etc., but NOT genre fiction.
Do I have more leeway on the word count? If I had to classify it as this point, more of a thriller-geo-political-romance?
I find your blog very helpful!

Anonymous said...

This has to be one of the first blogs about word count that didn't leave me writhing on the floor in a seething morass of figurative pain. I wrote a book before reading anything about publishing, querying, and all those other -ing words that make me want to cry. At the time I simply wanted the story out of my head, where I could stop thinking about it and have a little internal peace and quiet (which I have since learned is a ridiculous expectation- I just replaced one story with three others that are similarly noisy). Then, in the process of researching query letters, I discovered the wonderful world of word counts. Foolish first time writer that I am, I thought you just wrote until the story was done. I figured, some stories are long, some are short, most are in-between, and if it's truly good length won't matter much. But I have been educated, so I checked the count on the MS tool. Gasp. 185,000. I am now in the process of sharpening my machete and lopping off a sizable chunk; still, while the MS will be the better for some pruning, I am not entirely sure I can get this puppy to the recommended 110,000 or less. Painful. Very painful. But probably necessary. That said, it is nice to hear that anything over 100,000 words is not the automatic kiss of death, either.

Rhonda9080 said...

Yeah - I'm down 36k now, and falling. Revisions are hellish. Tightening the prose - always a good thing. However, I'm not much of a "Mcbook" writer or reader. Even in news articles, My specialty is the "feature" length. I suppose one needs a few Sistine Chapels in the world, along with Horneman's miniatures. Can there not be merit in both?

Anonymous said...

One hopes there is a middle ground, though an agent probably looks at word coumt before proceeding to the query. I have a theory that the big time agents have assistants who are trained to reject based on word count before their boss has a chance to look at it the query. I am at 129,000 and cutting, but whatever happened to "show, don't tell"?

Indie Tom said...

Found this useful, thanks. I'm currently working on an adult novel. On 58,000 words and should end up about 80-90, assuming I don't lose the plot.

Also really like the cover of your book and the title... :)

Shadow said...

Ok, so you all are both feeding and relieving my sudden word-count paranoia. I now have a sudden urge to estimate the wordcount on all my favorite successful books as a sort of reference for mine.

I've just finished a total re-write on my second (written) Epic Fantasy novel. (I'm unpublished, but I got a LOT of practice on the first one.) My impression (honest & brutal as I can be on myself) is that everything I include in this version is necessary... but I just don't know for sure. It's 190,000 words, in 3 parts, 21 chapters--by the wordcount feature of Microsoft Works, although it unfortunately counts the page breaks as 3-9 words each.

I intend the book to be first in a trilogy/series, but now I realize it could be a trilogy by itself... if I padded it. I spent a year trimming it, so this seems counter-productive. Is just under 200,000 an awful lot in a situation like this? I'm about to start querying agents and I am TERRIFIED of messing up this crucial part of the process. It'd be a crying shame to lose out because of word-count biases; but then again, I could just be long-winded. I can't really know.

Anonymous said...

Get a current copy of Writer's Market. It will list the agency's requirements.

Ashleigh Milam said...

Hi my name is Ashleigh and I am 13 years old. I am going to be a racecar driver. I am very sports oriented and I am in the middle of two novels. One is about a snowboarder who is accused of cheating.
the plot is finished, but it needs to be lengthened because I want it to be a full length novel. The other is about a racecar driver who is nervous about being sponsored by a big company. I am trying to develop the plot. I was wondering if you had any suggestions.

Shadow said...

Okay, it's Shadow again. Nix that earlier comment; I put it into 3 books, and now book 1 is 90,000 words. I believe I'm in better shape now. Thanks for the help!

K.C.R. said...

I just wanted to say WOW to the one that is over 300k!!!!! I am writing (mostly for my own entertainment and that of a few friends and family) a short series of books that will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 books and be about 750k words total!!! 300k for the first part of 3 books!!!!! I have written a lot, over the last 19 years but I have never had a single book go over 80k (of course the audience I write for is actually young reader/young adult so I am more then happy with that word count) but I mostly just write until the story is told, once its told I don't need to be adding needless filler!

CrypticRose84 said...

I don't write so I'm not sure on the word count to page ratio, but I personally prefer a 600-800 page book. (Epic fantasy is my genre of choice.) We have entered the age of the e-book, so carrying around that massive hunk of literature is no longer an issue. Also, I figure if I'm going to pay up to $12.99 for a digital file of a book I want one that is going to last a couple weeks.

Anonymous said...

My first novel (YA steampunk) sits at 186k, and I am loathe to cut it. Looking around, I see that Eragon was 157k, Fellowship of the Ring was around 180k (it'd likely be a YA book if published today simply because of the lack of violence/sex) and 3/7 Harry Potter novels were *substancially* longer than what I've written.

Still, while I have only been rejected by a few people thus far, my hopes are flagging. I really, REALLY don't want to split the book in half (I feel like one of the great crimes of the HP series is that the first 2 books are formulaic nightmares where things are wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow far too quickly), but I also want to get published.

If someone can write, book length (withing reason), shouldn't be an issue. The trend towards shorter novels is shameful, and while I'm not going to argue people should attempt to stem the tide (what could they do?), I do think it's highly unfair that the standards are different for first time authors. Writing isn't a skill you can just pick up, same as you can't hop over the wall during a Yankees game and go play left field (a Mets game? Perhaps. But I digress). These abilities don't increase or decrease with time -- you've either 'got it' or you don't, and it's time that more agents wake up to that fact before automatically cutting people down at the knees.

Erin Cook said...

I have a crazy question, if my story is novella length will it be hard to find a romance publisher for it?

JustSarah said...

Is 46,000 words generally considered to short for a first novel? I'm trying to aim small, just to make sure I can complete the thing.

(I have a hard time rambling on with my muse to get a long story done.)

My first novellette is suppose to be around 11,500 words. Small enough to fit in a magazine.:3

Anonymous said...

I have written an adult novel with 41k words. One agent told me the bare minimum is 60k. I don't want my book to be unnecessarily long without any purpose. Can you give me any advice?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Well, by comparison The Great Gatsby is around 40,000 words, so it can be done. But some genres have stricter genre requirements than others.

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