Friday, May 30, 2008

Word Count Rules

Word count is one of those things that’s always a huge issue, for published and unpublished authors. I regularly have discussions about when a book reaches the point of being too long or how short is too short. Of course there are “rules” all over the Internet on the subject (including on this blog), but it never hurts to discuss the matter again.

Before going further I want to stress that there are no “rules” in publishing. Publishing is not like practicing law or medicine; there aren’t textbooks on the subject, and except for grammar there are few rules. What there are, however, are guidelines, rules that can and should be broken, but within reason.

I was asked recently, “How much do you focus on word count if the query letter is interesting? I'm not going to submit it to you with a 175,000 word count, but what range will you reject for word count, even if the query is interesting? How strictly do literary agents and/or publishers view the issue of word count when it comes to considering new manuscripts?”

I reject a lot based on word count, not strictly because I think the range should be 90,000-100,000 words and a 200,000-word contemporary romance is too long, but because a 200,000-word contemporary romance is probably overwritten. Most of the books you see published fall within the word counts I discussed in an earlier post for a couple of reasons. One is that that’s what readers’ expect and the other are costs. Readers want to pay $6.99 for a romance novel, and in order for publishers to meet that price point they need to keep the costs at a certain level; page and binding size feed into those costs. Therefore, word count is important. It’s also important that publishers aren’t charging $6.99 for a book that’s only 40,000 words (paperback). Again, while a long book is probably overwritten, a too short book probably doesn’t have enough detail.

So how far am I willing to stretch that? Within reason, give or take a couple thousand words. Face it, if I’m asking for 100,000 words then 150,000 is too long; it’s a 50% increase. I refuse to give you a range you can stretch to because I think you’re all intelligent enough to figure out what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. Think of it this way: you ask a friend to bring over 50 eggrolls for a party you are throwing for 40 people and instead she brings 25 eggrolls, or brings 150. You do the math.

I’m going to ask the true experts on writing, my readers, what they’ve learned about word count in their writing process. How do you handle a book that’s too long or too short, and what do you see from the work of other writers when books are either too long or too short—what are the common problems?

Jessica

50 comments:

Jana Lubina said...

Personally, I adore looooong books -- provided they are not overwritten or padded with useless scenes and characters.

And I think a lot of readers really relish the chance in getting lost in a huge epic.

Irate Teacher said...

I've found that I tend to get the story and dialogue down first,and that puts me around 60,000 words. Then I add to my description, then pare everything down. My first book wound up at approximately 72,000 words that way.

I know that process sounds weird, because a mystery/thriller writer shouldn't be "adding" after the fact (or so I've been told), but it's what works for me. When I'm writing, I'm in the moment and I have to keep up with the story. Then, when I do my first revision I see what's around the scene and if anything is relevant, I work it in.

Then again, I'm as yet unpublished, so maybe I need to fix that...

Anonymous said...

I recently read a well-know author's latest sheriff-in-a-small-coastal-town book (won't say the author).

I was new to this author's work but he's a big, big name. I was stunned that almost the entire book was dialogue. I mean, all of it. Nary any description, any sort of action sequences, any character thoughts or reflections. It had a new chapter every 3 pages. The margins were wide, the typeface simply huge.

I think it's disappointing, that it seems once you get a name you can coast like that. If you don't have enough to make a real novel, why not wait until you do? Instead of churning out one a year -- write one every two years and have it be substantial, a real book.

It took me less than an hour to read that sucker. The lack of inner character thoughts and prose made me feel like I was readidng a TV script -- and indeed, his books have been on TV.

So, to answer the question, I think it's not word count per se, but what the word count is. If it's insightful and provacative then I wouldn't care if it's shorter. But to have 300+ pages of nothing but banal dialouge... wasteful, in my opinion.

ChadGramling said...

Your last post on word count helped to answer a lot of questions I've had. However, I have also been told that many agents/publishers prefer a lower word count from a first-time novelist. Is there any truth in that?

Mark Terry said...

Such a can of worms.

But I'm struggling with this a bit now... I think... because I'm working on a YA novel, which in theory is typically shorter than those for adults (Harry Potter excluded, I suppose), and it seems to be running short in the first draft. I was really aiming for 300 pages in 12-point font Courier, which if you go with the 250 words/page thing make it, voila!, 75,000 words, but I suspect it's going to be more like 250 words.

Or not, because who knows what's missing when I go back to rewrite. My rewrites tend to be more polishing, but sometimes I'm just missing detail, which may be the case in this book. I feel like the "sidekick" needs to be fleshed out more, as well as the villain, so it's entirely possible I'll hit my word count marker on this.

I think a lot of writers who write short may have missed an act in their plot, though. Sometimes there just isn't enough complications in Act 2 to make it fully developed, ie., they needed at least one more plot twist or subplot in the middle of the book.

Mark Terry said...

Make that 250 pages.

Chro said...

Word counts are the bane of my existence. :(

I wrote my novel before I learned the rules of publishing, that most books should be around 100k words. I read epic fantasy, so every book I read was over 500 pages. Most of them reached 700-800 pages. So when I wrote my novel, my plot was expansive, and my story was designed to have a lot of twists and turns. In the end, it was 210k words long.

Since learning the 'guidelines', I've been struggling to reduce my word count, but even after removing whole chapters and scenes, and going through the work 4 times for the express purpose of removing any excess words, the book is still at 169k words. I'm starting to think I simply created a story that was too big. :(

I'm sending out queries to agents again, but I'm well aware that I really need to knock someone's socks off for my tome to even be considered. I just wish that when I got form rejections back, they put a sentence in there saying, 'I rejected you primarily because of word count.'

Kathryn Lilley said...

I think of word count as being a general target for the format of a type of book. In my days as a journalist, the typical news story was about 800 words. You could go longer, but then you were getting into "in depth profile" or "feature" or "background" territory. Same with the mass market mystery genre. There are just general guidelines for the format, and word count is one of them. If you write long, you may need to write a different type of book, or do a lot of cutting.

Judy Schneider said...

Word count is what it is. And as writers, we need to cut or add accordingly.

I knew a writer who was asked by a big publisher to pare down her 120k-word romance to 80k in order to better fit a new line they were releasing. The writer tried but couldn't part with 40,000 words and lost the opportunity. To this day, she remains unpublished.

She should have swallowed her prideful attachment and pulled out the scissors.

Jules said...

Chro.....can you not maybe make your novel into two stories? That might help....

Kate Douglas said...

I write in layers, building on each preceding chapter as I begin a new one, whether it's for a 30,000 word novella or an 80,000 word novel. I often find myself going over the word count, but it's amazing how much I can cut from those early chapters where I've often added too much description or introspection. However, it's also a fact that a lot of adjustments can be made to a finished manuscript in the production phase, with different font sizes and spacing to either add or detract from length. I think the most important thing to worry about is writing the story that feels right to you, as the author, and then going back and cleaning out what doesn't work, or adding more where it's needed.

Fwiw, I no longer write using the page count--my editor didn't even notice when I switched to computer count last year, which makes me wonder just how close they actually watch the length!

Chro said...

Jules - Unfortunately, no. As I said, the wrote the story before I realized how long it was, so there isn't really a 'midpoint' that would leave the reader satisfied.

Robena Grant said...

Judy, a friend of mine had to cut her 128,000 word story to 95,000 words. She said it was the hardest work she'd ever done and for the least money. Heh.

Mark Terry, I don't know about you and your style but when I write mystery or suspense I'm so into the plot that I forget the character arc. I always have to go back in and add more information about the internal motivations of my characters. The things that show the changes and growth of the character and how they're different by the end of the story.

AmyB said...

My challenge is I wrote a 95,000 word fantasy novel, intended for adults, but which many of my critiquers thought would work better as YA. They may be right... but I think the word count is not right for YA. So I'm in a quandary as to how to query it. I'm leaning towards querying it just as fantasy and letting the agent say something if he/she thinks it would work better as YA.

As a reader, I'm happiest reading books between 250 (YA) and 450 pages. I occasionally read a 900-page monstrosity, but I seldom like those as much as a good 350-page book.

Chro said...

Heh, that's my problem. I tend to read books (including those written by debut authors) that are at least 500 pages in length. I want in-depth stories with complex characters, and I want a value for my money. But according to the publishing industry, that's not what people want.

Then again, I also prefer my movies to be over 2 hours long, which Hollywood claims is 'too long for most people'.

I'm apparently not 'people'.

mardott said...

I was quite concerned that I was getting automatic rejections based on word count. But, I've had feedback from authors and editors that my 150,000-word alternative history novel is NOT too long for that genre.

I would never argue that a scene or two or three couldn't be cut, if that's what a publisher wanted. But in general, it's just a complex plot with lots going on.

I like long books, provided they aren't loaded down with pages and pages of detailed description, a la Jean Auel. I always end up skimming past those pages.

Travis Erwin said...

I like long books if they are long because the story or characters arcs are that big. But there are plenty of novels, the last Harry potter comes to mind that could have used a bit of trimming.

For the last nine months or so I have been writing a novel that first started as a longish short story, I thought I would be hard pressed to write 70K but the end product is going to be right about 85K. I added a few subplots and the rest comes from adding detail that I had to tell instead of show in the short version which is what prompted me to turn into into a novel in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Mark Terry --

(I write YA too)

If you are worried 75,000 words is too short for a YA, don't. Most YA's are 50-60K, not more. If you are world building ala a fantasy book then those are usually higher word counts.


If you go on renlearn.com, you can type in a YA book and it'll show you the word counts for published books.

Jordan said...

I understand the production cost concerns. However, whenever I use the 250 word method, I always feel like I'm cheating or doing something wrong.

My computer word count for a 317 p MSS (1" margins, CN 12pt) is more than 23,000 words lower than the count given by the 250 word method (79k vs 56k). If I put it in TNR 12pt and multiply by 350, as suggested in comments to the the earlier post on the topic, the word count swells to 89k (255p).

I feel like the 250 word method makes my MS seem artificially long and that if someone asks for it expecting an 80-90k MS, they'll be shocked at how short it really is. Is this not the case?

(I'll be very relieved if it is; I've been terribly worried about how to wring more words out of my brain!)

Nicole said...

Love long books--epics, sagas. Not found much in CBA books. The longer novels are usually thrillers or some limited fantasies in this market. Unfortunately.

I know these are supposed to be the ADHT or ADDT or whatever T describes a short attention span, but I know a lot of readers like myself who are tired of the 300-350page "loose" template which translates to the 60-80,000 word counts and often delivers a formulaic story. And I don't buy the small trim size paperbacks, so the $6.99 price is not common--it's more like $12-14.99 unless on sale or online, so from the consumer standpoint, it feels like a ripoff.

I write sagas because I love to read them. Out of the seven novels I've written, two are within the "acceptable" word counts. No, it doesn't make it easy to find an agent or a publisher. Not even close.

spyscribbler said...

I find, at least for myself, that when my word count is low, it's because I haven't gone into each moment and made them come alive on the page.

Or, sometimes, I haven't developed the subplots enough, or I don't have enough subplots. Long generally means I have too many subplots, and I need to focus my story.

And sometimes long just means the guidelines are too short. ;-)

Anonymous said...

As an agent what would you think of including the method used to determine the word count in the query letter. For example, I am looking for representation for my novel, Anal in Manhattan. It is 89,000 word (computer count)....

Or is the title to accurate?

Shaun Carney said...

Jordan, what word processor do you use? I'm currently 31k words into a story by the page count method, but MS Word says I'm over 37k words.

I wrote a paranormal/mystery that ended up over 164k words. I just wrote and wrote until I was done telling the tale. I was shocked at the total, and the obligatory 10% reduction in the second draft was not going to do it. So the 2nd draft lost a LOT. I ended up at 130k words (page count method) but Words says it is just under 150k. I still have a ways to go, I know, but I'm just demonstrating how MS Word is far ABOVE the page count for me.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I adore long books as well, but know that as a first-time author, I'll most likely have to conform to accepted word counts when I go to get published. I write sci-fi and fantasy, and I've generally read you can get away with longer word counts in those genres. Somewhat a relief, as I'm at 120k (computer count- I don't even want to know what 250/page count is, as there's lots of dialogue) with two chapters to go. Fortunately, I know there is a lot that can be condensed or cut (either because they're junk words or because the information is repeated elsewhere in the story), and one longer scene I'm consider cutting altogether even though it shows some great character interaction.

Irate Teacher said...

chadgramling -
I've heard the same thing, and that it's for marketing...in other words, how many books will fit on a shelf facing out based on your word count. Agents (and 1st time authors) want more books, because that's more that can be sold.

At least that's how I've heard it.

Diana said...

I have heard that Harlequin has switched to asking for computer word counts - is this true?

Jordan said...

Shaun--I use Open Office.org, and I've done a number of small-scale tests to check its accuracy.

I think the real problem I'm facing is that by the computer word count (which I've heard Harlequin does now, too), it's category length, and by the page word count, it's single title length. So which is it?

Anonymous said...

Acording to MS word, all of my rough drafts have rung in between 90,000 to 105,00 words. I write sci/fi fantasy so from what I understand I am allowed a little longer book.

As I have revised my latest Ms I have kept to the 105,500 range because for every unnecessary word I cut I have added much needed description.

(I actually have a nightmare of some editor calling me and saying "ummm... Chapter 19... where are we?") So I go back and add detail. I used to do too much description and I became over conscious to a fault now. SIGH!

Michelle

Jess said...

I write YA, so that should be taken into consideration.

I write short first drafts. I tunnel vision my way through the story, usually focusing on my protagonist and antagonist's POV's only (or hero and heroine as the case may be) and wind up in the mid-60s. Then I draft it to around 80k, adding in the depth and layers. My very first novel was 90k, but I suspect I padded that. I was VERY focused on word count when I wrote it. I'm more comfy with my range now. I think if I wanted to, I could write 100k - but it would be with my same process, short drafts, edit in depth/length.

Julie Weathers said...

The book I'm working on now is epic fantasy. It's hitting 130,000 words and I know I'm going to have to trim it.

The problem is, I drop clues everywhere. When someone has to jump out a window and skitter down a tree, it isn't a surprise because she and her father were up in a tree earlier, watching a sunset. I don't like characters just popping up with abilities. Laying all that foundation takes time.

I'm putting it through two workshops, so we'll see what shakes out. Reading it now, I see several places that need to be fleshed out more.

sigh

Anonymous said...

Every time I read agents' comments on word count I get frustrated. I look at my shelf of books...row on row of novels with word counts that double, even triple, the limits often stated. My favourite stories pass the limits without a pause, and I wonder how they found publication.

I wonder how many more novels that I would love languish in the rejection bins because of word count issues. I enjoy sprawling stories hundreds of pages long, the longer the better. I'm not the only one, every reader I know agrees...except, it seems, the agents and publishers.

AstonWest said...

During my latest round of agent queries, I had around a 60K (according to MS Word...) manuscript. One rejected it because it wasn't at least 80K, one asked for a partial, and the rest rejected it without comment on the word count.

So, much like the rest of publishing's "rules", it's a complete crapshoot...

Lynn LaFleur said...

I write mostly short paragraphs and lots of dialogue. The book I just completed for Avon Red had a word count of 83,163 according to Microsoft Word. Using the 250 per page rule, it came out to 94,750. That's a huge difference.

Lynn

Elissa M said...

I love long books, as Chro says, with deep characters and complex plotting. I think publishers claim readers won't buy long works because the publishers want to keep their costs down. And they're probably right to do so. I don't want to pay $10 for a paperback (but I expect it'll come to that one day).

Nicole said...

The word count is the actual number of words, correct? The different templates used and the trim size will determine the page count.

Jeannie Ruesch said...

My editor told me when she offerd me the contract for my 112,000 word historical romance that we'd have to cut 12,000 words.

I'm finding when you have to be ruthless, it's amazing what you can let go of. Some of the scenes or sentences are painful to delete, but this process really forces you to look at every word, every scene and wonder if it's required for the story. I know I'll pay closer attention to word count in my next manuscript.

Aimless Writer said...

When book shopping, if the book is too thin I don't even pick it up. I'm a pretty fast read so I go through short books too fast. The thicker the better. Just don't bulk it up with useless descriptions. And I usually wait for the paperback (unless its an author I LOVE) because hardbacks are too bulky to cart everywhere.
I have one WIP I just realized is 500 pages. Yikes! Sorry, it takes a lot of pages to wipe out every being on the planet, bring in the voice of God and wipe out the zombies. lol
I think I have some cutting to do.

Southern Writer said...

Here we go again. This is such an on-going debate. Someday I'm actually going to make an exhaustive list of debut authors who wrote "long" books, and save it, so I don't have to keep looking them up all the time. I can't even remember the same ones over and over, and must rely on scanning my bookshelves, then checking Amazon's text stats.

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
words: 155,255
Amazon Ranking still #513

Songs in Ordinary Time
by Mary McGarry Morris
words: 277,324

The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen
words: 196,323

Fall On Your Knees
by Ann-Marie MacDonald
words: 167,578

Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
words: 187,976

House of Sand and Fog
by Andre Dubus
words: 141,081

I'm just sayin'.

Chro said...

Southern Writer - Don't forget Patrick Rothfuss' "Name of the Wind". Debut author, won the quill award, bestseller on NYT, and the book is almost 700 words in small font. Don't know the exact word count I'm afraid.

Julie Weathers said...

Oh, don't forget Diana Gabladon.

Jeff said...

Personally, I hate long books - with a few exceptions.

It takes a more talented author to write a great short book, less than 200 pages, than some 700 page saga. But, in the end, a book is as long as it needs to be. Writers should focus more on the quality of the words than the word count.

When books are not physical objects, will word count matter as much?

Southern Writer said...

Chro, While I'm sure Name of the Wind is a fascinating read (it currently ranks #522 on Amazon), we can't really use it for comparison because it's fantasy. It's like comparing watermelons to limes. Fantasy is allowed to be longer. Everyone expects that because of the necessary world building. If you're writing a fantasy, imho, you should just go on with what you're doing, and don't worry about the naysayers. Some of the greatest inventions (and art) were created by people who were told it couldn't be done.

I don't mean this to be disrespectful to the great women of BookEnds. It's their agency; they get to make the rules for it. And while some agents agree wholeheartedly with them, others don't, obviously, or we wouldn't have the bestsellers (among the many I couldn't name at the moment) on the very short list I provided. Believe me, if it's great, they will read it. We do well to remember that everything in this business is subjective.

JDuncan said...

As Jessica would likely say, "It all depends." Different genres seem to have different ranges. You look at some pubs like Harlequin, and they are cutting word counts. SF/Fantasy has always had a longer word count than others in my experience. Likely a typical readership sort of thing. Pubs know the 'typical' fantasy reader likes and maybe expects longer books. Look at Wheel of Time as a prime example. Mainstream stuff seems to break the word count mold more often than specific genres. Obviously, sometimes books come along that are just too good, and they get published with long word counts. I think a lot of the specific genres have tight word counts though for financial reasons. Romance fiction seems to be the big example of this. So, I guess it really depends on what you are writing. You can get ballpark ranges for nearly any genre of book, but there are always going to be books that bust that limit. You can hope for that, but odds are not on the side of the writer.

JDuncan

Lisa said...

I write literary fiction and in the last year and a half have seen the acceptable word count limit diminish from 150,000 to 120,000 maximum. I've had several people read the whole MS and describe it as a "page turner". Even people who DON'T know me lol. But I'm SURE that when I state my word count on my query letter, it'll sink me. I'm wondering if I can state instead. Word count is "a bit less than The Corrections" and leave it at that?

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SirBruce said...

To some of the posters worrying about the word count MS Word returns, don't. Yes, it's an accurate word count. But the "word count" that publishers care about is the 250 per page rule (properly formatted), because that tells them how many pages your novel is going to be once it's printed. The fact you may actually have more or less words on a particular page is irrelevant.

ami blackwelder said...

I wrote a fantasy romance about 120,000 words, but found after reviewing it I really could cut about 10,00o words. Hope that is enough cutting:)

Anonymous said...

I know I'm adding this years to late, but I need to comment.
I personally would rather read a book that gets straight to the point, instead of reading 15 pages of worthless description.
I don't care what color the flowers are in the hallway or that 100 books lined the shelves in no particular order! Get real people. Sometimes too much description is a waste and a reader could easily get bored.

David Lightfoot said...

I know I'm years too late too, but I have a question about my latest novel, which is very long. It's called "Broken Family Portrait, and it's an unbelievable 303,400 words long. My character is a severe cerebral palsic who, among other things, cannot censor things he says in speeches due to a malfunctioning brain tumor.

Between all the drama between his family, the bullying he endures in his childhood/school years, and dealing with his own dysfunctional marriage, putting up with his sisters and their husbands who are abusive parents, and battling a pro-spanking society that seems to favour including children with severe physical and mental disabilities and retardation, etc., he sure has been through a lot.

I really don't know how to get it down to 100,000 words or so without losing any plot elements or any part of my protagonist Robin's sarcastic and witty nature. Yet, now I'm worried that no publisher will take it, and this is a novel I'm most proud of.

Some advice would be most appreciated. Thanks

Flossie said...

David Lightfoot-I know I may be a bit late here as I'm just now seeing this page, but if you are still wondering about this, I would like to offer my two cents worth. It sounds like you have a very good story here and that your best option might be to consider publishing this as two books, you know, with a first part and then its sequel. This way I think you would minimize the amount of cutting you'd have to do and preserve more of this great story it sounds like you've written. Some of the greatest stories ever written that have ended up on the big screen fit in this category. I'd hate to see you sell yourself short on this one.
As for me, I am just now finishing a Native American fictional story which has a historical part and then moves into "present day", and follows a family on their journey as they end up taking their vacation in the same area as where these tribes were supposed to have been "years ago". I feel that I have a great story here with great character development, a great plot and all of that, but I think my main problem is I tend to get a big too wordy at times, so being at 112 k plus words right now (MS Word count, including my introduction), I know right now I am going to have to do some trimming and cutting. But I think the trick is going to be to go back and identify the areas where I got too wordy and begin cutting in those areas and hopefully avoid having to cut too much into my character thought/reflection sequences, etc. Maybe some of this will help you (David) or someone else here. Best of luck to you all.

My note of encouragement for the day: My daughter and I met Nicholas Sparks at his book signing for "The Last Song". My thoughts as I walked out of the Barnes & Noble that day: If he can do it (as well as so many others) I can!!

So for now, I will write an epilogue to my story, then begin the cutting process. I have other story projects "simmering on the back burner. But I will definitely be paying more attention to word count, as well as avoiding excessive wordiness in the first place. Then, hopefully on future projects I will not have to do so much cutting.