Friday, July 24, 2009

Word Count

I swear I must get a question a week relating to word count. It’s an endless discussion here, on the blogs of other agents and on writing loops and boards, so while I’ve posted on this before I’m going to try to make this the complete guide to word count post, everything you need to know. Of course I know that’s never going to happen.

First and foremost, what length should your book be? My answer is when in doubt think 80,000 words, give or take. I don’t think that you can ever go wrong with 80,000 words whether you’re writing mystery, romance, fantasy, literary fiction, or nonfiction. Okay, sure, it’s never going to work for children’s books or poetry, but since I don’t rep those it doesn’t matter (to me anyway). In fact, I think 80,000 words even works for YA. Sure, with some of these genres you’re going to be on the long end and with others the short end, but again this is the “when in doubt word count.” 80,000 words is pretty much safe everywhere.

What about range, I’ll be asked. Can you give us a range or can you be genre specific? I suppose I can, to the best of my abilities.

Mystery: I think that for mysteries you often have the freedom of writing a book that’s a little shorter. In the case of mysteries 70,000 to 90,000 words will likely work for you.

Romance: 80,000 to 100,000, and no, I’m not counting category. If you’re writing category you’ll need to follow the very specific word count requirements of that line.

Fantasy or SF: Here you can go a little bit longer. Some publishers will accept books in the 80,000 to 125,000 range.

YA: 50,000 to 75,000, and yes, this is an area that can get really fudgy (I made that up), but again, in the 80,000 range is good. **I corrected these numbers after feedback from others (and comment from Kim) although I do think with YA these days you can still be safe in 80,000 words although maybe a tad high. Fantasy YA of course can be higher.

Women’s fiction, literary fiction or anything I failed to mention above: 80,000 to 100,000 (sometimes 125,000, especially in the case of literary fiction).

Now all of these are ranges and estimations. You are unlikely to be rejected simply because you’re at 78,000 for your women’s fiction or 110,000 for your romance. That being said, if you start coming in at 175,000 words, 200,000 words, or 41,000 words, you better take a close look at your book. No one in their right mind would think you’re somewhat close to range. Let’s put it this way, we give a range so that you know what the fudge factor is. We’re all smart people and we all know that when we ask something to be within a range we’ll allow for some leeway. Just think about how much leeway you’d allow and keep it at that.

I think the biggest thing about word count to remember is that it’s more than just an arbitrary number that publishers set down to make your life hard. For one thing, this is what readers tend to expect and yes, let’s face it, we all know a reader who will avoid a book simply because it looks too long or even too short. We humans tend to be creatures of habit, and if we’re used to reading 100,000 words give or take we expect 100,000 words. The other thing to consider is that as long as we’re still selling books primarily in a paper format, it’s an expense issue. A book costs more if it has more pages and somewhere along the line those costs have to be passed on to readers. Are you prepared to be the most expensive book on the market just because you insist that not one of those 300,000 words can be cut? Trust me, it’s hard enough to sell a book without out-pricing yourself.

So how do you count your words? In the days before computers it was 250 words per double-spaced page. This was the way I was taught to count, and back in my days as an editor this was still the way (roughly) production people counted to predict how big a book would be. Why? Because a 200-page book filled with short snappy dialogue is going to have far fewer words than a 200-page book filled with long descriptive paragraphs. In other words, it’s about figuring page space and not word count. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of conflicting opinions from agents on how word count should be done—whether it’s using the word count key on your computer word processing program or counting pages. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. No one is going to check and no one is going to criticize you because you were 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 words off in your count. It’s just to give us an idea of where things stand, so do what works for you.

There, I hope I did it, but I’m sure I didn’t. I hope I answered, finally, questions on word count.