Word Count Wanderings

Word count sucks. There, I've said it. Word count is a necessary evil. Word count makes the world go around. A couple weeks ago, I posted an entry on Frankie's blog about how word count matters. I've done research on and off over the last year or so on word count, and have come to this conclusion.

There is no one answer. I will use middle grade and young adult for my examples.

Chuck Sambuchino, editor for Writer's Digest Books wrote the definitive post on word count for novels and children's books.
MG - 20k - 45k
YA - 55k - 70k (add 5k for fantasy/sci-fi)

Colleen Lindsay from Fineprint Literary Agency, posted this entry on word counts and novel length.
MG - 25k - 40k
YA - 50k - 80k (longer for paranormal or fantasy)

Nathan Bransford from Curtis Brown, Ltd, posted this entry on novel word count. He's not a stickler for word count. In his words, "If it works, it works." His larger point was that agents will reject you outright if your word count is outrageously high.

Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency posted this entry on the word count question. She points out that it's the completely wrong question to ask. The right question is to ask how important pacing is in your novel.  Length won't matter if the pacing of the novel makes it such that the reader doesn't care. Case in point: Harry Potter & Twilight. (among many others I can think of). She would know. She sold Helen Stringer’s Spellbinder, which my daughter, wife and I recently enjoyed.

On the flip side, Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management posted this query critique on a relatively short middle grade novel. (28k words). He wasn't worried about the word count, thinking that they could expand the book in the editorial process if need be.

To complicate matters, in my research I found an agent or two that categorized some well known middle grade novels as young adult. These are definitely MG books - they're shelved with MG, the characters are middle schoolers, and the themes are very much MG. Yet, those novels had 80k word count. If you were to query such an agent with a middle grade novel of 40k words, would they think twice when reading the query letter?

In the end, I think you tell the story that's in your head. Then revise the heck out of the thing - lop off what doesn't move the plot along. Ensure the pacing is appropriate for your target audience. Get people to read it and make sure it's just right. When you're done and you think it's right, if it falls well outside the typical range for your genre and target audience, you have a decision to make. You can query anyway, but keep in mind that you're lowering your chances overall. As you can see above, some folks are less concerned than others. Remember that publishing is a business. And if the story is just right, decisions made based on word count are often driven by the business side of things, especially for debut authors.


Kristan said...

Yeah... Yeah, I mean I think you'll know if you're in the right ballpark. I mean these agents' numbers weren't SO wildly different (not like 25-40k vs. 60-80k) you know? There was enough overlap that you could have a target, and if you over or undershoot it a bit, it's all gravy. I think writers especially shouldn't worry while they're drafting. It's more of a revisions consideration, IMO.

It is a necessary evil, though.

Dawn Embers said...

Indeed, it is a necessary evil and I see writers who struggle with it on a regular basis. I have a few friends on twitter who worry about their book lengths and how they might be too short. Course, they go for the genre that prefers longer books.

Interesting to see the MG and YA ones on here. I hadn't looked up those before, so it's useful information. Thanks.

Jay said...

Thanks for dropping by Kristan & Dawn. Yep, you can't worry about it in your first draft.

Although, many folks set a word count goal for their first draft to measure how far along they are. I didn't do so for Mythos initially, but when I got to about 45k, I decided to set a target of 55k, and I'm nearly there. Midian, which is MG, wound up at 95k on first draft. I had some serious chopping to do!

Dawn Embers said...

I didn't do the word count goals at first, but now I do even for first drafts. I have a YA type that I was first learning how to write novels with and it's only 24k. The rewrite has its work cut out for me, lol. So, with the book I'm writing now in the same world with older characters my goal is 80k. I have 68k so far.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Whoa! I think all those numbers gave me a headache! I would say that as long as you are somewhere in the ballpark, you're good. Turning in an MG novel with 9,000 words would probably not fly, though. :-)

Elana Johnson said...

This is so true! For debut authors, rules are stickier. And there are always exceptions. Great post!

Jay said...

Thanks for dropping by, Elana! Near as I can figure, the big gamble for a debut author is whether to shoot for one of those exceptions.

Jo Treggiari said...

My published MG was around 100,000 words and even I can admit it was too long. However it was published!
Now that I'm writing YA I aim for around 70,000 and actually it's nice to be writing shorter, punchier books. It's funny though my new editor at Scholastic wants me to beef up my YA and make it longer than its 70K, so I guess you can't really call it.
You just need to write the story that is in your head and make sure your self-edit is on.

Jay said...

The Curious Adventures of Feltus Ovalton was 100k? See, you never can tell! I'm shooting for 55k for Mythos (YA urban fantasy) in the 1st draft, because my 2nd drafts tend to add 5-10k. :-)