Step Six: What is your target word count?
The ‘sweet spot’ for a modern novel seems to be 90,000 words (which equates to around 300 pages), but there is variation by genre:
- Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words, but can be up to 75,000 words depending on the imprint (e.g. Love Inspired Historical);
- Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words;
- Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words;
- Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words;
- Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words;
- Chick lit: 80,000 to 100,000 words
- Mystery: 80,000 to 100,000 words
- Thriller: 90,000 to 100,000 words
- Crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words
- Suspense: 90,000 to 100,000 words
These figures are taken from posts from publishing industry experts such as Rachelle Gardner, Chuck Sambuchino, Colleen Lindsay and Book Ends literary agents. However, a recent post by literary agent Chip MacGregor suggests many contemporary stand-alone novels are in the 70,000 to 80,000 word range, with some going up to 90,000 depending on the project and the publisher.
Historical novels tend to be a bit longer than contemporaries, as they are more likely to be epics or sagas (which are over 110,000 words). Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 80,000 words, although they can go up to 100,000 words. Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words.
There are always going to be exceptions. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, is 240,000 words. George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books are a similar length, but he had already published several standard-length novels, so had a track record of sales to build on. And if you are going for a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. The last two 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words (and has turned one of those authors from a must-buy to a don’t-bother for me).
As a first-time author, the advice is always going to be to take as many words as you need to tell the story, but count on being the rule, not the exception, and keep within the general word count limits for your genre and target market.
Paper costs money, so the longer your book, the less likely a publisher will pick it up (or, should you choose to self-publish, the less likely you will be able to sell paperbacks profitably). Equally, don’t go too short. Readers get annoyed paying what they consider to be full price for an ebook only to find out it’s little longer than a short story.
For reference, anything shorter than 40,000 words isn’t a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards dictate that novellas are around 17,500 to 40,000 words, between 7,500 and 17,500 words is a novelette, and below 7,500 words is a short story. Between 100 and 1,000 words is flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines), and a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble. Really.
Calculating Word Count
In the distant past, before the invention of the word processor with the automatic word count, there used to be great debate about how to calculate word count. After all, no one actually wanted to count each and every word, so it was agreed that the average double-spaced typewritten page was 250 words (25 lines at an average of 10 words per line).
That formula worked on a typewriter or when using Courier font in a word processor, but now we have multiple fonts to annoy people with, all of which take up different amounts of space on the page. But it doesn’t matter. We have Microsoft Word and the automatic word count feature.
Older versions of Microsoft Word would calculate word count differently depending on the font: Word 2010 is more sophisticated and gives the same word count regardless of font. Is the word count correct? I don’t know, and I don’t much care. It’s not as though I (or anyone else) is actually going to count the individual words. The word count from Word is good enough unless your agent or publisher wants you to use a different method (in which case, listen to them).
A couple of hints: in Word 2010, an American ellipsis ( . . . ) is three words, while an Australian ellipsis (… using three full stops or … using Alt-0133) is only one word. And * * * in your scene breaks adds three words with each new scene. If your word count is getting too high, cut the pretty scene break markers.
How long is your book? What do you think of these guidelines?
This concludes my series on defining your market and genre. Next week we will starting a new series looking at point of view.
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