Note: This is part 5 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series (NEW: Buy the book HERE).
5. How Long Should a First Novel Be?
So what is it? 20,000, 40,000, 80,000 or 120,000? What is the correct length for a novel? This is a tough question and one that many new authors struggle with. In this article I will aim to give you some guidance on choosing the correct number of words you should be aiming for.
When you read novels do you look for books of a certain size? Is your favorite novel long, short, or somewhere in between? I ask this because, to a certain extent, the type of books you read influences the type of books you write. The second thing that will influence you will be genre. Are you writing Children’s, YA, Romance, Sci-Fi or a Thriller? Most genres have particular guidelines for novel lengths and you need to understand these before your book is finished. And I’ll state this again, you need to understand the length of books in a certain genre. If you write a novel that is totally different in length to a standard of the genre, then the chances of your novel being successful will all but disappear.
Pages in a book are made up of words and in the average paperback there are approximately 250 words to a page. Sometimes 300+ in a small-type book, but let’s go with 250. This means that for every 100 pages there are approximately 25,000 words. Children’s novels (Middle Grade and some YA) typically have between 25,000 and 40,000 words. An adult novel of this length would be considered short, but maybe on the edges of some pulp romance novels. Most novels set the minimum bar at about 60,000 words (about 240 pages), but Fantasy novels are well-known for 125,000+ word books.
But I don’t know how long my book will be, you say. While this is true to a certain extent, this in no excuse to not writing the book to be a certain length. It is up to you to ensure the plot has enough story points to enable you to write the required number of words. You’re really writing to a formula, something that has been laid down by many others before. Previously I wrote that each story point will probably be worth 400 to 500 words, so to write a 60,000 word novel you’re going to need somewhere near to 150 story points. And, as I’ve also written before, that’s a lot of story points. So, before you start writing your 125,000 word Fantasy novel in earnest, you’d better make sure you have those 250+ story points nearly complete!
Some authors will argue that a story should be as long as it needs to be, and who am I to disagree? However one thing that many of these authors are forgetting is that they are already published and established and they can decide to a certain extent just how long their books should be. As a debut author you do not get that luxury. Writing a book is all about good language and sticking to a formula. Why try and break the mould on your very first attempt?
As a first time or newly published author you don’t get a say in how long your book should be. What I mean by that is let’s suppose you’re writing Romance and your comparison books all run at 60,000 words. If your book is only 45,000 words long, that’s not going to be enough. Don’t even consider trying to get it published! Similarly, if you overrun and you suddenly have a 100,000 word book on your hands, edit out 40,000 words or so! The length of your novel is very important.
I currently write in two particular genres, comical Middle Grade adventures and YA Fantasy. Both of these genres require I write to certain word guidelines and in my case I try and produce books at approximately 35,000 and 125,000 words respectively.
Of course there are exceptions to all rules. JK Rowling doesn’t need to worry about the length of books she needs to write. Not now anyway. But if you look back to the first few books in her Harry Potter series you’ll see they were all at about the 75,000 to 80,000 word length. The last four books, however, were between 165,000 and 250,000 words! If and when you become famous, you get to decide how long your books are. Until that point, stick to the rules!