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Saturday, April 30, 2011

5. How Long Should a First Novel Be? (Writing for Success)

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!

26 comments:

  1. An interesting post. It was something I had to think about for my first YA fantasy novel. I try to have a rough idea in my head, but if I fall short by 5k or over by 5k it's fine. You have to be careful not to slow your narrative down, waffling in order to pad out the word count.

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  2. When I was querying my first project(whilst simultaneously editing it)--a paranormal chick lit-- the number of requests was inversely proprotional to the number of words.

    It started off at 106k and sold when it hit 99k. I don't even want to discuss the number of actual queries that went out. Suffice it to say I had plenty of data with which to work. =)

    Maybe it's true, what they say about writing: it's a numbers game.

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  3. I'm missing part of the equation (not that writing is a science but your guidelines are useful) - how many story points in a chapter? One of each? More than one? Let me know. And thanks for your great advice especially on publishing.

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  4. @L.D. - The number of story points in a chapter depends on the length of the chapter. If each story point is about 500 words and a chapter is approx 2,000 words, then there are 4 story points to a chapter.

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  5. Word count is something I had no idea about when I wrote my debut novel, The Virgin Surgeon. I simply wrote it. Needless to say it has more words than your average Romance/Suspense/Thriller. But I think its well paced and readers have run through it in a day.

    I think you make excellent points and word count is extremely important to first time authors looking for a "publishing deal". Pages costs money and more words make more pages, and publishing houses don't want to take a chance losing too much money on an unknown. I'm not so sure if word count matters to someone dead set on "self-publishing." I say that because as a reader, I breezed through the big Harry Potter books in a day or two. Great stories and excellently paced. Yet, I've struggled to get through books half the size that had dull stories that actually seemed more wordy than they really were.

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  6. My first novel is 120,000 words. I wrote as much as I needed to to tell the story I wanted to write. I signed a contract that required I write 100,000, and the first draft of my manuscript was 130,000. My editor took out 20,000 in her first edit, then put back 10,000 in her second. There was no way I could have told my story in any more or less words. Therefore I really think this is a bit of a red herring, and unnecessary advise. Just write what you want to write; what your story requires. And remember, if you want it translated into German, that adds about 30% more to the text. Free your mind, your ass will follow...

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  7. Thanks, Paul, there is a lot of good sense in your article but overall, I agree more with Greg's comments. It does depend on genre as you say, but personally I find the whole 'you're writing to a formula, number of 'storypoints' per chapter' etc a pretty depressing approach. Somebody said it's a numbers game, but it sounds more like writing by numbers. My first novel has come in at 107,000 words, not out of line for the genre (contemporary women's fiction)but I gave the wordcount little thought when writing. I can say that there is nothing left in that wouldn't create a hole in the story if I took it out. The more I think about it, the more I agree with Greg.

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  8. Wauw, what do I have to think about when I write a story! I actually did think about how long a book needs to be and as I write in the 'Romantic Historical' genre.
    I started out writing a book that became easily 700 pages and then decided to cut it in small pieces and launch books between 35.000- 80.000 words, because it seemed to me that my target group preferred that. That is how I started a series.
    I am not sure about 'story-points' I must have them as I try to make every page interesting enough to have people keep on reading. I've 'done away' with editors that seem to like to make a point about themselves in my books. That does not mean I don't have a very strict and stern corrector and I adore her for what she does to my writing. When reading your articles I sometimes have the sense of reading 'recipes', but all recipes in the world cannot give you the success many people crave. I believe in the adage that a good book sells itself. Does thatmean that bestsellers follow the recipes? I don't know. I just know that I write because I like to tell a good story. And thanks to Indiepublishing we can do just that now.

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  9. Yes, agreed, if your aim is sales and the widest audience possibly, follow the rules and stay within word count norms.

    I'm one of those who doesn't care how long or short a book is when I'm looking at it. I care about the story and the writing, especially about the characters. I'll read a 200,000 word book with no issue if I like it enough. I'll also read a 40,000 word lit fic. Following that, I write what the story dictates. My shortest lit-romance is right at 70,000 words. My longest is 320,000 words (and part of a series).

    Granted, I have much more trouble selling either of those than my mid-size books at around 120,000 words.

    But my aim is to create fiction I think deserves to be read, even if within a smaller audience. And I publish myself so I can write within my own needs and my stories' needs. Of course if I was having to depend on it as an income source or looking for a publisher, I would have to rethink my strategy.

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  10. I'm 18 and writing a fantasy as my first novel. One of my 12th grade teachers said she'll take care of getting it to a publisher. I've made a general outline and it looks like it can be about 60000 or 70000 words. Too short?

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  11. Anonymous - The quick answer is that it depends on the genre. If you are writing Young Adult or Adult, then you're probably looking for at least 70-80 thousand. If you're writing for Middle Grade then even 60 thousand may be a little long. Try and write more than you need so that it's easier to cut unnecessary pieces out in the editing. Aim for 80-90 thousand and you'll probably do great. Just make sure you have enough plot points to carry the story. Good luck!

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  12. Thanks!That really helped!

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  13. Hello im writing my first novel and the genre is thriller im guessing but is my book to short if my chapters have 15 paragraphs in it the paragraphs like 5 lines long and it will probably be like 40-50 chapters is that to long or short for an adult thriller novel?????

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    1. It all depends on word count. 7 words a line x 5 lines x 15 paragraphs = 525 words per chapter. 40 Chapters = 21000 words. Average book = 80,000 words!

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  14. Omg well thank you I got some more work to do I see thanks for responding back!!!!

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  15. Interesting article! I'm writing a travel narrative mostly aimed at the YA population. So far I've got 25,000 words, but I'm aiming for 40,000. Too short?

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    1. Tough question to answer. Fiction and non-fiction are two completely different things. Good luck!

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  16. Hi I'm currently writing a novel which is best described as a combination of fantasy, young-adult and sci-fi. I'm nearing completion and currently at 149000 words. Too long, right?

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    1. Depends on your method of publication. if you're going traditional, you may want to consider splitting it up. If you're self-pubbing, the choice is yours. Just bear in mind, 125k is a long book for most audiences in YA.

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    2. I've been leaning more towards traditional than self-publishing, so yeah it looks like I may have to either split it into two or cut a lot out. I suppose I'll worry more about that once I've finished the story and started editing, though.

      Thanks for the feedback :)

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  17. Nice article; I've been searching up word counts on Google to test my own.

    If there are any other people on here willing to do some math, I'm writing a semi-realistic-fantasy novel (i.e., superpowers), and currently I'm estimating it to be between 15 and 20 chapters. My chapters generally range from 1,500 to 2,000, judging from past writing attempts… would this be enough for my genre, or a little too long?

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    Replies
    1. Sounds like your book is a little short.

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  18. I've recently posted on this as well - http://christianediting.co.nz/how-to-write-a-christian-novel-defining-your-genre-11/.

    As a reader, I have expectations about how long a novel should be. I've been well-trained by the publishing industry to like books in the 85,000 - 90,000 range best, and while self-publishers aren't necessarily bound by the same word counts as traditional publishers, you are aiming for the same market as they are, so you need to meet the expectations of that market.

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  19. If a book is three hundred pages hand written how long will it be typed

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    1. It depends on the word count. I have noticed that a page front and back=1 page typed (so if I wrote 300 pages it would be about 150 typed). But this all depends on your handwriting (size, style etc.) and sadly people will not be able to give you an exact number. If you wanted to take the time and count the words on a page and use that to take a guess and assume other pages will be about the same, then people could give you a better idea.

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  20. How best you are interested in writing a good essay matters a lot. You have to be ready to understand every basic requirement that there is touching on how you can write the most interesting essay of all the time like this buy essay

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