7. How Long Should My Novel Be?
I’ve heard it all before:
A) As long as it needs to be
B) Write until you write ‘The End’
C) Write until you finish the story
D) I don’t pay any attention to word counts; I write what I want
Welcome to the wonderful world of keeping your day job! Not paying attention to word count when you’re an unknown author, is just asking for failure. Did you know, for example, that JK Rowling’s first few Harry Potter books were around 75,000 to 80,000 words? This was so, as an unknown author, she had more chance of getting her books published. Of course, once she was well known, and had a loyal readership, she could break the rules and start writing 165,000 to 250,000 word books!
To be clear, I am not saying that 80,000 words is what you should be aiming at. A lot depends on the audience and genre. But you do need to know what is expected for your age group and genre. It could be 30,000 words, and it could be 125,000. One thing’s for sure though, the word count is not going to be as long as it needs to be.
The reason for having a particular word count is all about helping the reader understand you and your book; to give it a better chance of getting read. A reader of fantasy sagas is not going to buy a 40,000 word book. That would be like a teaser for them; they will be expecting somewhere in the region of 125,000 to 200,000 words.
So far in this series of essays we have covered a lot of topics, and haven’t even discussed writing the actual book. Everything has been about things to consider before writing. The reason for this is so you can set yourself up for success. If you can get everything lined up before you start writing, you will have an easier time at the finish getting a lot of favorable reviews. And this means if you need to write an 80,000 word novel, you’re going to have to come in somewhere around 75,000 to 85,000 words. If you’re over or under this total, you’re going to have to make some adjustments to the completed manuscript.
It’s a little like these essays. I set out to write thirty essays, each one around 600 words (550 to 650 words approx). I figured that 600 words is about the right amount of space to get my individual point across, without being overly simple, or descriptively boring.
Word count may seem like a totally irrelevant thing to consider, but if you’re writing mainstream fiction, you must pay attention.
I want to end this article with a little guide to help in writing your story. Each page in a traditional paperback is about 250 to 300 words. This means an 80,000 word story will be somewhere between 265 to 320 pages long. Each plot point or story element in a book will probably cover between 1 and 4 pages (250 to 1,200 words). Further extrapolating this, you are going to need around 70 to 300 plot points or story elements (call it 200 to be on the safe side). I’ve mentioned this magic number (200) elsewhere in my essays, and no doubt I’ll come back to it again in the future. Ultimately, if you have enough interesting things happening in a novel, and you write about each thing concisely and don't go overboard with the description, you’ll get the word count right for the type of novel you’re writing. If the novel is too short, there’s not enough happening, and if the novel is too long, you’ve probably written a lot of boring passages.Hey, but what do I know? Just ignore my advice and keep doing what you’re doing. After all, you really do enjoy your day job, don’t you?