The Deal with Word Count
There are a lot of discussions online about novel length and word count. Most of the online discussions come to the same conclusion and give the parameters for novels, depending on genre and whether it is fiction, non-fiction, middle grade, young adult, romance, or something else. We will look at the ideal novel lengths later in this post. Because I write fiction, that is what my focus in this article will be.
You should not concern yourself with word count while you are writing your novel. Write, get it all down, as you will have plenty of time later to worry about word count during your many editing phases.
A fiction novel is considered anything over 50,000 words and up from there. It can be as small as 40,000 words but 50,000 is generally considered the floor. A few famous novels that have come in under 40,000 words (and even under 30,000) are Animal Farm by George Orwell (29K) or the book that inspired Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This novel comes in just over 30K words! These are definitely on the shorter side and can actually be considered novellas, which are generally between 17K & 40K words. But a good story is a good story, no matter how short or long.
I have read from various sources that debut novelists should be keeping their manuscripts to around 60K-70K words but fiction novels, as a rule of thumb, are to be between 80K & 110K word length. The sweet spot is considered between 80K-100K words. If you are writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, you have more leeway with word count, going as high as 120K – 150K words. This is due to the complex world-building that may be needed, depending on the story. There is no limit on the number of words a fiction novel can be in length (think War & Peace) but good luck selling a debut novel that is over 150,000 words!
I was at a writing convention in Chicago a few years back and a gentleman stood up to ask about his novel and if it could be published. He said it was over 850,000 words! The speaker chuckled and said he needed to break it up into many volumes as no one would ever publish a book of that size. All of the 8 novels and 1 book of short stories I have written do not even equal that many words! That man has a lot to say.
Some examples of longer fiction novels that have found great success are Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling, which comes in at over 257K words. Of course, JK was well established by this point in her career from her previous Harry Potter novels so she had that working in her favor. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga has one book in the series, A Storm of Swords, that comes in at a whopping 424K words! That is enormous by any standard. This would bring the book in the range of almost 1,000 pages! So, try to keep it to the sweet spot, until you become the next JK or George R.R. and then the sky is obviously the limit.
I have written 8 novels and a book of short stories so far (nothing published yet). My very first came in at around 88K words, the next at 75K, the third at 82K and the fourth at just over 100K. The fourth novel is the one I will be submitting to agents as my debut. This is the one that I have been working on for the past 6 months and have had professionally edited, twice. Next is the beta reader stage then agent submissions.
From the word count of what will be my debut novel, I seem to be pushing my luck with having a debut novel at over 100K words. With editing, I am hoping it ends up just below that 100K mark but we’ll see. I probably am pushing my luck but after having it professionally edited twice, there is nothing major that should be or needs to be cut. This could prove to be more difficult to sell than if it were more in the high 70K, low 80K word range but I feel this is my strongest novel and believe this is the one that could open the door for me with an agent. Time will tell.
On to a basic table of word count that I pulled from the Writer’s Digest website (https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post):
Below 70,000: Too short
70,000-79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
80,000-89,999: Totally cool 90,000-99,999: Generally safe 100,000-109,999: Might be too long; probably alright 110,000 or above: Too long
A more exhaustive list from the website, The Write Life (https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/), lists the following on word count:
Flash Fiction: 300–1500 words
Short Story: 1500–30,000 words
Novellas: 30,000–50,000 words
Novels: 50,000–110,000 words
Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000 (and sometimes 150,000) words
Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
Picture Books: 300–800 words
Early Readers: 200–3500 words
Chapter Books: 4000–10,000 words
Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Standard Nonfiction (Business, Political Science, Psychology, History, etc.): 70,000–80,000 words
Memoir: 80,000–100,000 words
Biography: 80,000–200,000 words
How-to / Self-Help: 40,000–50,000 words
All of this information is rule of thumb and as we all know, there are always exceptions to the rule. Write your novel without being concerned about word count, edit it down (over & over), and submit it to agents. If it’s too long, you will be told and then you can go back and trim some more. By the time you are ready to submit your first novel to agents, you will feel like you have the skills of an editor!
Remember the words of Stephen King; “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck”
Happy reading, happy writing!