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A Word About Novel Word Counts… March 11, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
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Potentially my finished manuscript

 As the first draft of my fantasy novel surged past 90,000 words, I started to worry about the final word count for the very first time. 

It was never something I gave much thought to before – after all, most fantasy novels you see on bookstore shelves these days are thicker than some of my law textbooks (not many though).  However, with my story not even at the half way mark (or so I think), I’m beginning to wonder just how much of a door stopper the finished product is going to be.  250,000 words?  300,000?

While I will be ecstatic just to finish the book, I’d be lying if I said publication has never crossed my mind.  But forget about selling any copies – would any sane publisher even contemplate publishing a 250,000-300,000 word book from a first time writer?  I’m certain the answer is a decisive ‘no’ (if I was James Joyce, maybe, but unfortunately I’m not).

So what is a publishable length for a novel?  I was lucky to come across this blog post at The Swivet (the blog of Colleen Lindsay, literary agent).  The post is almost a year old, but I doubt the publishing landscape has changed that much in a year.  According to Colleen, the ideal length of a fantasy/sci-fi manuscript is 100,000 words, and up to 120,000-130,000 for a truly spectacular epic fantasy.  Agents and publishers tend to think that if a novel is too long, it probably reflects a lack of writing ability (in my case it’s probably true).  The limits don’t necessarily apply to established, published authors who have already proven they can sell.  There are also exceptions like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (which I have read and personally don’t think is that great), but she was already a star and award winner, which few first time writers are. 

If you scroll down that post, you’ll see a message which lists the word counts of recent and historically popular novels.  Some of them caught me by surprise, like the first Harry Potter novel, which was roughly only 77,000 words, or the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was only around 455,000 words!  Really?  I could have sworn both felt significantly longer when I read them.  Part of this might be because I’m already up to 90,000 myself and I feel like nothing much has happened in my story!

Yes, it’s just a first draft, and there will be a lot of re-writing, editing and cutting (A LOT!), but I just can’t fathom squeezing the completed manuscript down to a publishable 100,000 words.  So…perhaps a trilogy?  One that comes to mind is Patrick Rothfuss, who wrote The Name of the Wind (which I can’t wait to read).  He originally wrote a mega-long book entitled The Song of Flame and Thunder, which was rejected by all publishers he submitted to.  However, after he won the Writers of the Future competition, he managed to sell the book by splitting it into 3 volumes, the first of which was The Name of the Wind (which is still a ridiculously thick book that I’m sure exceeds 100,000 words).

Anyway, enough dreaming for now.  Have to try and finish the damn thing first.

PS: I can’t believe this is my 100th post!

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Comments»

1. Ty - March 12, 2009

You are correct. A novel length mss today is between 80,000 – 100,000 words. Anything over the 120,000 word count is considered a ‘super novel’

Ty Schwamberger
Horror Author

2. gypsyscarlett - March 12, 2009

Hi,

First, congrats on your 100th post!

As for your novel, I’d worry about the word count later. Finish the first draft. As you then do your revisions, you will better see what is truly necessary, and what is not.

Good luck. :)

3. Matt - March 13, 2009

100? you’ve been quite busy on this blog haven’t u. i’ve created a blogging monster.

pacejmiller - March 13, 2009

You have indeed! Thanks! It’s great to have an alternative creative outlet apart from the novel and it provides a stress reliever from uni work. I’ve really let the foot off the accelerator now though…I was doing 2 to 3 posts a day at the beginning due to initial excitement and fear of lack of content, but now I am settling into the 1 post every 2 or 3 days routine now.

4. Matthew Ho - March 15, 2009

that sounds like a good rate. i do 1 -2 a week on average.

5. Alexander Field - March 17, 2009

Thanks for this post, as I have been wondering the very same thing. This is a good thing to ponder, but hopefully it only comes up after the first draft is far behind you. Stephen King averages about 200K for his books, and of course, the venerable Robert Jordan far exceeded that for many of his brick-like books.

My own novel-in-progress is getting up there in words (far above 150K now), and yes, it’s the first draft, but does that also reflect my lack of discipline? Good questions, good things to wrestle with. Thanks for posting.

pacejmiller - March 19, 2009

Hi! Thanks for visiting! Funny you mentioned Stephen King – I just finished reading “On Writing” – review of that coming up soon. It’s actually similar in style to Bird by Bird – personal, instructive and inspiring.

6. Tedronai - February 6, 2011

Sadly i recently fell foul of the tyrant that is the word count. Given that the author’s I admire average a wordcount per novel somewhere around the 300k mark I thought my piddly 214k would be a shoe in. Oh, how I laughed…. :|

pacejmiller - February 6, 2011

Hey, at least you’re writing. I’ve been stuck on 150,000 for a year!

7. Alex - March 16, 2011

My novel has just soared past 95,000 words at 268 pages.

I’m 4 chapters away from the end so the intended word count is around 105,000 to 115,000. Most likely the lesser.

I have to say though, my first draft of the book was 103 pages long at 34,000 words. So I’ve done quite a good job making it longer and using Harry Potter &TPS as a template, lol.

Problem now is getting an agent, I’ve contacted several, three small ones and two larger ones, the two larger ones said they have a lot going on right now and the three smaller ones told me that as the book is the first in a series, they cannot effectively represent me.

Never give up is the solution, and I will get this book published by the end of 2011.

pacejmiller - March 17, 2011

Well done and congratulations! I can only imagine what a thrill it is to finally finish that novel. All the best in your search for an agent and publisher — wasn’t Rowling rejected by every major publisher before she caught a lucky break?


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