Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Query Question: The definitive, absolute, no more question about it post on Word Count

Can you please give a definitive answer about word count. While I understand 100K is way too much for most genres, what is too little? Is anything under 80K, for mainstream fiction, too little and instant rejection?

Has NaNo, with its 50K word counts, killed chances for hopefuls in that range?

100K isn't "way too much" for most genres. It's right on the mark for many, and too few for a couple others.

Here's the rundown:
Sweeping, epic fantasy: 150K at a minimum. You can't do it right in less.
Sweeping, epic, historical fiction: 120 at a minimum. More is better.

Science fiction novels: 75-125K

Romance novels:65-100K
Womens' fiction: 100K and up

Crime novels: 80-100K
Thrillers: 80-100K
Noir novels: 65K and up but only double digits here, not triple.

YA: 65-100K
MG: 50K

Picture books: fewer than 2000 words

While NaNoMo sets a goal of 50K, that's for your FIRST DRAFT. Get that draft on paper and then go back and see where you need to develop the story, develop the character.

If you can't see where you need to expand, give it to a beta reader and ask where they have questions, or felt like they hadn't gotten enough story.

The bottom line is word count isn't something you want to worry about till revisions. Use enough words, and no more, to tell the story fully and completely.You have to be WAY WAY outside the paramenters on word count before it's an auto rejection. And even then, if your pages are well written and taut, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.  Worry less about how many words you've got than do you have the RIGHT words.


Unknown said...

And do as many of the 100 word contests as you can.

I've learned quite a bit about drafting and revision.

I usually write 300-400 words for a contest. Then, I have to whittle that down into 100 words on the nose.

That makes for very tough choices with phrasing, verb usage, and layering imagery/meaning.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Something I've taken to saying (especially as I prepare to run my 2nd NaNoWriMo program at my library of employment) is National Novel Writing Month just sounds catchier than National First Draft Writing Month. I mean, you can't even acronym that. NFDWM?

Of course, it is with a specific type of horror I learn that some NaNo-ers take December to send out their freshly minted first draft, and I am so very sorry.

Janet Reid said...

Jennifer I've heard that, but I haven't actually seen it. I think most of the NaNoWrMo writers are pretty savvy about the need for revision.

Penanggalen said...

The 150K for sweeping, epic fantasy is a surprise to me. This comes from Jennifer Jackson, an agent who has published a lot of fantasy:

"certainly in science fiction and fantasy lengths may tend to sometimes run longer, but even there 150,000 seems to be the upper range considered comfortable, with indications that 125,000 is really more reasonable, and 100,000 still more ideal."

I've heard that publishers are unlikely to take the chance on a new author if the book is more than 120k. I've seen both agents and editors say this. But you're saying 150k is the bottom range, not the upper range.

Can you perhaps indicate why you might have a difference of opinion with Jackson? I'd be interested in any follow-up details.

Craig F said...

I don't believe that I have seen Jennifer pick up a sweeping fantasy. Nor does she mention sweeping fantasy. I think she prefers serial or romantic fantasy which drops it from the sweeping genre. By sweeping I mean Potter, old Terry Brooks and so on.

I tend to think of the urban fantasies that Jennifer most often backs as a sub or cross genre vehicle. So I see no conflict between that and sweeping epic fantasies.

If you start with a good outline and build from there it is easy to get in the right word count.

Janet Reid said...

Unknown, it's the "sweeping, epic" that you want to pay attention to for that word count.

Non-sweeping, epic sf (and f) is 75-125.

Some stories just need a bigger stage. The trick is to know which ones.

Doug said...

I have to quibble a bit with the MG minimum because there's such a wide range within MG. Lower MG (4th to 6th grade) can be as little as 35k, and upper MG can be 40K. For example, "The Giver" is 42k.

Anonymous said...

What a timely post. I'm on my second revision and need to get my draft down to about 95K - per agent, which is in line with your numbers for what I'm writing. I consider it a suspense novel, and as a sidebar, the whole suspense/thriller/crime/mystery genre categorization makes me want to pull my hair out. Not b/c I don't understand the diff, because no one can seem to get them right. It's hard to find books clearly flagged under one or the other on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. They all get lumped together. But. I digress.

Either way, he said, 100K is alright as a draft for him to read, but ideally 95K for submission. I'm currently at 98K... simply because I always try to exceed expectations. :)

Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer this. :)

Kat said...

Hi Janet,

In the course of query research, I've read several interviews with agents who say they usually won't consider first-time authors with manuscripts over 100k. So where does this leave the historical novelist, for instance, when the genre expectation is 120k+ but as a new author anything over 100k might scare potential agents off?

Anonymous said...

My own experience, based on what I've gathered from multiple agents and publishers, is that if you're a first-time fiction author, you're taking a chance if you crack the 100,000 word mark in any genre. This is, of course, a rule of thumb, not a hard limit, but a first-time author needs as many breaks as he can get.

Got a successful publishing history? Whole different story. But I've found that many authors who now turn out bestselling doorstop books had a first book that was nice and slim.

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was under 80,000 words. Stephen King's first novel, "Carrie" was about 60,000 words.

Lizzie said...

Has anyone figured out a better way to tally the word count of published books aside from the usual 250 or 300 x number of pages? With chapter heading and dialogue and creative formatting, I feel like the result I get is more weather forecast than reality.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I have tried writing with a partner. He kept asking me, "How many pages do we have to write?" I replied the only way I could – "Depends on how big the page is." I could never get him to understand it's "words." I have a different partner now.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

John old chum, I wrote the following before I saw your post but it ties in perfectly:

[In reply to Bill] But "number of pages" is going to depend on whether you use Courier or Times New Roman 12. Courier is larger so you'd get fewer words per page.

I know (or have read) that manual per-page calculation differs from the computer-generated one in the Word doc counter, because of the space-gaps left by dialogue etc. That's why I prefer working to an overall word count rather than a per-page one: surely, apart from visual preferences, the font is irrelevant when judging the length of an unpublished work.

So Janet… SOS... please tell us it's OK to use the automatic word-counter in the word processor! How easy is it to estimate page-count from an overall word count calculated this way? Or do you need to?

- - -

Other option: Just write a story that numbers in the single digits, as Hemingway did in his famous 6-word gem:

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Ardenwolfe said...


This gives word counts for more than a few novels. It's not definitive, but it's better than nothing.


Colin Smith said...

For some reason, we get obsessive over things like word counts and details, I think because we don't want an agent or editor to turn us down because of those things. But the big take-away from Janet's post is, I think this:

"Worry less about how many words you've got than do you have the RIGHT words."

Within reason, it doesn't matter. Do you know the word count of your favorite novel? Do you care? :)

Laina said...

Yeah, I'm with Doug on this one. Like, are we talking Wimpy Kid, Junie B. Jones, Geronimo Stilton, Goosebumps, Percy Jackson, Inkheart?

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DLM said...

Colin, YES!

I write histfic, and began querying on a MS I had just *shredded* to pare down to 128K because, frankly, that's what I thought I had to do, and it was ... not good.

It got good feedback from one lovely agent who said, 'needs food in the kitchen and furniture in the rooms', and it's now back over 130K.

Many ask the "can you split it into two novels" question, especially historical debut authors, though nobody's ever asked that of me (the answer: good Lord, no).

My chubby little baby (hah!) has gotten interest from some very good agents indeed, who (granted) have passed, but who did request fulls AND provided great encouragement. It's gotten lots of feedback from lots of agents, but not a one has ever mentioned word count yet.

donnaeverheart: I'm so grateful mine is histfic so there is no worry what to call my genre!

Melinda Szymanik said...

I've always put picture books at a maximum of 1000 words. Mine have usually come in at 700-800, but sadly there is pressure now from a number of publishers in Australasia and the UK to keep it at 500 words or less. This isn't a great trend so I was surprised (and hopeful) to see you put picture books at up to 2000 words.

Laina said...

OH HEY I actually know a thing about this.

I think part of the reason the push for short picture books is that the audience is generally 5 and under. Read a long picture book to a 3 year old. Or 9 of them. I dare ya :P

And then by the time the kids get old enough to do a longer picture books, parents are pushing for early readers/chapter books, which is such a disservice to the kids.

(I read somewhere around 500 new picture books a year, closer to probably 800 counting rereads. And I read... probably let's say 3 a week for 40 weeks a year so at least 120 of them to groups of preschoolers. I kinda know a thing here XD)

Lizzie said...


I don't see any word counts on the link, but that kind of site sounds like a good idea.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Last to comment here because I wanted to savour reading the input, and also because I just had coffee while you guys are sleeping.

I have a question related to formatting.

What if an agent in NY or the US requests pages or a full and I can only get my hands on A4 size paper? Not legal size, used for manuscripts over there.

I've read that this European size paper can peeve the paws off some agents.

Is this stupid, or should I really go out of my way to get a pack of legal size paper?

Unknown said...

I'll love you forever. I've been telling myself that my word counts are off, but now I see they fall within these parameters. Which means I can no longer use word count as an excuse to put off querying. One excuse down, six to go!

DLM said...

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli, with so few agents expecting hard copy submissions anymore, and with the time that sucks up, submit electronically and worry no more. If there is anyone left who expects hard copy, just ask them if they have size preferences/requirements as you wish to be sure to follow their guidelines.

DLM said...

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli - by the way, on this side of the Pond, "legal" means 8.5" x 14" sheets, and "letter" is 8.5" x 11". Letter is standard for most business hard copies, though an agent clinging to treekilling may have special standards as well. Again, though - I've submitted queries and fulls to many dozens of agents and never yet come across one who wished to see hard copy in the US.

*Shutting up now*

Laina said...

Jeez, how much would it even cost to send a hardcopy of a MS from Europe to the US? And waiting, what, 2 weeks to 2 months for the posting? What about during Christmas when everything slows to crawl?

Sorry, I kinda just can't wrap my brain around that.

Kalli said...

I write historical fiction, and was lucky enough to secure representation when I only had 4 chapters written. My agent said to aim for 120k. When I sent her the first 80k, she said I could push it to 130k. Well, I'm now at 132k and thinking it will come in more towards 150k. This has been giving me panic attacks, but I'm still clinging to the hope that when I show her the finished MS she will think it justifies the word count.

Is this just wishful thinking? *sigh*

Tam Francis said...

Thank you! I'm thrilled to hear my novel is in the correct range! Some of the writers in my weekly workshop keep telling me 70K or 80K is good. I will keep to info in my back pocket, thanks for the post and clarifying!

~ Tam Francis ~

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I have learned a lot. Can you please advise what the word count average is for memoir? My completed manuscript, which I have revised and edited several times, runs in the 90's. Is that too long? I've seen numbers all over the map. A published author told me an agent may not consider a MS that length. Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why my name is not showing up but the above memoir word count question is from me - Karin Gall. Thanks!