Baseball season has begun, and, as always happens this time of year, I am reminded of my favorite baseball movies, of which there are many. At or near the top of my list is the somewhat raunchy but hilariously funny Bull Durham. At one point, as the Durham Bulls are in the midst of prolonged slump, their manager gives one of the great speeches in the history of baseball movies. It comes right after he calls his players “lollygaggers.” (“You lollygag the ball around the infield, you lollygag your way down to first, you lollygag inand out of the dugout! You know what that makes you? . . . Lollygaggers!”) He says, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”
What I love about this is that anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that the simplicity of the game belies the complexity of mastering anyone of these tasks. Throwing the ball — there are only a few dozen people of the face of the earth good enough to pitch at the major league level. Hitting the ball — hitting a round ball traveling at ninety miles per hour, with a rounded bat no more than two and three-quarters inches, is one of the hardest things to do in any sport. Yes, baseball is a simple game, but it is not an easy game
I bring this up, because as I continue the Back to Basics series I want to make it clear that while the many things I discuss in this series may be basic, I never mean to imply that they’re easy, or that mastering them doesn’t require practice, concentration, and time. Today’s post is a case in point. We often mention the importance, particularly in today’s market, of writing our books to a certain length. But this is far more easily said than done. I know this, and don’t mean to imply otherwise. It’s taken me years to master it. Basic? Yes. Easy? No.
Let’s start with some word-count guidelines. And please keep in mind that these numbers are fairly fluid. When I started out in the business, a first-time author could sell an epic fantasy of 200,000 words or more. That was only fifteen years ago, but it might as well have been a century. Today, with very, very few exceptions (George Martin, J.K. Rowling, and a few others) no author is selling books of that length to US publishers. If you have an epic fantasy that seems destined to come it at 200,000 to 250,000 words, you’ll want to split it into two books. Why the change? Mostly because the bricks-and-mortar book chains wanted shorter books. They wanted to fit more books in their existing shelf space, and they wanted to keep price points down. Shorter books allowed them to shelve more books and charge less for them (especially in hardcover — it was decided that $25.95 was the pricing sweet spot; too far above that and sales fell off). Now it bears mentioning here that as e-books come to drive the market more, this may cease to be a consideration. Market book lengths might be about to go through another change. As I said, these numbers are fluid. But right now, short is still “in.” The other thing to keep in mind is that these are guidelines only; you don’t need to hit them dead on. If your book is five or seven thousand words off you’re going to be fine.
So . . . For epic fantasy, which is probably the most forgiving subgenre in terms of word count, you should aim for something between 110,000 and 120,000. If you can come in closer to 100,000 that’s great. But as I say, epic is a little more forgiving. For urban fantasy, there is a harder cap right around 100,000 words. A more experienced writer might get away with 110,000 — if the next book in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock series comes in at 110k, Roc is probably going to be okay with it. But for an author without a track record, 100k is the limit. Horror, hard SF, mystery, steampunk, etc. — all of these are also right around 100,000. Someone can correct me, but I believe that romance might be a little shorter now — closer to 90,000 words. My information puts the Young Adult (YA) target somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 words. Middle reader books are closer to 40,000-60,000 — a broader range because middle reader books tend to cover a broader range of reading ability. If your middle reader book is pitched to the lower end of the 8-12 year-old demographic, keep to the lower end. If you’re going for the “tween” crowd, you can go a bit higher. (A.J., care to chime in here? Is that your understanding?)
Well fine, you say. Those are the limits. But how are we supposed to meet them, short of writing a book and then cutting it accordingly after the fact? Well, editing down to a word count is definitely one way to get there. In many ways it’s the easiest and most effective. That approach allows you to write the book as you feel you need to write it, without imposing artificial constraints on your creativity. It has the added benefit of forcing you after the fact to revise and tighten your work. If you write an urban fantasy that comes in at 120,000 words, you’ll need to cut some 15,000 to 20,000 from that first draft. You’ll have to make your prose leaner. You’ll need to streamline your plotting, perhaps even eliminate a secondary thread that isn’t essential to the overall narrative. All of these things could improve your novel.
The problem comes when your urban fantasy comes in not at a manageable 120k, but rather at a staggering 150,000 words. Now we’re no longer talking about tightening prose and narrative. We’re talking about eviscerating your book. This is where some planning can come in handy. I’ve covered some of this in previous posts, but I think it bears going over again. First of all, for you dedicated seat-of-the-pantsers out there, I am not suggesting that you outline your book. (That said, I think that A.J. recently made a very strong case for giving up your pantser ways and being more systematic in your approach to planning books.) If you’re determined to keep on pantsing, you can do that, even as you plan for book length a bit more. Some simple math: Twenty pages of double-spaced prose (one inch margins, 10 or 12 pitch font) comes to about 5,000 words. Twenty 5,000 word chapters is 100,000 words. With somewhat shorter opening and closing chapters (maybe 2,500 words each) you have a novel of 105,000 words, or about 400 manuscript pages. A bit of editing and tightening and you’re easily at a good length. You prefer shorter chapters and more of them? Fine. Twelve manuscript pages is 3,000 words. Thirty-three chapters of this length gets you to our goal of 100,000 words. Clearly, if you’re writing in another subgenre or for a different aged audience, you can make the necessary adjustments. My point is this: trying to write a novel to a specific length without any planning is nearly impossible. A project of 100,000 words feels intimidating and unwieldy, because it is. But writing a chapter to a specific length is far easier — 4,000 words to get Buffy and Frodo from the boathouse to the tarpits? Sure, I can do that. I might have to cut the encounter with Robby-the-Robot, but that was never going to work that well anyway. . . .
Writing to a certain length means imposing discipline on yourself as you write, regardless of whether or not you work from some sort of outline. You have to be willing to say “I have twelve pages instead of fifteen to make this chapter work.” And you need to be able to tell yourself as your novel progresses that despite your grand plans for this subplot or that one, you will finish the novel in thirty-three chapters. Again, the numbers can vary according to your tastes with regard to chapter length, and if one chapter comes in at 15 pages and another at 10 pages, you’re still fine. I’m not suggesting that every chapter be exactly the same length. But you have to impose some limits on yourself. One of the things I’ve had to teach myself as I have moved from writing 200,000 word chihuahua killers to books of 100k or 110k, is to keep my chapters more directed. I don’t meander nearly as much as I used to. The first Thieftaker book came in at almost exactly 110,000 — it’s historical urban fantasy, and so that might be a little long, but my publisher didn’t blink and I think the book is about as tight as I could get it — and it took a lot of work to get it there. I had to break some bad old habits. But the result is a narrative that’s as directed as any I’ve ever written.
What about if your manuscript is too short instead of too long? Well, first of all, the word counts I listed above are the upper limits. If your epic fantasy comes in at 110,000 instead of 120,000, or if your urban fantasy comes in at 92,000 instead of 100,000, you’re probably going to be fine. As I mentioned, short is in right now. It’s the new black. But if your urban fantasy seems destined to come in at 80,000 words, you might have a bit of problem. How do you lengthen it? I wrote about just this pretty recently, so I’ll refer you back to that post. But the short answer is this: we seek to do certain things with our novels. Thieftaker, for instance, has a magical element, a mystery element, emotion-laden subplots, and it has a historical angle. As I mention in this recent post, when the second Thieftaker book came in a little short, I realized that I had given short shrift to the historical stuff. So, that is what I enhanced to raise my word count. I didn’t “pad” the novel. I didn’t make it wordier or bring in superfluous plot points or scenes. I figured out what the book lacked and improved it, while simultaneously bringing its length more in line with that of the first book.
Ultimately, we don’t want to make decisions about the content of our novels based solely on word count. We don’t want to cut for the sake of cutting or add new scenes simply to lengthen the book. Word count — book length — is just one consideration that needs to be blended with other, more artistically important concerns, like character, narrative, setting, etc. If your urban fantasy HAS to be 120,000 words long, then so be it. Just make certain that your plotting is as tight as it can be; that your prose is as lean as possible. Chances are you’ll find that you can cut more than you think; even a few thousand words can help. I’ve never written a draft that couldn’t be improved by a few well considered cuts. And in today’s market, that can make the difference between a rejection and a contract.David B. Coe