Turns Out, Length Really Does Matter

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As with last week’s post, I draw my inspiration for this post from several questions and comments we received from readers dealing with novel length. In fact, this is something that I’m asked about quite a bit on my personal blogs and at my web site, and most of the questions sound a bit like this: Writing a novel is difficult enough; how am I supposed to write my book to a specific length? How do I know before I start writing whether my book is going to be 90,000 words long or 175,000 words long?

These are important questions, particularly in today’s market, where book length has once again become an important issue for new authors and experienced ones alike.

Let me begin with an anecdote from early in my career. I was fortunate enough to contract my first novel on the basis of five completed chapters and an outline laying out the rest of the novel. When the contract for the first novel arrived I read through it and laughed at the clause stipulating that upon completion the book contain “approximately 100,000 words.” I passed 100,000 words in chapter ten of a book that was more than twenty chapters long. I barely paused to wave at 100,000 words as I cruised past on my way to 200,000+.

When I finally sent my editor the completed first draft of the novel, it was 206,000 words long — well over 800 manuscript pages. He contacted me immediately to say that he had started reading it and it seemed pretty good, but that I should expect to have to cut the thing by approximately one third. Now, it turned out that the first draft had some serious flaws and I had to do extensive rewrites, but all of them had the effect of lengthening the book, not shortening it. Later in the process, when I asked my editor about those cuts he had mentioned, he said that he hadn’t seen anywhere to make significant cuts and we’d go to press at its current length. The finished book came in at just under 211,000 words.

That was only a dozen or so years ago, but in terms of the evolution of the market, it might as well have been a century. Unless your name is George R. R. Martin, you probably aren’t going to be publishing too many 200,000+ word novels anymore, particularly if you’re a first-time author. Bricks and mortar bookstores want shorter novels for a number of reasons — limited shelf space, a desire for lower price points, concerns about shipping costs, to name just a few. Standard lengths for epic fantasy are now closer to 120,000 words. For urban fantasy the number is closer to 100,000. The third book in my Blood of the Southlands series came in at 140,000. The book I just wrote for my new project, which is not quite epic fantasy, but not quite urban either, came in at 107,000.

So, if you’re wanting to get published for the first time, those are the numbers you probably want to be shooting for. As the example of my first book shows, editors will be flexible if they feel that a book works at a greater length, but those instances are the exceptions, and if you try to pitch a manuscript that’s 225,000 words, you’re going to have a hard time even getting someone to read it.

Okay, so how do you write a novel to a certain length? (And please, let’s keep in mind that all these numbers are meant to be approximate — you should aim to get within five to ten thousand words of these numbers. You don’t have to hit them dead on.) There are two answers to this. The first is, “You don’t.” After thirteen novels, I’ve gotten to the point where I can write to a certain length and pretty much get there as planned. But I couldn’t do it early in my career, and really there was no need for me to. The easiest way to get your novel to a desired length is to write the novel as it needs to be written first. Don’t worry about length. Just write your book. Get it finished and then edit for length.

Let’s work with some hypothetical numbers. Let’s say your epic fantasy comes in at 180,000 words. Ouch. That’s about 60,000 words longer than you want it to be, or half again too long. So you need to cut your book by one third. Looked at another way, if your book has, say, twenty-five chapters (yes, this is another way in which dividing your book into chapters helps), you need to cut 2,400 words from each chapter. At 250 words per double-spaced manuscript page, that’s about nine pages per chapter that you need to cut. Daunting, yes, but not impossible. Okay, maybe impossible. But let’s say you do your best and you manage to cut five pages or 1,200 words per chapter. That’s certainly manageable, and you’ll get your word count down to 150,000 words. Not ideal, but certainly better than 180K. At least now you’re far closer to the target length than you are to 200,000 words. More to the point, you’ll probably improve your manuscript in the process. Cutting your word count can force you to find more concise ways to say what you want to say. Or . . . Cutting your word count can force you to be more concise. I just saved eight words.

Going back to that question again — “How do you write a novel to a certain length?” — the second answer is, “You don’t.” Okay, now I’m getting annoying, I know. But what you do is you write your chapters to a certain length, and you plan out your novel so that you have the right number of chapters. It’s much easier to write a shorter piece to a certain length. If someone tells you to write something that’s 120,000 words long, you’ll laugh in his or face; if someone asks you to write something that’s 5,000 words — well, that’s easy, right? Twenty-four chapters at 5,000 words comes to 120,000 words. You prefer shorter chapters? Fine, write 3,500 word chapters — about thirty-five of them. And if in actually writing your novel you find that you need one or two extra chapters (or one or two fewer) you’ll be all right — if your 120,000 word novel comes in at 127,000 or even 132,000 no one is going to mind.

“But I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer!” you say. “I can’t plan out my 35 chapters or my 25 chapters or even my next chapter!” Well, at the beginning of your career, as you’re trying to get that first novel published, you might need to try. I started out as a dedicated outliner; now I’m morphing into something of a “Pantser,” as seat-of-the-pants writers are sometimes called. You can change, and if you’re finding yourself writing novels that are forty or fifty thousand words too long, you might want to consider a new approach.

Even as I’ve come to rely less on outlines, I continue to use the chapter by chapter approach to estimating book lengths. I said from the outset that I wanted my Blood of the Southlands books to come in at around 140,000 words each, and I got there by planning each book at about twenty-five chapters. My chapters were coming out between twenty and twenty-five pages long. So if you do the math, 25 chapters times an average of 22 to 23 pages, times 250 words per page, equals about 140,000 words.

This isn’t a very romantic notion, I suppose: We like to think that books just flow from a writer’s imagination, word counts and chapter numbers be damned. But the fact is that we are not only artists, but also business people. Our art is subject to the limits and trends of the market. I love to write, and I want to continue to sell books. So I do what I can to make my books as marketable as possible, including writing my books to specific approximate lengths.

The first five books I published were all over 200,000 words long. The next book I sell to a publisher will be slightly over half that length. And it is probably the best thing I’ve ever written. If I can learn to write shorter, more marketable books, so can you.

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://magicalwords.net
http://www.DavidBCoe.com

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28 comments to Turns Out, Length Really Does Matter

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it…getting a story to meet a lenght. John has absolutely no power to do this, and every time I think he’s going to have to learn, someone agrees to buy something that’s way over length. The rest of us, however, have to learn to cut and trim…or write more until we have a second volume. 😉

  • My first draft is usually only in the 75K range, then I add in all those scenes and details I had no clue about at the beginning. My small press editor would usually be good for another 7K. By the time the book was completed it was usually in the 125K range. That seems to be my natural length, though I have written fatter books.

    Much like you, David, I’m now eying the 100-110K range. That means I leave out a sub-sub plot or two and write tighter. Which as you point out, often creates a much niftier result.

  • Susan James

    Thanks for writing this. I’m currently culling words on a manuscript that makes 200k look trim. Other writers say all the time that its a nice problem to have, but it’s not. It stinks. I got really excited when I cut a 750 word scene and then, hung my head saying “what the heck, is 750 words out of this thing?” I’ve found a new way to begin which cuts the first 6 chapters (and a few characters)and my readers began howling. But unless I learn how to build a time machine, I have no other choice.

  • I worry about coming in under limit, rather than overshooting. Is there a problem is a fantasy comes in at 80 K instead of 120 K? Would an editor come back and say, “This needs to be longer. Add some more information.”?

  • David, another great post. You keep giving me things to think about! You said:
    >The easiest way to get your novel to a desired length is to write the novel as it needs to be written first. Don’t worry about length. Just write your book. Get it finished and then edit for length.

    Yes! That is how you do it. (Melanie, my newest, 15 yr old protege, are you listening?)

    Like yours, David, my fist urban fantasy novel came in too long. I was used to writing 120,000 to 140,000 word thrillers, and so I totaly ignored the word count in the new urban fantasy contract with ROC. I ignored it with my thriller pub too, and no one ever noticed. No problem, right? Wrong. Those changes you mentioned in the market came back and bit me in the hiney. I had to cut nearly 40,000 words. No exceptions.

    I panicked. And, like you and your commenters, then I went to work. I cut scenes I didn’t need, took some and put them into book 2, then did a line by line edit and came out with 114,000 words of *very* dense, tight prose. I wrote my editor and told her the page count in Times New Roman, 12 point font, which is I write in (hate Courier New) and she said cut 2 pages. I did but that was *hard!*. There wasn’t much left to play with. BloodRing was finally accepted, and Seraphs was now nearly 1/3rd written.

    Nice post, and great comments!

  • Jagi, I’m envious of John. Yes, for the rest of us writing to a certain length is both necessary and difficult. But thanks for the info — one more thing to give him a hard time about next time I see you both….

    Jana, I do believe we have a natural word count that we write to, although I think it can vary with the type of story we’re writing. 140,000 for epic now feels very natural for me. But 110,000 or so felt perfect for the newest book. I’m beginning to think that the natural length isn’t mine, but rather the project’s, if that makes any sense.

    Susan, it sounds to me like you have two books rather than one. Is there a natural dividing point that would allow you to make your manuscript into two books (or even three) without completely gutting it?

    Mark, it is possible that an editor of epic fantasy would look at an 80,000 word manuscript and think it was a bit thin. You might want to see if there is another thread you can add to the plot to make the book a bit fuller. On the other hand, it’s your first book, and the market is looking for leaner and tighter, so 80,000 might be just what some editor out there is looking for. Also, is it adult or YA? If it’s YA, 80,000 is perfect.

    Thanks for the kind words, Faith. Glad to know I’m keeping you thinking. Yes, for some editors and some genres, word count is EXTREMELY important. I think Epic fantasy editors have a tendency to give authors more leeway, because the subgenre has a history of longer works succeeding. Urban’s word limit seems to be much more stringent.

  • Susan James

    David, Jack Whyte suggested this same thing at a conference, and (i’m started to blush here)cough, cough, 200k is actually the first book. There’s a whole other 150k. As an unpublished writer, here’s my issue- even though it has an end, that first book feels so unfinished to me because I know everything else that’s got to happen. Is that normal for the writer? Or have I just not done a good job of rounding it off?

    The good news is that my characters have stopped talking in my head and I can go for a walk without new scenes popping into my head. As long as it is, the story has finally reached its end.

  • Oh, fun topic! I’ve struggled with this one as well. My fantasy has an ensemble cast and I sooo wanted to get all them in to book one that I ended up with a 205k book one. Of course, I came to realize that half of them were going to have to wait for book two. The main plot threads in book one didn’t involve them, so as much as love their stories, they would have to wait. This left me at 170k, which has been edited down to 140k, a word count I hope is within ‘reasonable’ so that agents don’t flinch when they see it. Years ago, when I first fleshed out the ideas for this story, I figured three books totalling 500k words. My reasoning was because I like long books, at least when it comes to fantasy. I didn’t know much about the market then, and have since adjusted that total downward to 400k. I’m a much stricter outliner now as well. I can plot out my books within 5k or so. At least my suspense novel worked that way. I’ve gotten more compulsive about my outling it seems as I’ve gotten older, not less. I’m really not much of a pantser. It’s just not in me to write that way. Which is rather amusing given the high amount of disorganization I have in my life in general. Then again, maybe that’s why I need to write that way. To each their own of course.

  • Susan, having another book at 150k just means that you have a trilogy!! 😉 As for your question, that’s a hard one to answer. Your book should feel “finished” when you have it written. Even if your story arc isn’t complete, each novel within the series should have a satisfying conclusion, an ending that makes your reader feel that he/she accomplished something in reading your book. Now, of course you know that there’s lots more that has to happen, but you should feel that the first book is “whole”, that it works as a piece of fiction, even if, as I said, the story arc of the project isn’t complete.

    Jim, 140,000 is getting into that reasonable range (I can hardly say different since the last three books I turned in were 140,000…). It’s a bit long for a first published work, but as you put it, you won’t make agents or editors flinch. On the other hand, you might well find that an agent or editor (or both) will take you on with the condition that you get it down 120,000.

  • Great post. It’s already set my mind to thinking. As I mentioned in my reply to an earlier post my finished product for my back story will probably end up in the 170,000 range or so.

    I think I know a way to reduce that by a few 10,000 words. I’ll have to demote a POV character to a supporting character to accomplish this. While this will involve actually lengthening some other chapters to still keep the plot points shown in the demoted character’s chapters, overall, I would be able to cut quite a bit.

    For now, however, I will write the story that needs to be written. Until I know what I’ve got I can’t really know how to end up with what I need. Experience will hopefully teach me how to recognize both earlier in the writing process, but for now, I’ll plod (and plot) on.

  • Thanks, CE. And yes, that sounds like the right approach to me. Write the book as you envision it, and if upon completing it you think it’s too long, and that demoting the POV character will solve the problem, do that. Such a demotion actually sounds like a relatively painless way to lower your word count. Good thinking.

  • mikaela

    So, what if you write way too short? My first draft are usually somewere between 15-50 k. As a result, my second drafts are totally rewritten. One interesting thing is that they don’t get longer, just better.

  • Beatriz

    David, thanks for this post. It helps me understand the maddening frustration of not finding books long enough in the bookstores. I’ll typically pick the longest book I can find, figuring more bang for my buck.

  • Hi,
    I think a novel’s length is determined in the planning stage. When you’re working out the bare bones of your story in your head, you just get an instinctive feel for how many pages your idea will fill when you write it. If it feels a bit thin, you add in a sub plot or extra characters. If you think it’s going to turn out too bulky, you do the opposite. Like I say, it just comes down to a gut feeling.
    Harvey

  • What a helpful post! I’ve been beating myself up over trying to get my work over 200,000 words, but what you say makes sense–especially in these economic times.

  • Amusing side note about length. Brandon Sanderson has a lengthy post explaining what has happened with his ‘finishing’ of the Wheel of Time series (haven’t read them myself, but my son loves them). The minimum 200k agreed upon at the contract stage (minimum! I could only wish) has turned into what Sanderson believes will top 800k, and likely a bit more. One final book is now going to be three. I wonder if he would have taken on the task if he’d realized ahead of time what sort of colossus he had agreed to take on?

  • I don’t use the wordcount feature these days. 🙂 It only made me feel bad about my slow progress, and it would in the long run scare me by going over 120K. Way over. I’ll worry about that when the book is written; who knows, big, bad boys could be popular again by then. And some still get published (Erikson’s Malazan books, anyone? 😀 ).

  • Mikaela, it sounds like you’re writing short stories and novellas, which is great. You can sell those to publications and anthologies. According to Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the writers’ guild to which I belong (as do, I would assume, Faith, Misty, and Catie) and which gives out the Nebula awards, the word counts are as follows: Novels 40,000+ (that’s low in today’s market, and may be a relic from the past); Novella 17,500-39,999; Novelette 7,500-17,499; short story 7,499 and below. These are all award categories, so people are defintely buying stories in all these lengths.

    Beatriz, glad to be of help. Now that I’m writing shorter books I hope you won’t exclusively buy the fat ones…. 🙂

    Harvey, I agree with you to a point. But as with everything in writing, there are exceptions. I know of authors who began a book thinking it would be one length, only to have it grow into something far more. In fact, I know of authors who began what they thought was a short story and wound up with a trilogy. Planning is crucial, but if your book explodes on you, there’s not much you can do except go with it.

    Chris, I’m glad to know you found this helpful. By all means, don’t beat yourself up trying to write a LONGER book. As long as you’re past 80,000 you’re okay, and as you say, in this market, in this economy, shorter is going to sell more easily.

    Jim, I heard that about Brandon Sanderson. Those books were never going to be short, and I’m sure he must have realized that the project would consume a great deal of his time and effort for years. All in all, I doubt he regrets taking it on.

    Gabriele, I agree that you should write on without worrying for now about the word count. But I wouldn’t count on the big books coming back any time soon. I think this is a long term trend.

  • The chapter length thing is really how I write, too!

    The Walker Papers are (approximately) 35 chapter, 3000 words per chapter, books. The Inheritors’ Cycle are more like 6000 word chapters, and the book I just finished, TRUTHSEEKER, is made up of 2700 word chapters. It really gives a structure to what I’m doing–I know I’ll need a scene break and a cliffhanger ending, so I write to that point and then voila, new chapter. Very effective, for me!

  • David, I could always finish KINGS AND REBELS and send it to agents in all its glory, telling them it could be divided in three or five books, whatever the publisher prefered. But I’d want to sell it as entity, and that might prove a problem. 😉

    Chapters don’t help me at all since mine vary from a few hundred words to 7K.

  • Catie, me too. I’ve actually come to love this approach, and it takes all the mystery out of word counts for me. And for the rest of you, Catie is a bestselling author — if it works for her, you should give it a try.

    The thing is, Gabriele, you very rarely send an entire manuscript to an agent. Rather, you pitch your book and then send them chapters if they request them. They’ll ask about word count, and you’ll need to be honest with them. So at some point you’ll probably either have to cut the book or divide it into several. Forewarned is forearmed…

  • Lol, I know one doesn’t send 500+K manuscripts around for fun 😀 but I could mention in the query letter that it’s suitable for release as several books.

  • Yeah, okay, sorry for stating the obvious there…. And yes, that’s definitely an approach you could take.

  • No problem, David, the way I wrote it could have been misunderstood. *makes note to edit blog replies, not only novel scenes* 🙂

    Right now I have no idea how long the book(s) will be, only that it will be more than 120K (the first version of the first part was that long, and it had less subplots than the revised version).

  • Susan James

    Beatriz, I agree! I LOVE to get my hands on a big fat book or a long series even a series of big books. I want to spend a lot of time with the characters…of course they do have to be compelling.

    One of the things that makes my book long is that I begin with my character fairly young and take her to death. (that’s fairly important as her love inerest is immortal)I think of Jane Eyre which begins with her at age 7. Or Anya Seton’s Katherine which starts at 15 and goes to about 50. Kids and old people can be so funny and free of restraint, and Rose (my MC) was one intereting child!

  • ToD

    Thanks for this ^^ It’s really helpful to know. I have a lot of work to go then lol, but my problem is lengthening the novel. See, my story started out as a mere Nanowrimo novel (meaning it’s supposed to be as close to 50,000 words as possible) and so now I’m trying to figure out how to write as much as I can to flesh out the scenes without completely undoing it ^^;;

  • ToD, you don’t say whether your book is for young adults or the adult market, but if it’s for (or if it COULD be for) YA readers, 50K is fine. If it’s for adults, then yes, it’s a bit short. But keep in mind that books and stories often “write themselves” to their natural length, and as you say, you don’t want to undo the good work you’ve done. By all means, if there is a longer book hiding inside of what you’ve already written, tease it out more. But don’t make it longer just for the sake of word count. You don’t want to ruin what you’ve got. Good luck with it.

  • ToD

    Thanks for the advice ^^ It’s size might be for YA, but some of the content I don’t think is really that… ^^; I don’t know for sure.
    Well, I think fleshing it out a little was actually pretty good to do, since I found out some really weird things about some characters 0.o
    I love when that happens. And if it doesn’t work out, yay editing XD