How do you know how long it’ll be?

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I was, hrm, what was I doing. Participating, I think, in the “books I’ve written” meme (available here, if you want to read it) and someone asked me how I knew how long a book was going to be. (This question could’ve been put to me/us here, too, and I just can’t remember. But I thought it was a good one, so I’m addressing it!)

Your average SF/F novel that you pick up, not the ones that make you go “Damn! That’s a big book!”, but the average ones that are an inch or so thick, run anywhere from, say, 90,000 words up to around 135-150K. That’s (using Courier New 12pt font with 1″ margins, .3″ tabs, and 25pt exact spacing) 380-600 manuscript pages, which is quite a spread. How, indeed, do you know how long your book’s going to be?

Well, if you’re not under contract, you generally want to be aiming for about 100K, not 150K. (There are exceptions. There are *lots* of exceptions. But *generally*, publishers like 100K books better than 150K books, because you can put 4 100K books into a supermarket wire rack and only 3 150K books. And I’m talking about SF/F here, not mystery or romance or YA or thrillers or anything else.) So if it’s your first book, you’re *probably* better off aiming for 100K than 150K. This is a pretty decent rule of thumb, I think.

Me personally, my writing approach is by thirds: the first third of the book is setup, the second third (which often pushes through to the 3/4ths mark) is plot & character development, and then the final third is all hell breaking loose on our way to the climax. So for, say,the Walker Papers, which are 110K books, that means I’ve got about 36K per third. It does not work out that tidily. Ever. But it’s not a bad mental structure to approach it with.

There is almost always a point in any book where I have two *extremely* different panic attacks at the same time. One is: “Oh my GOD how am I ever going to get all this story into the wordcount space I have left?!” and the other is, “Oh my god there is no way I have enough story to reach the wordcount I’m supposed to deliver.”

This (for me) means everything is going according to plan, and the book will come out at the right length.


I know that in the first book I wrote I didn’t have a wordcount idea in mind. I mean, that was just utterly meaningless to me. I literally had no idea how many *words* a book ought to have. (I think the manuscript was about 120K, at the end of the day. Somewhere between 110 and 120, I’m pretty sure.) The second book I wrote I had a slightly better idea: that somewhere around 400 manuscript pages was considered a decent book length. I charged into that book and got 2/3rds of the way through the story in 40,000 words (160 pages) and went, “Um,” cause that wasn’t going to work. I went back and revised and rewrote and learned a lot about what actually makes a *book* or a *story* rather than what’s just laying down the bones of what happened. Showing, not telling, I think (which is something else I should write about sometime), was the crux of that matter. (Incidentally, that book is a Highlander novel called IMMORTAL BELOVED, and it available here at my website if you want to read it. Please remember it was written ten years ago and hasn’t been edited since. :))

By the third book I wrote, I grokked the whole manuscript length thing. I started aiming for books that were around 100K in length. And I kept writing them at that length. This, clearly, is where the “well, how did you do that?” comes in.

I think it’s magic. I mean, I really don’t know. Something happens in the back of my brain, some awareness of pacing that’s apparently not entirely conscious, that lets me tell a story at the length I’m supposed to be turning it in at. The Strongbox Chronicles were *short* books, 80K, and the actual wordcounts on them were within 800 words of one another, and within 500 words of 80K. I’m still hornswoggled by that.

The Walker Papers, as I said, are contracted at 110K. The first two nailed that; COYOTE DREAMS was 114K. That’s purdy close. The Negotiator trilogy are contracted at 125K, and the shortest came in at 124,500, while the longest came in at–I think, after revisions–about 127,500.

Some of this does get done in revisions. Things can be cut if you’re running too far over, or expanded if you’ve fallen short. I know people who write synopses that are 80 pages long, essentially very low-detail first drafts, and they work from there to actually flesh the book out. I know another writer who has a natural writing length of about 90K, and that’s where her books come in every time. Edging them up to the 100K mark, which is what they’re contracted for, means bleeding and sweating on the page.

I’m currently embroiled in what is by far the longest book I’ve ever written. I’m some 50 pages past the last “longest book” mark, and /that/ book came in 21K longer than the editor wanted it to (although I’d told her there was no way it was going to be as short as she was hoping :)). I’m *reasonably* certain I’ve got three chapters left on this book, which is another 75 pages, with the length of these chapters, so I’m expecting this one to top out over 700 pages, or around 178K. I was pretty sure from the start it was going to come in at around 165K, so I’m around, what, 10%, give or take a little, off from my original estimate. 10%’s not a bad margin of error, I don’t think (except that my editor wanted the book to be *125K*. O.O), so yeah, going in, I had some sense of the scale I was dealing with. There are scenes I’m going to have to add when I revise it, before turning it in. I’m hoping to God there’ll be scenes I can cut, streamline, and reduce which will help, if not shorten the book, at least mitigate the additional scenes I’ve got to add.

Reading back over that, I see there’s a certain amount of truth to “you write it as long as it needs to be.” But I think there’s a skill to be learned with it too, one that does have to do with pacing and structure and an awareness of what works on the shelf and what a publisher’s looking for. Starting with a mindset of “This will be a book of X length” is probably a pretty good place *to* start; I think it does allow the subconscious to begin trying to build something that will come in at the appropriate size. You get as close as you can. And then you gnash your teeth and grind your bones and do what it takes to lengthen or shorten or polish it so that you’re convinced that whether it’s short or long, it is in fact the length it needs to be to tell the story.

(And then probably your editor tells you where you’re wrong, but that’s a whole *’nother* kettle o’fish!)

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5 comments to How do you know how long it’ll be?

  • Catie, you are so right. Once you have actually written and finished one book, something happens in the back of your brain and it knows stuff you don’t know consciously. Like how to tell a story in X-number of words. And then there’s that terror moment in every single book when you go **Ack! The numbers are *not* going to work out!**

    I’m at that point right now in Skinwalker. Page 275. I *hate* this point! But I’ll get past it. I will. The front part of my brain doesn’t know that, but the creative back-brain part does.
    Faith [(I think I can, I think I can, I think I can) old kiddie book for those of you who didn’t recognize the reference.]

  • […] other day somebody asked me, somewhere, how I knew how long a book would be. I rambled on about it on Magical Words today, so perhaps that’ll be of some interest to […]

  • My first five books were all within 5,000 words of 210,000. The next three were all around 165,000. The last two were 140,000, which is where this new one I’m writing will wind up. I shortened the books in response to my publisher’s changing expectations, which were largely market driven. But you’re both right, Faith and Catie: I adjust my pacing to fit the length, but it’s not an adjustment of which I’m completely aware. It just sort of happens and over time I realize, “Oh, now I write books of X length, where I used to write Y length.”

  • I thought that sci-fi/fantasy was typically longer. Other genres say to aim for about 80k, but it seemed too short to me. Thanks!

  • Eliza,
    The book chains are now making demands on publishers for books no longer than 120,000 words and preferably 100,000 words, for new writers. Even some of us older writers are seeing publishers make changes. I’ll blog a bit on book store chains and the power structure of the publishing industry tomorrow.
    Faith