Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's Not the Length that Matters ...

When I first got serious about writing MG fiction, I went through this whole Word Count Phase. I'm the kind of writer who believes in making life easier on myself, which means writing to my market. It's hard enough to get published, so why bother approaching a publisher with a 200,000-word epic aimed at 12-year-olds? No, no, no. I'll leave the windmills for Quixote.

So "they" say an MG novel should be somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 words. Definitely not more than 70,000 words, or less than 40,000 words. Using these as my guidelines, I did some research into the word counts of best-selling books in my genre:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 76, 944
Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning: 24,744
Inkheart: 145,000
A Wrinkle In Time: 52,587
Holes: 46,587
The Hobbit: 95,022
Artemis Fowl: 56,924
Percy Jackson, Book 1: 86,826

Interesting, huh? I just picked these titles randomly, whatever popped into my head. Obviously, all of them are best-sellers or classics. And only TWO of them are within the suggested word range. Most are significantly longer, but the first Lemony Snicket book barely rises above the level of an extended essay.

Here's the kicker. Although my list suggests that word count isn't all that important, I'm not arguing that we should disregard suggested word lengths. In fact, just the opposite. The truth is, most of those books were written by established authors or they were written overseas. In this country, in this moment in publishing, I think you're shooting yourself in the foot if you turn up with a super-long or super-short opus, especially if you're unknown. They're always looking for reasons to burn through submissions.

But it is food for thought, no? I know personally, I pay attention to word count. I've always envisioned my current book as one of a series of relatively short books (between 40k and 50k words each). My other two novels fell right between 55k and 60k words. What about you? How much does word count matter when you sit down to plan a project?


Natasha Fondren said...

LOL! I write by word count, as my chapters must be 3K-4K or 3800-4200 precisely. This is how it goes for me:

Week 1: "I think it's going to go over 12 chapters. Can I have just one more chapter?"


Week 2: "Please don't kill me, but it looks like I need two more, so fifteen chapters. Is that okay?"

"Yes, that's fine."

Week 3: "Okay, I promise this is the last time: I just need seventeen chapters. I'm POSITIVE this time."

"Just let me know when it's done!"

Publisher 2 is not flexible, though. Twelve chapters is it, so I have to split it into two parts, which means inflating it from 48K to 96K. Which is fine.

Melanie Avila said...

I try to follow the standard. I know people who fight it tooth and nail, but what's the point unless your self-publishing? If you want to fit into the industry, follow the industry's rules.

I'm curious which of those authors published other books first. I know Harry Potter was Rowling's first, but I wonder if the others were debuts as well.

Mark Terry said...

To my mind Inkheart and the Lemony Snicket books are the outliers (and maybe the Hobbit, but do you really think The Hobbit is a kids' book?).

JK Rowling's later books came after she'd been established. I thought the author of Inkheart was fairly establshed too. The Lemony Snicket is just plain weird, really a novella in length, and maybe even a short one at that. Plenty of short stories might fall into that category. Anything between 50,000 and 100,000 strikes me as more the range for MG and YA. Granted, for adult books, it tends to be 70,000 to 100,000, although if you're writing SF/F you can go up to 120,000 safely and maybe even in some espionage novels. That's for first novels. If you fall into the category of Made-The-Publisher-Boodles-O-Bucks, then you have a lot more leeway.

LurkerMonkey said...


That's funny ... I've been there with nonfiction article before, but my editors are never so forgiving. They're like, "Sure, make it as long as you want. We'll just cut."

LurkerMonkey said...


Agreed. I know a woman who insists that her 250,000-word book can't be trimmed even a little bit. She spent five years working on this thing and even got an agent (big name, too), but they can't sell it. Book. Is. Too. Long.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah, I agree that Snicket and Funke are outliers. I think even 100,000 is awful long for MG (not necessarily YA). I'd be afraid to try to market a book over about 80,000. I think the only reason, like you said, that Rowling and Riordan got away with later is because they were known authors by that point.

Natasha Fondren said...

*snort* Truth be told, I'm welcome to go over 48K and 4200 for Pub2; they just won't pay me for those words. She actually told me that most authors do, in a way to suggest that I was being ungenerous by NOT doing so.

Uh yeah, no. I'm all out of free words. Except for on Lurker's blog. ;-)

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Anonymous said...

Publishers define Middle Grade fiction as being for 8 to 12 year olds. There is a big gap between the vocabulary and concepts an 8 year old has, compared with an 11 or 12 year old, hence the big gap in word count of novels. A lot of publishers' websites list 20.000 words as the lower end word count for Middle Grade fiction.