My WritingReading and Writing Miscellany

Fiction: How Long Is Too Long?

1028208_man_thinking Those of you who've been following along know that I am mired in a first-pass edit of my current novel. One of the main goals of this edit is to reduce the overall word count. Currently at 123,319 words, I still have some work to do. However, considering it peaked at 135,785 words before editing had begun, I think I'm doing OK.

Why care about word count at all? Because staying within the acceptable range is one less reason to be rejected, that's why.

Still, how long is too long? At what point do you know you're in the right, saleable range?

First, it depends on stature. Established authors have more leeway; they've got a proven track record, and a publisher is more likely to lay out the cash (longer books cost more to produce) because they are considered less of a risk than a first-time author.

Second, you have your first-time authors. Publishers want minimum risk and maximum profit, so they'll likely stick to their guns on word count unless you've produced a truly stellar, standout novel.

Third, it depends on genre.

Let's take that third one and break it down based on word count information gotten from Colleen Lindsay of the swivet blog, with an understanding that there are always exceptions to these numbers. Here's the data:

micro fiction 10-300 words
flash fiction 300-1000 words
YA fiction 50K - 80K
urban/paranormal romance 80K - 90K
mysteries/crime fiction 60K - 70K
chick lit 60K - 80K
literary up to 120K
thrillers 90K - 100K
historical fiction up to 140K
novella < 50K
space opera/fantasy up to 100K
epic fantasy 120K - 130K

I write fantasy, so the last two categories are of the most interest to me. I find those numbers a bit alarming because my book is not epic fantasy. It's more non-epic. Therefore, I need to cut out another 23,000 words??? I'm all for killing my darlings, but cutting to 100,000 words is a tough one.

Rachelle Gardner, an agent with WordServe Literary, has this definition:

Full-length fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words is by far the best range to stay within. Some pubs will look at manuscripts from 70,000 to 110,000 words, rarely outside of that.

OK, so now we're at a maximum of 110,000 words. But she doesn't mention specific genre, which we know from above is important.

JA Konrath has this to say:

First novels have a better chance of selling if they are under 90k. The reason is wholly monetary. Your publisher will probably lose money on your first book. But a 150k book will cost more to print, more to ship, and less will fit in a carton. Cost of production figures heavily into a publisher's decision whether to buy or not to buy. 

He goes on to say this (highlighting mine):

Some genres, such as fantasy and historical romance, tend to be lengthier.

But he doesn't really go on to explain in more detail. That's OK. Joe's thing is mystery thrillers, anyway, not fantasy. (Consequently, Joe has some great advice in that post; go read it.)

So where does that leave me?

I could no doubt troll the submission guideline pages of my favorite agents and publishers and acquire more information, but I think the above more or less supports what I had originally thought on this subject. One thing is clear: I need to keep cutting. There comes a point, however, where the story itself becomes compromised. I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I have a new goal: 110,000 words.

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Comments (6) -

  • Writer Dad
    I'm with you on this word count thing.  My book's currently at ninety-four thousand words.  I know I've only got another six, but I've got a lot of stuff I want to pack inside the next rewrite.  I don't want to go with my instincts and get rejected, but the other way might be worse.
  • Adrian Swift
    Great article, Scott!  Very much enjoyed it and appreciated that you drew from a variety of sources, which enhances the sense that the information is valid and worth paying attention to.

    I can commiserate to some extent, but I had sensed I needed to move toward smaller word counts some time ago, so for me that transition has more or less taken place.  My current WIP's all fit within the ranges you gave, including YA and Epic Fantasy.  I was shooting for longer at one time, but realized as a first-timer I needed to keep my stories from getting too long.

    I suppose the trick is not necessarily to cut here and there throughout, which helps, but also to look for ways to condense or make some scenes do double-duty (or tiple-duty), allowing the elimination of other scenes.  Altering the way part of the story flows could greatly reduce the word count in certain sequences, while still allowing key information to be worked in (aka "drastic cuts").  Then there's always the summary, or a report that comes in through a character informing us of something that happened, so that it is no longer dramatized.

    Reminds me of the infamous look over the balcony I learned about in a literature class.  Because they can't stage an epic battle on-stage in a play, they have a character look over the balcony and see below (which the audience can't see, since it's off-stage), and they tell us "Oh, look, tens of thousands of the enemy have arrived," and "Lord Smythe has fallen, but his men fight on!", etc.  Maybe something like that could serve to replace a sequence or two, as long as it doesn't unbalance things.  I know there's a sense that some sequences truly are essential, but if an engine fails on a plane and they have to throw something overboard, they grab whatever crates they can and toss them.

    Anyway, just pondering the topic and seeking some strategies that can help when needing to cut material.  Very interesting topic.  Thanks for blogging about it!
  • Melissa Donovan
    Great post! This is the stuff that first-time novelists want to know and understand. I heard much the same advice in a podcast (The Writing Show) last year. Fantasy writers are lucky because they certainly have the most wiggle room here ;)
  • scottmarlowe
    Thanks, all. Good follow-up comments.

    @Adrian Good suggestion re "the infamous look over the balcony". That's a device I might be able to use at some point.

    @Melissa That is one thing to like about writing in the fantasy genre...

    It's interesting that some writers come up with, say, 70,000 words, then as they edit their goal is to add more content (more words), trying to hit that magic word range for their genre. So far, I've gone the opposite way, writing too much then having to remove the chaff. There's no right or wrong, of course. It just depends on individual style and preference.
  • Fredosphere
    Good stuff, now please mention if you mean actual, Word-processor-calculated word count, or that screwy estimated word count that so many publishers still use, and that usually results in a number 10% or more larger?
  • scottmarlowe
    I go with the actual word processor count. In fact, I read (and I wish I had the source handy) that the "screwy" method is becoming a thing of the past. That doesn't mean some publishers or agents aren't still using it, though. I think the best way to approach is to look at the individual guidelines.

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