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WORD COUNT

July 4, 2018

I was recently asked a question about word count. I get that quite often. There are “rules” of word counts floating around out there and if you look hard enough, you’ll find set counts for certain genres. However, here’s the clincher – there’s no one set rule!

It all depends on the source.

It’s like the “pirate code – guidelines.”

Aaaargh!

When it comes to visual observing in one of my other passions, astronomy, it’s the same thing with the magnitude of celestial objects, in other words, how “bright” (or dim) the object is. It all depends on the source you get the magnitude number from, and how and what they took the reading for. Say your telescope has a magnitude limit of such and such and the object you’re trying to look for has a magnitude of such and such, which is well within range of your scope. However, you cannot see it. What’s up?

There are other factors at play.

Just like with word count.

WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON

There’s a difference between a short story, a novella and a novel.

A short story is usually up to around 15K words, however, many are around 4K but can be as much as 25K.

A novella is usually around 50K max.

A novel is from 60K on up.

Already see problems…vagaries?

Already see the “pirate code” in play?

WHAT ABOUT THE “RULES?”

Over the years, variations of the “rules” have been published in various forms. However, they’ve not only been fluid, but have conflicted with each other.

Without even going into details, depending on what’s been discussed at the conventions that particular year, novels can range for a first-time author from 60K to a little over 100K, depending on the genre.

Westerns, mystery and romance tend to be the 60 – 80K range.

Thrillers and some horror 70-90K.

Fantasy and science fiction 80-100K+ (the + is what gets many writers).

Keep in mind that this is anecdotal. Some of that info was derived from various numbers over the decades and these statistics are highly flexible. They are in no way set in stone.

Not only that, but there have been lots of exceptions to the rules in BOTH extremes!

WHAT ARE AGENTS REALLY LOOKING FOR?

I’ll tell you right off, do not go by what you see in the bookstores!

Generally, the examples you see in the bookstores are by established authors who already have a fan base and can get away with murder. They get far more leeway than any first-time author. Don’t think you, as a newbie, can just do what you want and get away with it, especially if you’re trying to break in fresh with the big six. There are, of course, first-time author exceptions, but don’t go by them, either. Read on…

Now, on the other hand, if you’re going the self-publishing route, all bets are off, but then again, don’t expect to see your book on the shelf in the bookstore either, or at least in the same quantities or as easily as someone going the traditional route!

So, what are agents looking for?

For a first time writer, regardless of genre, if you submit a manuscript that’s very long, especially for your genre, the agent is going to think that this author doesn’t know how to get to the point.

With the exception of certain epic fantasy or literary tropes, a high word count is a red flag for an author that doesn’t know how to write tight and right!

When that agent sees your cover page with the word count up top, they’re already biased to some extent. Now, when they get to the first page and see what you accomplish, or don’t, they know right away if you can make a story move.

Can you show a good western or romance in 60-80K words?

Can you do a good thriller in 80-100K words?

Can you do a good epic fantasy in 120K words?

These numbers are general, slightly arbitrary, but in the ballpark. I hesitate to give anything more specific because what you really need to do is go to the individual web site for each agency and look at their specifics.

That’s right.

What’s all this about word count?

What you’re likely going to find when you get down to the real deal is that when you go deep into the query process, a lot of the agencies are going to have their own statistics, their own requirements of what they expect for a word count. Many won’t. They’ll either expect you to know because you’re either supposed to know what’s expected of your genre, or you’re a maverick and don’t care about the rules.

If you’re a maverick, you need to step carefully. If it were me, as far as word count, I’d rather be on the short side than the long side.

Why?

Back to what I said before.

Writing right and tight is a lot better than a manuscript full of bloat.

MY EXAMPLE

I originally wrote my latest novel, Lusitania Gold in 1995. That rough draft was 133K to 134K words. After multiple edits and reading it to my writer’s group here in Las Vegas, I got rid of the bloat. I pared it down to 96K without losing a single bit of the story or plot. That’s right, I cleaned it up and made it better. Right and tight.

You can do that too.

What about the other side? What if your novel is too short?

WHAT IF YOU’RE TOO SHORT?

So far, I’ve mostly been alluding to manuscripts that are too long, at least indirectly. However, what about if your MS is too short. What do you do?

Rather than bloat it up with irrelevant material, why not just submit it as a novella?

Just because the story doesn’t warrant a longer format doesn’t mean you have to add bloat to make it qualify. Bloat is bloat, and an agent can spot that just as easily as they can in one that’s already overbaked.

The point is, write the story right and tight, no matter what the actual length.

I can tell you if it’s much over 150K, it’ll be hard to sell for a first-time author unless it’s really killer. It can happen, but you have a lot of competition out there, so be prepared. Even that’s a vague number when you get down to it, and there have been success stories on both sides of that figure.

Whatever you do, the key is to write efficiently and without bloat. That’s the best way to get through the door, regardless of word count.

Happy writing!

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