Word Count: How to Hit the Sweet Spot

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A question that comes up at nearly every writers conference I attend is “What should the proper word count for my literary (sci-fi/fantasy/romance/YA/MG) novel?” Well, let me tackle this in two steps. First, I’ll refer you to this fantastic post by Chuck Sambuchino of Writers Digest (hey, I’m a big believer in not reinventing the wheel). Then come back for some tips for hitting those target parameters.

Okay, you read the post, right?

“Well,” you say, “Chuck’s advice is fine for ‘normal’ books, but my story is much too unique to fit into a box like that. So will my 180,000 word women’s fiction novel fly?”

Sorry, but I have to agree with Chuck. I won’t say it never happens; the word “never” is a tricky one in the publishing industry. Sometimes an epic story needs the extra room (I’m talking a true epic, as opposed to a novel that is epic in word count only). But I can guarantee the first thing many agents will say when reading your query letter is, “Really, that long? Must be a first draft.” Longer than average word counts often mean the writing still needs tightening: trimming subplots that go nowhere, cleaning up purple prose, streamlining awkward sentences. On the flip side, lower than average word counts can signal characters or plot that need more development. Or they can place you in the novella category—always a hard sell for agents because that market is small.

If your novel is too long or too short, here’s the good news: it’s just not finished. The bad news: yeah, it’s not finished. Putting in the time and work necessary to fix it will save you a lot of time—and disappointment—when it comes to submitting. Here are some ideas for trimming its waist or beefing it up—as the case may be.

IF YOUR BOOK IS TOO LONG:

  • Is every scene indispensable to moving the plot forward? Make a list of every scene in your book. If you use some of them simply to paint your setting or theme or characters, could the same elements be worked into one of your more dynamic scenes instead?
  • Could it be developed into a sequel, trilogy, or series? You’re in love with every one of your characters and every single event is vital to your huge, epic fantasy. No problem—consider dividing the story into several parts, or take a chunk of one of your subplots and build it into the next volume. Keep in mind that each of these volumes will still need an ending—a semi-resolution that satisfies readers while leaving them eager for the next installment.
  • Is there too much back story? If you’re spending the first chapter or more filling us in on what happened before the inciting incident of your story, you’ve got too much back story and it needs to be cut. Look for ways to weave this information into the forward-moving action of your novel: a brief memory triggered here, a meaningful comment by a secondary character there.
  • Is your pacing tight enough for the genre you write? Literary novels have time to meander into the philosophical or existential—thrillers do not. Find a group of readers you trust to be brutally honest (hint: your mom is not a good bet) and ask them to mark any passage where they yawned or felt their mind wandering. Those are the sections that need to be whittled or removed.
  • Are you using five words where two would do fine? The beauty of your prose is not defined by the length of your sentences; too long, too convoluted, or too wordy tests readers’ patience and pulls them out of the story.

IF YOUR BOOK IS TOO SHORT:

  • Have you built enough depth into your characters? The problem with ultra-concise novels is that readers don’t have time to get to know your protagonist and other important characters on a level where they can truly care about them. Can you think of a scene that would show your character’s complexity (perhaps an ethical dilemma or something they regret) while still advancing the plot?
  • Could you add a subplot? Certainly don’t add one just for the sake of increasing word count, but subplots are used for several important purposes: they can help define secondary characters, they can show your protagonist through the eyes of another character, and they give readers the impression of a richer, more complex story.
  • Have you left too many unanswered questions? When you have a critique group or a friend read your story, pay attention for comments like this: “I didn’t quite understand why character X did that at the end,” or “I wondered what happened to character Y—we didn’t see much of him after chapter four.” These can signal loose threads you didn’t know you’d left, and they can help you finish a story you thought was already done.

Happy writing—and editing!

3 responses »

  1. In Word Count article I clicked on Chuck S’s link but a note popped up saying there was a problem with the address. It could be my fault but thought you would like to check on the link.

  2. Pingback: Editing Workshop Part 1: Do I Really Need an Edit? | Word Café

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