Books come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they? Some can slide into your pocket, while others could anchor a cruise ship.
So, you’ve written a 200,000 word novel. I bet you can’t wait to see that doorstopper on bookshelves, right? Think again.
Every word counts. Literally. The length of your novel can make or break your big, err.. break. Here are five things to consider:
Word Count Considerations
1. You Won’t Be Taken Seriously
They are the gatekeepers to publishing heaven if you’re going the traditional publishing route. If you send them a query stating “my manuscript is completed at 200,000 words,” they won’t even bother to read it. They’re already reaching for the ‘delete’ button. Not only do they wonder if you haven’t honed your editing skills, but it’s also an indication that you haven’t done your research on word counts.
Agents know the business, and they know how the publishing industry works. The longer your novel is, the harder it will be for them to sell, so word count will be a factor when they decide whether or not to take on your project. And that’s because of …
Sure there are some epically long novels out there, but 9 times out of 10, they’re by tried and tested authors. They already have a readership. The publisher isn’t taking a big risk by printing it because they already know it will sell.
However, if you’re an untested author, the risk is huge. Every word, every page, every chapter costs that much more to print, raising the overall price of your novel. I know, I know, you’re novel is the most amazing novel of all time. Even if that’s the case, there are other factors that can lead to a poor public response–the timing, the marketing, too many similar novels out there, etc.
If a publisher isn’t sure how well your novel is going to sell, it’s safer for them to take on a shorter novel that doesn’t have the potential to lose them as much money. Think of it from a business perspective. It makes sense / cents.
But maybe you’re not going the traditional publishing route. Then you only have to worry about your…
If you’re self publishing, you get to make your own rules about word count and length. If your goal is simply to have your story out there or for your novel to be read by family and friends, then you don’t need to worry quite as much. But if you plan to build a platform, market yourself, promote your novel, and aim for success, you should take heed.
If your novel is above the average word count, hopefully there’s a good reason for it. Like there’s just too much action, the plot is bursting with twists and tension, and the conflict just won’t fit into a shorter novel. If that’s true, then you can stop reading this post.
Still here? Perhaps your novel is too long because you need a little more practice, more editing, more experience. If you give into temptation and publish too early, your readers will notice.
You can put as much time and effort into promoting your book as you want, but your readers will ultimately be the ones to sell your book through positive reviews and recommendations. So make sure you’re giving them the best possible story, and they will reward you for your hard work.
2. It Needs Polishing
The world you’re building should be complex, and it’s important for you as a writer to know all of it. But that doesn’t mean you need to put it all into your novel. When you fill your story with more information than what is really needed, the important information will get lost. Your readers will get frustrated and skip it, or worse yet, put the book down altogether.
Each of your characters have history, quirks, flaws, goals. But don’t hit your reader over the head with how amazing your character is. Show, don’t tell. When it comes to your MC’s physical characteristics, less is often more. You don’t need to refer to their flowing golden hair or rugged, handsome looks every chance you get. After the first couple of chapters, chances are your reader already has a fixed image of your character in their minds. And sometimes, that’s more powerful than any image you can create for them. In fact, a lot of great writers won’t describe their main character at all. They let their readers use their imagination.
I’m an advocate of the outline because it is easy to become distracted. As writers, we are engrossed in our story’s world, and we want to share all of it with our audience, so we get distracted by our side plots and supporting characters. We go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the main plot. If it does nothing to drive the events of your story forward, cut it.
It’s amazing how a few reduntant phrases and words can add up. One or two a page can mean hundreds, sometimes thousands of words by the time your story is done. Be extra vigilant during the final editing phase, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can trim off your MS.
3. It’s Actually Two Books
Maybe you’ve done all the editing and cutting you can and it’s still too long. Have you considered splitting it up into two novels? The end of book one doesn’t need to come to a well-rounded conclusion, with every loose end tied in a neat little bow. There is a lot of debate about leaving a total cliffhanger ending, but it seems to be quite common in books lately.
It may or may not work for your novel, but it’s something to keep in mind. You certainly stand a better chance of intriguing agents when they see 100,000 words instead of 200,000.
Often writers are convinced everything in their novel is important. We’ve all been there. My first YA novel was 130,000 words! For YA! As an unpublished author! But it was my baby. So when I posted my query letter on Query Tracker for some feedback and the first couple of people warned me about word count, I didn’t listen. I mean, they couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of my world and characters, the magical tale that I weaved into those 130,000 words. Then a few more people pointed it out. But I remained stubborn. My book was special. The agents would see that, surely. And then the first few rejecting agents said the same thing. Hmmmmm. It began to sink in.
After I’d been hit over the head with the bad news enough times, I really took a good, hard look at my MS. And then I cut the first five chapters of the novel. Imagine. Five chapters that didn’t need to be there, and I was totally convinced that it was crucial.
Sometimes we need an outsider’s opinion to really see the flaws in our story. That, and the ability to remain objective about what’s really best for your baby. So reach out to your fellow critique partners and beta readers, and most importantly, keep an open mind.
5. The Exception To The Rule
Just because you’re a new writer doesn’t mean your extra long novel won’t get picked up. These are general guidelines for your average debut writer. But maybe you’re not average. Maybe you’re extraordinary. If that’s the case, why are you listening to me? You should be giving me tips. If you wrote an amazing novel, the size shouldn’t matter, and an agent will recognize that.
For example, consider Elizabeth Kostova‘s debut novel The Historian which has an approximate word count of 240,000!!! It sold to Little, Brown and Company for a whopping $2 million! It’s every writer’s dream.
So it happens, and I’m not saying it won’t happen to you. Just make sure your novel is truly in the best shape possible before shopping it around, and don’t hurt your chances just because you’re in denial.
Word Count Ranges
Since I’ve been making a big deal about word counts, I must have some magic numbers for you, right? Wrong. This post is to stress the importance of keeping word counts down, but there are no hard and fast rules. Just Google it. Every website will tell you something different. Look at the debut novels on the shelves today, and you’ll see just how much the truth can vary from word count suggestions.
Don’t take my word for it. Go ahead, surf the web and compare word count limits. There are many agent and publisher websites that will give you advice as well. And aren’t they the ones you should be listening to?
But I understand, you want some real numbers. For specific ranges, check out WRITER THERAPY. And remember, make every word count.