Ask Me Anything: On Word Count

I get questions about word count a lot--manuscripts that are too long or too short.

Here's one from tumblr:

My first novel is an epic fantasy of 225K words. I often see this length on the retail shelves, but internet wisdom indicates over 150K is an automatic no for a debut author. Is this true? Would this length mean this book is best pitched in person than via query letter?
My first reaction reading this is: gah!

As a rule I would say 225K is too long.

Of course…there are always exceptions to rules if a book is good enough.

The problem is that a lot of what you see on retail shelves are not debuts. Or they were debuts ten years ago when the market wasn’t quite as flooded.

In this case, what I would suggest you do is revise with pacing and cutting in mind. So you’re not cutting words for the sake of getting your word count down, you’re specifically looking for places where perhaps the story can move faster.

I read/heard somewhere that Stephen King has his wife read his books and he makes a note of where she pauses (if she gets up to go to the bathroom, if she decides to make a snack, etc) because if she’s pausing, the story isn’t holding onto her as tightly as possible and perhaps the pacing as slowed down. This is brilliant IMO.

What you need is someone who is a good reader (who reads epic fantasy and can be a good critique partner) to read and mark places where they got bored or lost or didn’t feel grabbed.

Then you want to read through your manuscript and make sure everything you have is moving the plot forward and developing the characters at the same time.

About a year ago, I read a brilliant fantasy novel as a submission. It was a pdf and didn’t have a word count so I read it. At the end I knew what I had read was brilliant and that the writer was superbly talented, but I also felt it was too long. I knew there were scenes in the middle that didn’t need to be there and I knew that there were long passages of description about the world that were always beautiful writing but also not always necessary to the story.

When I looked up the word count (by transferring it to a word doc) I realized the book was probably 68k words too long. I worked with the author and she cut about 50k in a round of edits and then when the book sold, the author and editor cut out a little more. It was that good. Even though it was long, it was so amazing that I didn't care. And of course, the author was willing to revise and tighten and cut in order to make the book better.

This book is RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard by the way and it is amazing.

* I'm back from Bologna and London and up to answer more questions: Ask me here

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Amanda said...

I read that about Stephen King too. Good advice. And now I really want to read this Red Queen book and it doesn't come out until next year!!

Lisa Desrochers said...

Stephen King said that in ON WRITING. Interesting "writing" book because it's less a "how to" and more anecdotal.

Unknown said...

Red Queen is amazing. It's worth the wait, I promise.

And that must be where I read that. I couldn't remember.