QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Manuscript Length

How long should a novel manuscript be?

I belong to quite a few writers' groups, both local and online, and in my QT Blog posts, I try to address recurring topics discussed in these groups that apply to aspiring writers. The question of word count comes up frequently.

I'm not an expert on all genres, so I'm going to link to and quote from folks who know what they're talking about. What I do know is that loads of aspiring writers, especially those new to the business have monster-long, and I mean doorstop-huge manuscripts well in excess of 130,000 words.

So, let's start off with the numbers. Here's literary agent Colleen Lindsay's take on manuscript length from her blog, The Swivet:

Word counts for different kinds of novels vary, but there is are general rules of thumb for fiction that a writer can use when trying to figure out just how long is too long. For the purposes of this post, I'm only talking about YA, middle-grade and adult fiction here. And bear in mind that there are always exceptions, but good general rules of thumb would be as follows:
middle grade fiction = Anywhere from about 25k to 40k, with the average at about 35k

YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 125k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn't be word count for the sake of word count; the word count must actually be what works best for the story.

urban fantasy / paranormal romance = Usually around the 100k mark; some bestselling urban fantasy writers are able to turn in even higher word counts, but as a debut author, stick to the appropriate range.

mysteries and crime fiction = Cozies tend to be shorter than the average, somewhere around the 60k to 70k mark; most other books that fall into this category fall right around the 90k to 100k mark.

mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k; thrillers also run in somewhere around the 100k to 120k mark; historical fiction can run as high as 160k words or more (and again, these are just rough guides - there are always exceptions). Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn't something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)

science fiction & fantasy = Here's where most writers seem to have problems: most editors I've spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn't buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn't need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication.

I recommend reading all of Ms. Lindsay's article from which I quoted above because it gives some examples of when and how longer word counts make it through.

Jessica Faust from Bookends, LLC also blogged about this topic in an article appropriately called Book Length.

Here's agent Nathan Bransford's opinion on Novel Word Count.

How about an editor's take on it. Moonrat blogged about the ideal length of a submission.

My point is 130,000+ word debut novels are rare. There's a reason they're not the norm. Publishing is a business. As writers, it's our job to know as much about the business as possible. There is a ton of online information on this subject from industry professionals.

If you have thoughts on this topic or other links to good articles about manuscript length, please share them in the comments.

Have a great week!



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links and the advice.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for these numbers. I've been looking for an accurate source to let me know what I should be aiming for -- you've helped me out considerably!

Erinn said...

Excellent post...this is exactly what I wanted to know. Thank you

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Glad it helped. Thanks for the comments, Erinn, Fivecats and Lynnrush. An interesting thing to me is that these numbers shift. Several years ago, a couple of the genres sported bigger word counts.

Scott said...

Thanks for the word counts. I've been eliminating words from my main project. I was up to 140,000. Yeah, no way in a very hot place! Ha! I'm slowly working my way down to an 'acceptable' level. Thanks again.


Aubrie said...

Very helpful, Mary! Thank you. :)

Tez Miller said...

I struggle to even make 70,000 in an adult MS. Am I in the minority?

Matthew MacNish said...

I hate word count rules. But, I have come to accept them as inevitable.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Mary! My YA is a little over 61,000 so I feel pretty good about the length--I tend to be a skeleton writer who fleshes things out in later drafts.

Reena Jacobs said...

It blows my mind so many writers hit 130k+ on their first shot. My very first draft of my very first novel came in at 86k words. I remember thinking the entire time, "how am I going to put enough words down to make a novel." Then when I started trimming and editing it was "will there be enough words left for a full length novel?"

Even now as I write, I wonder if I can make my work novel length. It's not until the first scene/chapter when I do the math and realize, yeah...I can do it. :)

Kudos to those with enough in your head that the words just flow, even if you end up doing some massive trimming. :)

Janet Johnson said...

Thank you for the article! Very helpful information. :)

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Just to break out the youth lit a bit more...

middle grade is often broken into "young" middle grade or chapter books (7-10), which could be as short as 7,500 or 15,000 words; classic middle grade, which can often run 17,000-25,000 (8-12), and tween, which I'd put somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 (10-14).

For YA, I've seen successful manuscripts as short as 22,000 or so and as long as over 100,000. Classic YA for ages 12+ may not run as long as those for 14+, but then again, they might.

All of this comes with the caveat that it varies wildly--fantasy does run longer; but books for reluctant readers tend to be short (and prized by the library market).

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Hi, Cynthia! Thanks for the additional information.

If our readers haven't checked out Cynthia's blog, you should do so. It's full of amazing information for writers. Go down the bar on the left of the page and click on "Children's and YA Lit Resources."


Lisa_Gibson said...

Great post! This kind of information is always so helpful and the links are great.

Buffy Andrews said...

Great post. Thanks so much. Also posted on Inkwell.ning.com with link back.

Jamwes said...

Thank you for reassuring me that my 100k goal for my novel is a good goal.

Any suggestions on short story word lengths?

Rebecca Talley said...

Word count is also dependent on publishers and their printing costs. Some publishers can take on longer novels, while others like lower word counts because the printing costs are lower.

Great ballpark figures. I agree that 130k is far too long for a debut novel.

She Wrote said...

I recently met Christina Ward (of the Litarary Agency of same name) and had the chance to discuss with her my police procedural (sub-set of mystery genre). The word count at that time was just under 100,000. After giving her the word count she said, "Thank you, but don't ever tell me that again." Seems she didn't care what the count was. It is the quality of the writing and the story she was most interested in.

Paul W. West, Author said...

I was one of those writers with a YA novel about 130,000 words long. I had to cut and it came down to about 80,000 words. Check my blog for more:


Stina said...

Great post!

There's always someone asking on the Absolute Write forum about YA word count. Maybe I'll just post this link next time. :)

Silke said...

Personally... the book is as long as it takes to finish the story.
Some are shorter, some are longer.
I will write as much, or as little, as I need to, then I either cull, or add, depending on what the story needs.
I have 100k novels, and I have 40k novels, and everything in between.
Wordcount is subjective, imo, because if the book is good, it will find a spot, even if it's longer or shorter than the norm.
But it's a good thing to aim for a rough estimate, and that's the only reason why I pay attention to wordcount.