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"Word Count & Story Length"

by Mark O'Bannon

Story Length
Word Count & Story Length
You've struggled with your story for weeks, created great characters, designed an intruguing plot and you've spent hours and hours working on a fantastic story.

You send it off to an agent and promptly get a rejection letter. What happened?

One of the main reasons that stories are rejected by literary agents is because the story is too long. Beginning writers usually create a story that's just too long for a novel. But rejection letters rarely explain the reason the agent isn't interested in representing your work. Writers usually forget to think about how long the story needs to be. After all, agents won't bother trying to sell something that the publishers won't buy. Most of the time, the manuscript is too long.

How do you know if your story is too long?
Novel length isn't usually thought about by new writers. With so many things to keep track of, its just another detail to forget when you're caught up in creating something.

Looking at published stories can be deceptive. The reason for this is because most novels are from established authors with more than one published book.

Here are the word counts of some typical novels:

Harry Potter
The Philosopher's Stone - 76,944
The Chamber of Secrets - 85,141
The Prisoner of Azkaban - 107,253
The Goblet of Fire - 190,637
The Order of the Phoenix - 257,045
The Half-Blood Prince - 168,923
The Deathly Hallows - Approximately 198,227

LOTR
The Hobbit: 95,022
Fellowship of the Ring: 177,227
Two Towers: 143,436
Return of the King: 134,462

Twilight Series
TWILIGHT- 118,501
NEW MOON - 132,807
ECLIPSE - 147,930
BREAKING DAWN - 192,196

Notice that the first books from these authors were shorter.
The Fellowship of The Ring, while longer, was not Tolkien's first book.

HARRY POTTER was 76,944 words.
THE HOBBIT was 95,022 words.
TWILIGHT was 118,501 words.

For comparison, the one book which is famous for being too long to read is WAR AND PEACE - 561,304 words long!
How long is your novel?

Calculating Word Count
There are two ways to calculate word count:

MSWord or iWork Pages
The program you use when writing will keep track of the word count. This may seem the best way to keep track of how long your story is, but publishers use a different formula.

Page Count x 250
Publishers calculate word count by mulitiplying the page count by 250. One reason this method is used is because when an editor recieves a manuscript, it isn't an electronic file. It's a stack of paper.

When sending a query to an agent, you will not send the entire book. You will usually just send the first five or ten pages, along with a one or two page query. When putting the word count in the query, you can use either formula. Publishers prefer the second method, while agents tend to like the first method.

How long should your novel be?
It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling.
Here is a general guide to story length, expressed in the word count:

  • Short-short stories are under 2,500 words.
  • Short stories can range from 2,500 to 7,500 words.
  • Novellettes are from 7,500 to 20,000 words.
  • Novellas are from 20,000 to 50,000 words.
  • Novels are from 70,000 to 90,000 words.

The Genre will affect the length of the story, too.

  • Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than novels and can be 50,000 to 80,000 words long.
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy novels tend to be longer and can be up to 125,000 words long.

Screenplays are different. Since all screenplays use Courier font, the length is expressed in terms of pages:

  • Screenplays are 110 to 120 pages long.

You may have read longer books, but it is quite rare for a publisher to accept a longer manuscript. When you find books with word counts higher than these numbers, it's typically from an established author.

Keep Your Novel Short - Under 90,000 Words
If you're a first time, unpublished author, then you need to keep the word count down. The higher the word count, the less likely it will sell. Longer novels exist, but these are usually from established writers.

If you have trouble keeping your word count down, take a look at removing unnecessary exposition. Some editors have even recommended cutting the first three chapters out of a novel, since new writers tend to put in too much exposition.

What Font To Use For Your Novel
Don't cheat. Using a tiny font won't work. With screenplays, if you use anything other than Courier 12 point you're likely to get an instant rejection. With novels, a good font to use is Times New Roman 12 point.

So when writing your first novel, keep the word count under:
70,000 to 90,000 words
or 120,000 words for a SF/F novel

 

- Mark O'Bannon

 


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