A Word About Novel Word Counts…

March 11, 2009 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

thick-book2

Potentially my finished manuscript

 As the first draft of my fantasy novel surged past 90,000 words, I started to worry about the final word count for the very first time. 

It was never something I gave much thought to before – after all, most fantasy novels you see on bookstore shelves these days are thicker than some of my law textbooks (not many though).  However, with my story not even at the half way mark (or so I think), I’m beginning to wonder just how much of a door stopper the finished product is going to be.  250,000 words?  300,000?

While I will be ecstatic just to finish the book, I’d be lying if I said publication has never crossed my mind.  But forget about selling any copies – would any sane publisher even contemplate publishing a 250,000-300,000 word book from a first time writer?  I’m certain the answer is a decisive ‘no’ (if I was James Joyce, maybe, but unfortunately I’m not).

So what is a publishable length for a novel?  I was lucky to come across this blog post at The Swivet (the blog of Colleen Lindsay, literary agent).  The post is almost a year old, but I doubt the publishing landscape has changed that much in a year.  According to Colleen, the ideal length of a fantasy/sci-fi manuscript is 100,000 words, and up to 120,000-130,000 for a truly spectacular epic fantasy.  Agents and publishers tend to think that if a novel is too long, it probably reflects a lack of writing ability (in my case it’s probably true).  The limits don’t necessarily apply to established, published authors who have already proven they can sell.  There are also exceptions like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (which I have read and personally don’t think is that great), but she was already a star and award winner, which few first time writers are. 

If you scroll down that post, you’ll see a message which lists the word counts of recent and historically popular novels.  Some of them caught me by surprise, like the first Harry Potter novel, which was roughly only 77,000 words, or the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was only around 455,000 words!  Really?  I could have sworn both felt significantly longer when I read them.  Part of this might be because I’m already up to 90,000 myself and I feel like nothing much has happened in my story!

Yes, it’s just a first draft, and there will be a lot of re-writing, editing and cutting (A LOT!), but I just can’t fathom squeezing the completed manuscript down to a publishable 100,000 words.  So…perhaps a trilogy?  One that comes to mind is Patrick Rothfuss, who wrote The Name of the Wind (which I can’t wait to read).  He originally wrote a mega-long book entitled The Song of Flame and Thunder, which was rejected by all publishers he submitted to.  However, after he won the Writers of the Future competition, he managed to sell the book by splitting it into 3 volumes, the first of which was The Name of the Wind (which is still a ridiculously thick book that I’m sure exceeds 100,000 words).

Anyway, enough dreaming for now.  Have to try and finish the damn thing first.

PS: I can’t believe this is my 100th post!