It’s one of the most popular questions asked among new writers, and there are generally two answers. One is that it doesn’t matter, and the other is the publisher’s minimum requirements, which are pretty easy to find answers don’t satisfy most budding novelists, but I’m here to give you an answer that should fix the ambiguity once and for all.
The Traditional Publishing Model
Okay, so here’s the short and skinny of it. If you want to have your “first novel” considered by anyone shooting for one of the big publishing houses, there are a couple of rules that you need to learn to follow. Right off the bat, one of them is word count. Even though I think the giants of this industry on on the road toward tying their own nooses, if you want to get in with them, you have to play by their rules, sort of.
The basic fact is that you don’t have 60,000 words or more, then your book isn’t going to be considered a novel by the big fish and the writing snobs. 70,000 is a good minimum target for a first novel, with the trade houses anyway. There are publishers out there who print everything from short story series’ to 800 page tomes, but generally speaking 70-90,000 is your average. Historical and science fiction genres offer more leeway on the top end, up to 120,000 words, and romance tends to be on the shorter side, down to 55,000, but I’m not going to go into the details of the romance genre. That’s it’s own critter and there is plenty out there to answer this question. It’s involved because each publishing house has it’s own word target.
If you want to be trade published, 70-90 thousand. That’s it. There’s your answer.
Why it really doesn’t matter
If you aren’t shooting for one of the biggest six publishing houses, then write your story as long as it needs to be. I hate nothing more than picking up a trade published book that’s obviously been stuffed to fill a damn word count requirement. It’s a stupid system and it’s going to be the death of the publishing tycoons. The up side, is that smaller houses now have it easier than ever. They can expand their reach, put out tighter work, and deliver where this silly notion of word count vs. cover price dominates the larger houses. Books aren’t efficient. They either entertain, or they inform. That’s it! You’re average reader couldn’t give a shit if the word count is too low. While it is nice to get really into a book and have lots of story to get lost in, the average reader doesn’t care. They’ll wait for the sequel if they like your book. (VS gets criticized by book snobs for being to short, but it’s also encouraged more than a handful of people who don’t read to not only pick up my book, but get excited about reading, and giving other books a try)
But the biggest reason of all that you shouldn’t be at all concerned about word count while drafting that first novel, which I’m about to break into two parts, is that the book isn’t finished yet. It’s a first draft, and you have bigger things to worry about than counting words, or worrying about chapter lengths, or what to name your characters, or any of those beginner questions. Just write the freaking book! Until you have it all on paper, or saved in a file on your computer, it’s only a story in your head. You should be focused and committed to adding a little bit to that story every day, not counting words. Once you finish your draft, take a glance at that word count. You may want to jot it down somewhere, because it going to change. Two very disruptive processes happen in the editing phase, which I’ll discus separately now.
Editing will change your word count drastically
When you finally finish, take a break for a couple weeks. Maybe spend some time brainstorming ideas for the next book. Take a vacation. Whatever. Then come back and look at your manuscript. You will likely want to quit, or at least wonder who swooped in and changed all of your sentences into garbage. Whether your draft was 40,000 words or 400,000, there’s going to be shitty writing. A lot of it. The major problem isn’t going to be commas and semicolons. It’s going to be your writing style. Through the process of scribing a novel, you learn tons about writing, especially if you are reading and learning through the process. You know, doing the things you should be doing, while writing everyday. You will be a much better writer than you were when you started.
Essentially, you’re going to see your prose and style in chapter one fall into one of two distinct categories. The first one is that it’s insanely telly, and paints no picture of what your new world looks like, just a lot of this and that. On the flip side, you may have started with long flowery sentences, and at some point in the writing process, realized the error of your ways. You have long verses of smells and shines and feelings and glitter, and fucking adverbs everywhere. No matter which category you fall in, you’re going to completely destroy that word count.
Take my current WIP for an example. The first draft was around 28,000 words (I was trying for another novella). I overdid the shortness, and left a bunch of stuff out, which needed to be clarified. I’m not even halfway through the block edit, and the thing is pushing 40k! On top of that, I realized an important sub-plot that was completely left out, so that’s going to add a ton of words. So much for another novella. It’s simply too much story to stuff into 35k. Finding your voice and writing style is going to drive your word count right out the window, so don’t worry how many you have when you finish the first draft.
Big story changes
This is the other side of editing. Those horrible moments when you realize that an entire chapter is useless and needs to be cut. Or that you started a good subplot in chapter two, and then completely forgot about it, and now it needs to be threaded into the rest of the story fabric. As you go through, scenes will get blotted out, new ones will be added, characters will spawn and disappear. Everything changes. The real work of writing a novel isn’t spitting out a story, that’s only the beginning. The real work is going through it over and over again, moving stuff around, tightening things up, adding details where needed, etc. etc. etc. The fun never stops, believe me. I went through CORP nine times, and it still isn’t ready! And don’t get me started on the three years I spent with TSOV, only to never let it see the light of day. You might draft up a 20,000 word rough outline that turns into a 130,000 word fully-developed story, or scratch out 250,000 to realize that the story needs to be broken up, or that you spent 100,000 words in the middle to accomplish exactly nothing. If you wonder why writers are a bunch of manic people, this is why. The editing.
So, this is the dig. If you want to sit there and watch your word counter to verify daily progress, yes, please do that. Make sure that you are adding story. But don’t worry about the total until you are done. It will be an indicator of what you need to do with the story. Whether you need to flesh things out or trim sentences. But it’s only an indicator. You write until the main character either succeeds or fails. Then wrap everything up and close the story out. Then look at the word count total. After you finish editing, and turning that first draft into something truly wonderful, then you can start worrying about whether the trade publishers will want it. But I assure you, if it’s a good story, then there will be a place for it. There’s publishers out there for big books and small books, YA fantasies or niche genres. There’s a reader out there for just about anything. If you don’t believe me, then you should go look around WattPad for a while, and while you are there, go ahead and follow @writefarmlive 😉
Don’t worry about word count. Worry about drafting your story. After you start editing, you can begin figuring out where you want to pitch your story and what you need to do to get it where you want it. If it needs to be shorter, then simplify it. If you want it longer, add a couple side plots. If you are going self pub, then talk to the editor you hire about what could make it better, fix it up, and push it out there into the universe. But don’t let word count become a source of writer’s block. Writing a novel is hard enough without worrying about that bullshit.
What do you think? Did I nail this topic down well enough? Did I answer all of your word count questions?