The Long and the Short of It

Before I start the post, last week I was interviewed on the pretty new Good Story Podcast, mostly about my forthcoming A Ceiling Made of Eggshells but also about writing in general, because the podcast is for writers. My interview won’t be out until May, but another may interest blog people, the interview with Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link:

Onto the post.

On December 4, 2019, Kyryiann wrote concerning NaNoWriMo, I ended with 60,000 words, yet still didn’t finish my novel. The first draft was 76,000 words in the end.

Here’s a question: what about novel length? I like longer novels because I’m a fast reader, but I know that other people like shorter novels because they can finish them in a shorter amount of time. Does novel length have anything to do with genre or audience? I would imagine that middle grade novels are usually shorter.

Yay me on making it hard for myself.

Writing Ballerina wrote back: I’m of middle grade age, and I prefer longer novels, but I’m more of a bookworm than average. A long book like LOTR or things like that are my heaven!! As such, I try to write what I’d like to read and thus aim for longer word counts.

Yay me on making it hard for myself.

And future_famous_author wrote back, too: I have read Little Women (777 pages, but incredibly good for anyone middle grade and up), but I tend to stick to anything between 100 and 350. I know that’s a wide range, but a lot of middle grade books are written in that range. Also, there is information on the Internet about lengths for different genres. A trend I see right now though is that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are both really long and are both fantasies. I think (I may be wrong) that realistic fiction books are typically shorter than most.

I’m with future_famous_author that there’s a lot available on the subject online. I pulled this from this site: I picked it just because it popped up first:

Readers of individual genres anticipate certain book lengths, and so do publishers. What follows is a rough guide to book length expectations in certain genres.

Romance: 65,000–80,000 words (Most romance imprints have specific word count requirements that writers should know and observe before they submit.)

Mystery: 80,000 words (Subgenres like cozies tend to be a bit shorter, often coming in at 70,000–80,000 words.)
Science fiction: 100,000–120,000 words

Thriller: 90,000–100,000 words

True Crime: 90,000–100,000 words

Historical fiction: 100,000–150,000 words (This may depend on the topic and demands of the marketplace.)

Mainstream women’s fiction: 90,000–100,000 words

Memoir/Bio: 70,000–90,000 words

Literary fiction: 80,000–100,000 words

Young Adult: 70,000–80,000 words

Middle Grade: 40,000–50,000 words

Picture books: 500–700 words

Here’s another site with somewhat different advice:

I’m not endorsing either of these, and I’m not an expert.

A source I do endorse is Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. I wrote a blurb for the book (see the back cover), and I know Harold, who is one of the most thoughtful people on the planet and a complete kidlit insider. (I don’t get paid when he has a sale–in case you were worrying.) I took this from page 70 of his book:

Young middle grade: 48 to 60 pages;
middle grade: 80 to 160 pages, occasionally more;
older middle grade: 128 to 200 pages or more;
YA (young adult): up to 300 pages.

A double-spaced page equals about 250 words. I tend to think in pages rather than word count, and a double-spaced page seems to come out roughly to a page in a published children’s novel.

There are many exceptions to the average. The Newbery winning middle grade novel Sarah, Plain and Tall is just 58 pages, roughly 8,377 words. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is very short, likewise Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. At the other end of the scale, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind weighs in at about 260,000 words–1,037 pages. When Harry Potter first came out, it was way longer than most kids’ books. Before Ella Enchanted was published, I brought the manuscript with me to a conference to be looked at by a published kidlit author, who told me that it had to be under 200 pages if it had a shot at being published. Hah! (It’s longer.)

The best writing teacher I ever had, the retired Bunny Gabel at The New School, was firmly opposed to worrying about length. She advised that a book should be no longer and no shorter than it needs to be to tell the story. I mostly agree with that, with the warning that today Margaret Mitchell would have a hard time finding an agent willing to read such a doorstopper of a manuscript–and I’ve read that it was much longer when she first turned it in. Publishing has changed and not always in a good way. I think publishers used to take more risks, and that attitude has been passed on to agents, who, unfortunately, are often the gate keepers.

My books keep getting longer without my meaning them to. I’m hoping that my current project, based on the Trojan War, won’t be much above 200 pages, but I’m on page 91 and I have a lot more to go.

While I don’t have an opinion about page count, I do have one about concision. I’m a fan. We don’t want flabby sentences. We want to watch our adjectives and adverbs, and we want to kill any we don’t need. We pay special attention to words that weaken, like slightly or almost, as in, She was slightly ticked off. If the emotion is worth mentioning, let her be ticked off. We want our writing to take a position, so that our readers will understand completely what’s going on.

And we want to keep an eye on our pacing. Are we doing anything to slow our story down, like introducing a fun incident just when things were getting exciting (as I think I just did in my manuscript)? We don’t have to do anything about it in our first draft when we’re spilling it out, because the fun incident may turn out to be important (pantser talk). But in revision, we should zap it if it doesn’t advance our plot.

Going the other way, we may be rushing our story and leaving out details that will bring it to life. Then we need more words to pick up the pace, even if that seems contradictory.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write dialogue between Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter. He has a lot to say, but she just wants to know if he can turn straw to gold. Have her keep cutting him off.

∙ Tell a frame story and the story it’s framing. Your MC is babysitting and reading to two children while a flood is rising outside their house. Decide whether or not she knows the danger they’re in. Figure out a link between the frame story and the one that’s being read.

∙ Your MC gets lost on her way to visit her uncle, because he’s sent for her. Imagine her on a variety of kinds of transportation, which may include plane, boat, train, taxi, camel, foot, or anything else. If this is fantasy, she can ride a magic carpet, lace up seven-league boots, or anything else. Trouble erupts on each leg of the journey. Decide how long you want the story to be, and let that determine the number of stages and the problems that come along. But if, when you start writing, you get swept up and keep going, that’s fine. And if your story shape wants to be shorter, go with that.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writing Ballerina says:

    That last bit about pacing I can add an example to:
    In my WIP, my MC found this tiny, leather-bound book. I don’t know what the book is, or what purpose it will serve, but I had her take it with her when she changed locations. Who knows if it’ll be useful or not. If so, awesome! I’ve set up an opportunity for something important to come into play later. If not, I’ll just cut it from the final draft.

    Question that’s slightly related: I’ve been having some fun recently with putting Easter eggs into my stories. They’re just little cameos of various things, and don’t really serve any purpose to the story. Should I not do this? Am I wasting words and making promises to readers that aren’t promises? I’d love to hear all your thoughts on this.

    • I think a few here and there can be fun, as long as you don’t overdo it. I’ve slipped little hints for stories I haven’t written yet inside my novels. It’s just fun to imagine some superfan someday getting confused about which order the books were written in, because my very first book (published 2015) has a hidden reference to my current WIP. My little sister challenged me to include a scene where dishes break in a novel (she was mad that she had to wash them). It was a fun detail to add to a fire scene that added to the drama–I doubt anyone but my sister and I realizes it’s a “cameo”.

    • I love putting references to other stories in my WIPs, but I try to make sure the scene will still make sense if you don’t get the reference. Plenty of other authors have borrowed from each other, (for example, you can find LOTR references just about anywhere) so I think of it as continuing the cycle. It makes me happy, it’ll hopefully make people who get the reference happy, and the people who don’t get the reference won’t be missing anything.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I love this kind of thing, and foreshadowing!!! All those little hints in stories, that you know the reader may never find, but that makes you so happy!
      In a story that I just recently finished the first draft of (my first time to finish a first draft, yay!), the main character made a wish by throwing a penny in a well that “everything would be okay,” and later on, there’s a character named Lucky who has copper brown hair and brings about the happy ending. I made him have copper brown hair on purpose.
      Another thing I did in the same book was that I reference a story idea. It will hopefully become a book later on. It’s about a girl with eagle wings and cat ears, and in the story, I just finished one kid looks at my MC and she says that he looked at her like she had grown eagle wings and cheetah ears.
      Just my way of having fun while writing!
      I’ve seen an author do something similar to this, and it was very obvious to me, one of her biggest fans as probably one of the few who has read ALL of her books (the author is Sharon Creech). She slipped hints in for her other books by having one MC see another MC from another book, or be old best friends with them, and so on and so forth. I’m not sure if Gail has done this or not, and maybe she hasn’t made it as obvious as Sharon Creech did. Mrs. Creech used the names from other books, which, if one was familiar with her other characters, made it pretty obvious.
      Well, that’s my two cents on the topic. Or maybe an entire dollar. I wrote a lot.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      No. I couldn’t do that without permission from Disney, because their version is copy protected. As you know, I did write the three fairy books for them based on the fairies of Neverland.

      • Would you be willing to talk about how your Disney fairy books came to be? I’m really curious about work for hire projects (I’m assuming that’s what those were) and the experience that comes with that. Did they approach you, or did you approach them? Was it hard, having to conform to the already-established characters and world-building of an existing franchise? How much creative freedom did you have? Did you feel like the story you wrote was more or less “your own” compared to the books that you came up with yourselves?

  2. i'dratherbewriting says:

    Does anyone know what to do when you don’t know what to do? In my current work in progress, I’ve reached a point where I’m not quite sure where to go with the plot. Everything before this point is fine (as far as first drafts go, at least) and I have a detailed outline for where I’m going after. But I’m currently in the doldrums of my plot. It’s not quite exposition, but I’m not far enough to start building up the tension. Does anyone have tips for how to push through a rough patch in the story?
    Also, I’m having problems with pacing. I’m constantly swinging between feeling like I have too much dialogue or feeling like I don’t have enough. Where is the happy medium, and how do I find it?

    • What purpose is the part of the story with “the doldrums” serving? Does it need to be in the story at all, or can you convey its information more efficiently some other way? Ex, if the evil wizard’s enslaved servant girl is secretly studying his books at night, hoping to find a way to escape, instead of detailing every stolen midnight reading session, you could say “After four years of breath-stopping close calls, she managed to levitate that tiresome silver tray as high as the window, and realized that now was the best chance she’d ever have.”

    • When I’m stuck in a rough patch, I usually take a break–a walk is best, but doing some household chore works too. It helps my brain get moving again. I’ve probably mentioned this too many times, but I love using KM Weiland’s Plot Structure for pacing. The info is free on her blog, helpingwritersbecomeauthors.

      With dialogue, I think the issue is more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity–I mean, people still read screenplays, which are almost entirely dialogue. One of my early readers complained that I had too much dialogue in my first book. The problem was mostly with scenes where the characters were chatting about world details or backstory that weren’t really relavant to what’s going on in the current story, so I shortened or removed those.

  3. future_famous_author says:

    So I have a really good beginning to my story, and I’m about 12,000 words in so far. I’ve been working on it for a little over a week, but I haven’t yet come up with a good climax for it.
    How can I come up with a good way to pull the reader in once I’m nearing the end of my book? I know that I’m nowhere near that, but it’s always best to start preparing for the ending at the beginning.
    To give you some background information, the story is narrated by a guy who is part of a spy organization, and he has met a girl who is the daughter of the founder of the organization. She is really upset because of a rule that girls aren’t allowed into the organization, and she is also upset because without the organization her father would still be alive.

    • Raise the stakes, and make the characters interesting and believable. This sounds like a story that would have very high stakes, so make that obvious if you can. As far as the climax itself, what I have seen work well is when the MC’s solution to the big problem creates a smaller problem that he then has to deal with. Also, 12,000 words in a week? That’s way better that I’ve ever done on one of my WIP’s.

  4. A note about word count from a writer who’s been deep in the query trenches for a while and consistently struggles with (too-lengthy) word count–I absolutely agree with Gail that story should always come first, and the perfect length for your book is the exact length that it takes to tell your story. However, while writing is an art, publishing is a business and sometimes giving yourself the best chance of success means conforming to the standards and expectations of the industry, whether that’s word count, content, or otherwise. Word count especially, because of practical implications as well; the longer a book is, the more it costs to print and publish.

    I think the numbers Gail gives are pretty accurate (although I will say that I have been noticing the standard word counts for YA and MG slowly creeping upwards over the years, especially in speculative fiction. I feel like a lot of recently-published MG is more 60-70k, sometimes even more), and I do want to stress that there are absolutely outliers that did well. A fair amount, actually, like The School for Good and Evil (105k), The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell (98k), and Nevermoor (89k) were great MG books that made bestseller lists. And I want to stress that wordcount isn’t a hard yes/no cutoff (unless you have something ridiculous like a 200k MG book). But if you deviate too much from industry standards, it does raise the bar for much you need to “wow” an agent or editor with other aspects of your book (plot, characters, story, etc). It’s definitely possible and many people manage just fine, but it’s something to take into consideration.

    And it’s also true that sometimes word count can be a symptom of other problems in your writing. I remember getting a rejection from a mentorship contest (for which I submitted the query and first 10 pages) saying that while the mentor wasn’t scared off by high word counts in general (I had 85k for a MG fantasy), she did notice that the writing in my sample felt a bit bloated, and hypothesized that my word count was high because I had trouble writing concisely. After shelving that project, writing a new book, and learning to edit for conciseness on that one, I can look back at the old one and see that she was absolutely right.

  5. Writing Cat Lover says:

    Yeah, unless it’s a really ridiculous word count, I’d say don’t worry about it, especially if this is your first draft.

    Also, thanks everyone who commeneted on the last post for the advice! It all really helped a lot.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Raina–I’m so glad you shared your experience. You took the straw of criticism and spun it into gold. Yay, you!

  6. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.
    I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.
    Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

    • My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

    • Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “ok, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

      Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

    • I’ve definitely run out of steam before too, usually for one of two reasons 1. I see fundamental problems with the story that I don’t know how to fix (overwhelmed by negatives) 2. I’ve lost my passion for the story and don’t feel my old love for it (lack of positives).

      For scenario 1, I think the solution is to troubleshoot the story until you’ve either solved the problems or get to a point where you’ve fixed enough of them that you feel comfortable going forward despite knowing their are still some issues. And sometimes, troubleshooting involves letting your story sit for a while and coming back with fresh eyes. I definitely have stories that I’ve put in the back burner because they have fundamental problems I don’t know how I can solve at the moment. Try and write a bit if you want, but if every word feels wrong and you know the story you’re writing isn’t matching up with the story you want to tell, it’s perfectly fine to take a break and work on something else.

      For scenario 2, I try to think about what I love about my story—whether it’s a scene I can’t wait to write, a character I love, a piece of dialogue, a scene, or something else. The more specific, the better. If you were at any point excited about your story, you’ll probably have a few of these, You can even write out a list so that you’ll always have it with you. The I just focus on those “candy bar scenes” as my end goal and work towards them as I slog through the other stuff. The thought of finally getting to write “the good stuff” keeps me motivated, and when I finally do get to those parts, I have so much fun that I get a writing high and want to keep going.

      And of course, sometimes there’s these bursts of irrational fears that my story is no good. If your general feelings about your story have been positive, and you can’t identify anything actually wrong (if you can, then see scenario 1), then just chalk it up to natural writer insecurities and ignore it and keep writing. Get lost in your story and they’ll go away soon enough.

  7. Hi Gail Carson Levine.
    I really want to write tween novels, but my manuscripts end up really short, normally about thirteen thousand words.
    Do you have any advice on how I can make them longer?
    Your novels are novel size, does it just come naturally because you’ve been writing for so long or is there some trick to it?

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