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!



Several weeks ago Asma asked a question related to the length of a piece of writing. She suggested (Asma, please correct me if I got this wrong) that long is daunting. I posted a comment advising her not to worry about length. Good short is as good as good long.

Since then I’ve been thinking about length. Before I’d had anything published, in the mid-1990s when I was working on Ella Enchanted, I was told by my mentor at a conference that my book had better be under two hundred pages, and Ella was longer than that. Maybe that was the rule at the time, but nowadays very long books seem to be fine. Publishers buy them, and they make their way into readers hearts.

The shortest novel for kids that I know of is Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which is sixty-four pages short and won a Newbery award. Of course there is debate about whether it’s a novel or a novella, and I don’t know the answer. I’d guess that you usually need at least 125 pages for a book to be without a doubt a novel.

There is one law about length: Do not pad.

With one exception. If you have a school assignment, like a paper that has to be ten pages long or you will flunk and won’t be able to get into college and will be doomed to a life of drudgery and penury (look it up, kids), and if you do your best, but when you get to page nine-and-a-half, you have exhausted everything you have learned about the subject, then you have my blessing to pad, to string adjectives together and pile on the adverbs, to make your handwriting wide and rounded or to find a font, like this one, that takes up a lot of space. But aside from such an extreme situation, don’t. If your book turns out to be a novella rather than a novel or your short story is super short and yet unfolds fully, celebrate and forget about length.

A truism is that a book (or a story) should be as long as it takes, long enough to tell the tale, and no more. This is less than helpful. “Cinderella,” for example, told as a classic fairy tale, takes up only a few pages. Her story – and most stories – can be summarized in several sentences. Yet I wrote it as a novel, and I found out recently that two more novelized versions have just come out.

When I’m in the midst of writing, I never know how long a book is going to be. More than once I’ve thought I had a trilogy going, and sometimes I’ve worried that my story wasn’t complex enough for a whole book. I even fret that a blog post won’t be long enough to be satisfying.

Satisfaction is the key to length. Your main character shouldn’t solve each of her problems too quickly or your reader will be disappointed. On the other hand, if she tries again and again, and her attempts are similar, the reader may become as frustrated as she is. For instance, I based Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” The hero of the story has to ride a horse to the top of – you guessed it – a glass hill in order to win the princess. Conveniently, he has tamed three marvelous horses, each of which arrived with a full suit of armor, copper armor, silver, and gold. The horses with the copper armor and silver armor are able to climb partway but fail to make it to the top, but the horse with golden armor pulls off the feat. The reader roots for the hero at each attempt, but doesn’t really want him to make it on the first two tries, because the excitement would be over too soon. Success on the third effort is just right. If there were seventeen horses and seventeen attempts, we would want to take a hammer to the hill.

Three is often a pleasing number, so much so that it’s called “the rule of three.” Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The evil stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times. The queen guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name three times.

But, despite the rule, to always create three attempts is formulaic. Sometimes your hero should succeed on his first shot and sometimes on the fifth, and sometimes not at all, at least for the time being. Variety adds richness and interest – and length.

In the upcoming third book about the fairies of Neverland, Gwendolyn, the human character, is searching for the fairies, who are hiding from her. She finds the spot where she thinks they live and speaks to them, but they don’t show themselves. She reveals the gifts she’s brought, which also fails to call them forth, so she looks for a dove who would know where they are, but the dove is hiding too. After wandering to other possible places, she sleeps pathetically alone in the forest. When she wakes up, she returns to the original location, gets angry, and throws a mermaid’s lute. This act brings out a fairy. I count five attempts, the right number in this case.

Later in the story Gwendolyn asks Peter Pan for advice to help her help the fairies. She does this once, and it’s enough.

Prompt: It’s early in your story. Your main character has to find the magic cell phone that will let him start his quest. If you don’t like fantasy, it’s a real cell phone, which he needs so he can reach someone who will give him a clue. The phone is hidden in a public garden. Write his attempts to find the cell phone. Vary the way he tries. Who helps him? Who gets in the way? If you like, turn the exercise into a story. Don’t worry about length. Have fun, and save what you write.