Word Counts

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If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been working on a new novel for the last two months. My goal at the outset was 100,000 words, and I’ve been keeping a running update of my progress. Here’s my latest:

I re-read it, and I think the story has a pretty decent pace overall. It may be a little too brisk (it turns out these things seem much faster when you’re reading them than when you’re writing them), but I think I have the central plot arc in place. And there’s just no way to pad it out to 100,000 words, which is bad, because it’s a sci-fi novel, and those are generally “supposed” to be at least 80,000 words.

I can and probably will throw in some additional world-building detail and “local flavor”, tie up a few minor loose ends in the plot, and add some more description of scenes and characters. (Description, as long-time readers know, has always been my weak point.) But even all that will probably bring it to around 60,000 words, at the maximum.

Personally, I have never been a fan of arbitrary word counts for a genre. A story should be told in the number of words that make it most powerful for the reader–no more, no less. Too many words, and they get bored. Too few, and they won’t get drawn into it.

But of course, the publishers don’t see it that way. They have certain rules for word count by genre. In my opinion, this “quantity over quality” approach encourages overly-long books, but then again, when you have to review thousands of manuscripts, it helps to have some rules that let you automatically eliminate some of them. (This article summarizes it well.)

The key question here is; what do readers like? Assuming the two books are equal in price, does the typical reader prefer to have a longer one to a shorter one? Do they want to maximize the number of words they get for their money? Or do other considerations take precedence?

For myself, I generally make decisions based on other factors. I read the synopsis to see if it sounds like an interesting premise, then I flip through the book a little and see if I like the author’s style. Cover art also makes a difference to me, even though we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

What about you? What factors most heavily influence your book-buying decisions? How much do you care about the length of a book?

12 Comments

  1. The only time I’ll tend to go for a long book is if it’s an author whose work I already know I enjoy. If I’ve never read a book by the author before, whether they’re traditionally published or indie, I won’t likely buy a long one. By long, I mean much over 400 pages.

    As you mention, there are guidelines for word count for the different genres, but I’ve heard agents at conferences say that unless it’s excessively long, word count isn’t a deal breaker for them. It’s all about the story and the writing.

    One way to up the word count would be to add an interesting subplot, one with its own conflicts. If it can be tied into the main story, even better. Maybe one of your characters has something else going on they need to deal with. After all, that’s real life. Unfortunately…

    1. That’s a good point–being familiar with an author helps in making the decision. I agree; it makes sense not to buy a long book when there’s a chance you will end up hating the writing.

      You are right about the subplot. I admit there’s a part of me that is scared I’ll upset the plot I already have in place by adding that. But I think that’s just nervousness on my part. I need to get over it and take the plunge. (I keep thinking of something Paul Graham, one of my favorite essayists, once wrote: “Good design is redesign. It’s rare to get things right the first time.” http://paulgraham.com/taste.html)

      Thanks so much for the suggestion! 🙂

      1. Yes, first drafts can always be improved. And then some!

        I like to add at least two small subplots to each book. I work them right into my outline so I know where to incorporate them in my first draft. Scrivener’s nice, because you can color-code your scenes and give each subplot a different color. Then again, Scrivener has so many great features, and I know I only hit the tip of the iceberg with them!

  2. Editors base their decision on whether to promote a book on the first 20 pages. If the story is complete at 60,000 any further wordage will only muck it up. So it’s a novella instead of a novel. Still readers have less time on their hands and prefers shorter stories whatever the genre.

    1. That’s my feeling as well. I’m puzzled by why average word counts have gone up as the amount of time readers have has gone down.

  3. Great thoughts on this subject. As a reader, I’ve found that I don’t pay much attention to length and like you, if the blurb, cover, and writing style grab me, I’m in.

    When it comes to writing, I’ve become more comfortable with the story dictating where it wants to go. Of course, I’m not submitting anything to agents and editors, so take my opinion on this for the pennies that it’s worth. 🙂

    1. I’m 100% on board with letting the story go where it wants. I prefer going the indie route with a story that I think is as good as I could make it over getting a story I think could be better published by somebody else.

  4. The word count is not really important to me. I really dislike it however, when writers tend to repeat themselves. It’s pretty obvious to me when a writer is trying to fill a book.

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