This time of year our social media pages and author groups are abuzz with word counts for National Novel Writing Month—how many words we need today, how many until we win, or (if you’re like me) how many words you are behind. When we’re drafting our work it’s easy to just say “get the words down, worry about length later.” And that’s true to an extent. But what about when you’re revising? Planning your series? Developing your marketing strategy and brand? Manuscript length ties into four of the biggest things to consider when you’re a professional author: genre, target demographic, series or stand alone, and format. Here’s a handy list on manuscript lengths and what to call them (remember page-count is entirely dependent on formatting):
Microfiction: < 500 words
Flash fiction: < 1000 words
Short story: 1000-15,000
Manuscripts longer than 100,000 words are only typical in non-fiction, historical fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy.
Genre is a huge factor in determining where your book should fall on the length spectrum. Each genre has it’s typical range (for novel-length) which is where that huge variation in “Novel Length” above comes from. For simplicity, we’re just going to talk about the broadest of genre categories. Understand that different sub-genres create additional variation, which is why there’s a range. While these are usually defined by the traditional publishing sector—and while we’re all about sticking it to the Big Three, those lengths weren’t pulled out of Simon or Schuster’s dark orifice. Some of it is based on the demographic the genre is marketed to, which we’ll get into later, but it’s also dependant on the pacing, worldbuilding, and other norms each genre entails. Books with one or two main plots, limited world-building, and/or fast pacing like Romance or Thrillers are often under 90,000. Fantasy, science-fiction, and historical novels require more words to develop their settings and are therefore typically longer. If you factor these into sub-genres you can see that a historical romance would be longer than a contemporary, and urban fantasy shorter than an epic fantasy.
Commercial Fiction: 60,000-100,000
Literary Fiction: 80,000-100,000
Science Fiction/Fantasy: 80,000-120,000
Demographic and genre have some heavy overlaps, but in this case we’re mostly talking about the age of your target readers. Let’s assume you haven’t written a picture or children’s book. Your tone and themes are going to determine your audience, but now that you’re revising, what should you aim for?
Children's Picture Book (0-8): 750-1,000
Middle-grade (8-12): 25,000-40,000
Young Adult (12-17): 45,000-90,000
Adult (18+): 50,000-100,000
Another factor that affects where you aim length-wise is whether your piece is a stand-alone or a series. The first books in a series and stand-alone novels should adhere pretty well to the ranges listed above. Later books in the series, however, are often a different story (pun entirely intended). Later books—especially the last in a series—are often expected to be longer. There are more main plots and sub-plots to conclude, and that takes words!
The final factor in determining your target word-count, though not the most important is the format in which you intend to publish. Print books are typically expected to be a certain thickness (though again, this is dependant on formatting). A quick browse through your local bookstore will show you that there are clear trends in each section. Formatting a 230,000 word book in a standard 1.5 inch thick 5x8 cover while still maintaining readability is impossible. Trust me. I’ve tried. (OK, it was only 140,000, but you get the idea) If you only intend on making your books available digitally, and not in paperback, your target length is more a guideline.
We only touched on novel-length norms today, but look for a post on shorter fiction soon! While word-count is an important part of writing, focusing on it early on can cramp your creative voice. Challenges like NaNoWriMo are great ways to establish writing habits, and crank out the first chunk of your manuscript, but drafting isn’t always the place to worry about word-count. Just because you didn’t reach 50,000 doesn’t mean you don’t have a marketable piece, and likewise, 50,000 may only be half of your story. Revisions are where you really need to focus on what you’re goals are—and the story you’re trying to tell.
*Note: Ranges differ slightly from source to source. These ranges are the most common among several sites and have remained fairly consistent as industry standards for the past decade.
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