How long should a novel be? (pt.1)

Photo by Joel Robison

Photo by Joel Robison

Whenever I meet other writers, one of the questions that often comes up is: “How long should my novel be?”  There are variations on the question, such as “How long is too long?” and “How short is too short?”  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find some reliable answers to these questions myself, and decided to write up the results for the benefit of fellow authors.


Discussing novel lengths and word counts

It’s easiest to talk about the length of fiction in terms of word count, rather than pages.  The reason for this is simple: if you say your short story is twenty pages, I would say “What size font?  Double or single spaced?  What size are your margins?  Do you use a lot of snappy dialogue, or dense blocks of narrative?”  Compare a few pages of a sparse novel, such as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces“, to a dense tome such as Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow“, and you’ll get the idea.

Every word processor has a function to count the words in your text, so don’t be afraid to use it!  Publishers will want to know how long your novel is in number of words; the same goes if you submit it to an editor or proofreader for that critical review before you submit for print or publication.


Determining your ideal word count

If you have an idea for a novel and you’re familiar with the genre, there’s an easy way to decide how long it should be.  Let’s say you’d like to write the next steamy romance bestseller along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  Go to the Romance section of Waterstones or your local bookshop (if there are any left in your area) and pick up a few similar titles.  You’ll notice that, generally speaking, they’re all about the same thickness, and have similarly sized fonts within.  The reason for this is that the publishers have a very good idea of how long this kind of book should be, and stick to it.  If you want them to publish your novel, then you should stick to it too.

One way to guess a book’s word count is to count the number of pages (say 300) and times it by 250 (average number of words per page) to get the total word count (in this case, 75,000 words).

250 words is a good guess per page, but this depends on the font size.  If you want to get a more accurate calculation, open one of those Romance books (or a book from your chosen genre) and count how many words are in each of the first ten lines.  Work out an average, then times it by the number of lines on the page.  This will likely be between 200 and 260 words.  Then you can times it by the number of pages in the book.

Number of words on a full line
x
Number of lines on the page
x
Number of pages in the book


Word count of famous novels

As an illustration, here are some famous novels that will be easily to find in your local bookshop, with their word lengths (credit goes to this site):

  • 30,500 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (Children’s)
  • 36,000 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (Children’s)
  • 46,000 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (Science fiction)
  • 47,000 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (Literary drama)
  • 49,500 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Science fiction)
  • 56,500 – As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner (Literary drama)
  • 60,000 – Lord of the Flies – William Golding (Literary drama)
  • 63,500 – Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Wool (Literary drama)
  • 67,000 – Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson (Adventure)
  • 67,500 – The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (Wartime drama)
  • 73,500 – The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (Coming of age)
  • 77,500 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 78,500 – The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Literary drama)
  • 85,000 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (Literary drama)
  • 89,000 – Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (Science fiction)
  • 89,000 – Waiting – Ha Jin (Literary drama)
  • 100,000 – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Drama)
  • 113,000 – The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman (Fantasy)
  • 119,500 – My Sisters Keeper – Jodi Picoult (Drama)
  • 123,500 – Atonement – Ian McEwan (Family saga)
  • 138,000 – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne (Fantasy)
  • 144,500 – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Family saga)
  • 145,500 – Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper (Historical drama)
  • 156,000 – Emma – Jane Austen (Romance)
  • 156,000 – Watership Down – Richard Adams (Adventure)
  • 183,500 – Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (Coming of age)
  • 184,000 – Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (Romance)
  • 206,000 – Moby Dick – Herman Melville (Adventure)
  • 208,500 – Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (Fantasy drama)
  • 211,500 – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drama)
  • 236,000 – A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (Drama)
  • 257,000 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 418,000 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (Historical epic)
  • 455,000 – The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) – J. R. R. Tolkien (Epic fantasy)
  • 562,000 – Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand (Drama)
  • 587,000 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Drama)

So, should you emulate these great authors?  J. K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” was a whopping 257,000 words, so should you aim for this when writing your first fantasy book for children?  Hell, no.  Apart from the fact that dear J. K. really, really needed a good editor in the post-Azkaban years, she was also by then well established and immensely successful. She had free rein to do whatever she liked, much to the detriment of children’s fiction everywhere.

Also, books we now consider classics were often significantly longer back in the day than popular books now.  Why?  Because there was less competition; because they were often written and published in installments; and because being wordy and “literary” was what made one a “proper” writer and worthy of being read (although it should be noted that many authors now considered masters were thought of as trashy during their own time. Fortunately for E.L. James).


Average word count by genre

My personal recommendation when it comes to choosing your word count is to go on the standard for the genre.  Publishers follow these loose guidelines for a reason.  There are always exceptions, so take them with a pinch of salt, but they are a handy guide.  If you’re out by more than 10,000 words, then you should re-think your plot or give it a thorough editing.

  • Literary: 60 to 90,000 words
  • Young adult: 45 to 80,000 words
  • Romance: 85 to 100,000 words
  • Cozy mysteries: 65 to 90,000 words
  • Thrillers: 90 to 100,000 words
  • Popular & chick-lit: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Epic sci-fi & fantasy: 100 to 120,000 words
  • Modern sci-fi & fantasy: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Horror: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Western: 80 to 100,000 words

No doubt some people will disagree with some of these, so I encourage responses in the comments section!


For some final words, and advice for debut novelists, check this part 2 of this post here.  Thanks for reading!

—db

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