Tag Archives: On Chesil Beach

What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

Novice writers often ask what is the ideal word count for a manuscript? Is 100,000 words too many? What about 150,000? It’s best to aim lower—much lower.

Let’s say a writer is pitching a first novel. He has a sure-fire Pulitzer Prize winner on his hands, but the manuscript is a weighty 250,000 words. Does he dare mention the word count in his query letter? Not only should he not mention the word count, but he needs to go back immediately and trim that manuscript. Cut it in half or divide it into two books and pitch it as the first part of a sequel. Why? In addition to the reality that most first-time writers probably over-write, it’s a matter of simple economics. More words mean more paper, and printing and shipping costs. A publisher is simply not going to spend the extra money publishing a tome by a first-time author. Agents know this.

When I finished my first novel, Small Change, it was 126,000 words. I mentioned the word count in my query letter. Meeting with an agent once at a writer’s conference, the agent took one look at the word count and shook her head. Get it down to less than 100,000 words, she said. A word count of 80,000 would be a good target, she advised. I eventually trimmed it to 103,000 words and I self-published Small Change.

The best essay I’ve read on word counts was written by Colleen Lindsay, a former agent. Read the post.

Lindsay noted that beginning writers often see fat science fiction books on the shelves of bookstores and believe they have to write a book of similar heft. “Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers,” Lindsay wrote.

She met with several fiction writers and compiled a comprehensive list of target word counts for each genre.

Here are some of the word counts listed by Lindsay for various genres, based on feedback she received from editors:

  • Middle grade: 25,000 to 40,000 words, with an average of 35,000.
  • Young Adult: 45,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Paranormal romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Category romance: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Cozy mysteries: 65,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Westerns: 80,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Mystery/thriller/crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy: this encompasses a wide range of genre, but generally the word counts fall between 90,000 and 100,000.

As a general rule of thumb for new novels, I believe 80,000 words is the right target, regardless of genre. Of course, there are examples of excellent novels with much shorter word counts. Ian McEwen’s brilliant short novel, On Chesil Beach, comes to mind. The novel is only 40,000 words, but it is exceptionally crafted and packed with meaning.

For another perspective on word counts, check out this article published in Writer’s Digest by agent Chuck Sambuchino.

What are your thoughts on word counts?

 

Advertisements

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

National Novel Writing Month is at the halfway point. I’m closing in on 30,000 words. I’m nearly 5,000 words ahead of where I should be. So why am I so worried?

I’m running out of scenes. My story is headed rapidly toward its climax and I still have 20,000 words left. I vowed from the beginning I would not concoct scenes strictly to “pad” my word count. That is, I would not create meaningless scenes just so I could reach 50,000 words. I’m sticking to that promise, but I find myself wracking my brain to come up with realistic scenes that fit into the narrative. I’ve come up with a few good ones that still need to be developed.

My dilemma got me thinking of this question: How many scenes does it take to finish a novel? A quick research project on the Internet yielded a lot of theories but no clear answers. Randy Ingermanson, who maintains the site, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/, wrote a thoughtful post about scenes. Here’s what Randy wrote in part: “There aren’t any rules on the scene length, as long as the story works. You should write the scenes to the right length for your story.

“I would guess that most novels have anywhere from 50 to 200 scenes. It might be an interesting exercise to go through some of your favorite novels and count the number of scenes. But a far more interesting exercise is to look at individual scenes and ask why the author wrote it that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little. How would you have written the scene differently,” he wrote.

Building on Randy’s suggestion, watch your favorite sitcoms or TV dramas and count the number of scenes. Or watch your favorite movie.

Raymond Obstfeld, in his excellent book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, offers this advice on scene length: “Nothing about writing is exact, which is why it’s an art, not a science. Although the best length of a scene depends on its purpose, there’s no rule that any particular purpose should be a specific length. The importance of a scene is not a guide either. Sometimes the most crucial scene in a story may be the shortest to give it the most impact. Therefore, when we discuss length, don’t think of pages; think of attention span. Specifically, “long” is when the reader’s attention span wanders and he either wants to skip ahead or stop reading. “Short” is when the reader feels frustrated because he didn’t experience the scene so much as get a synopsis of events.”

Ian McEwan’s fine novel, On Chesil Beach, presents an interesting case study. The focal point of the novel is a single night: the wedding night of the main character and his new wife. Both are virgins and both are terrified about their lack of sexual experience. The scene plays out over multiple chapters, with flashbacks that describe both characters’ upbringing and their courtship. I haven’t counted the number of scenes in On Chesil Beach, but one single scene played out over the course of the night is the lynchpin of the novel.

My scenes tend to run about 1,500 words, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. One crucial scene in my first novel extended over several chapters and ran about 7,500 words. Using the 1,500 word rule, if you take a 90,000 word novel and divide it by 1,500 words, you would need to come up with 60 scenes. So I guess I’m looking at a total of 33.3 scenes for a 50,000 word novel, but there are no rules.

How do you approach scene development? How long is your average scene? And does it matter?

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized