Periodically, I look at word-count guidelines for fiction—for instance, when it’s time to revise something for publication. More than once I’ve found my way to this site: The Swivet, a blog of Colleen Lindsay (who works for Penguin and used to be an agent).
Colleen’s advice for word-counts is, basically, aim for under 100,000 words. In fantasy, you can sometimes get away with a slightly higher count (120k), but editors prefer shorter to longer manuscripts. Colleen explains this in terms of investment risk: a larger book costs more to print and takes up more shelf space at the bookstore. Everybody, the consumer included, has to make a larger commitment to a longer book. And, we all know, people don’t read as much as they used to. So there you have it. Depressing, but so very rational, isn’t it?
Why on earth did I have to look at this blog post more than once, you may ask? 100k is an easy number to remember, right?
Well, this last time through, I poked through the comments at the bottom, looking for some insight. Some interesting things there, including disputes about how to calculate word counts, and theories about why (some) writers take longer to tell their story.
But most interesting to me was the user who linked to this site—something I’d been wanting for a long time, though not consciously enough to Google it: a word-count generator for some of my favorite books. You can do yours (though you’ll only find some of the more well-known works). Here are a few of mine, from most words to least.
The Brothers Karamazov: 364,153
Crime and Punishment: 211,591
The Fellowship of the Ring: 177,227
The Iliad: 118,622
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 105,590 (this is a children’s book, remember!)
The Hobbit: 95,022 (this, too!)
A Wizard of Earthsea: 56,533
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: 53,758
Briar Rose: 50,341
Now for some early influences (in the order in which I read them):
The Mouse and the Motorcycle: 22,416
Robinson Crusoe: 121,961
White Fang: 72,071
Great Expectations: 183,349
Jane Eyre: 183,858
Pride and Prejudice: 121,342
What do these numbers mean? Not much. But I’m good at finding patterns where they don’t exist. So here are my findings:
1. Different stories take different amounts of words to tell. (Obvious, but think about it for a minute.)
2. Not even one of the books I have especially liked or that have influenced me from an early age fall within Colleen’s suggested 80-100K range. They’re mostly either much longer or much shorter.
3. The overwhelming majority of books I like are way too long for today’s publishing industry. White Fang (a “middle grade” book, if they had had that category back in the day) is probably too long for that category. Huck Finn is even worse, as is the Hobbit. The Iliad is a freaking poem, and it’s still longer than the recommended writerly allowance.
4. Not one of these books is too long or too short, in real life – in terms of what matters most, which is art.
So what shall we make of this? Doesn’t it make you scratch your head?
Where did these word-count guidelines come from? What ouija board communicated this message to the publishing world? “Novel … must … be … 80 … to .. 100 … k”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt Colleen for a minute. I’ve seen similar numbers tossed around too often, for one thing. Nor do I advise anyone (including myself) to disregard these ideal word counts. (I recently gutted one of my own fantasy novels from 120k to 93k. Though my motives were mixed: I felt the story wasn’t tight enough.)
It’s just that I wonder whether the publishing industry is in touch with readers on this one. After all, mine is a reader’s list. I’m complaining, not about the restrictions on my writing (well, ok, a little, but not mostly). No, I’m mostly puzzled by the strange calculus that decided that I, the reader, do not want a really engaging book of whatever length it happens to be. Thank you very much. My money. My discretionary spending. My time to waste – or not.
Who’s wagging this tail?
- Word counts – Can they be forgotten like the traditional publishing houses? (jamsnroses.wordpress.com)
- Why I Don’t Focus on My Total Word Count (crimsonleague.com)