How many words are in a novel? Finding the right book length

How many words are in a novel, on average? It’s a question aspiring authors often ask. Book lengths vary widely. Every now and then a true doorstopper is published. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (which runs to 928 pages) is one example. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (published in 1993) runs to a whopping 1349 pages, with a word count of 591, 552 words. At the other end of the spectrum, Ray Bradbury’s cult classic Fahrenheit 451 has a word count of only 46, 118.

Even though it’s subjective to say what the ideal length of a book is, there are rough guidelines you can follow by genre. The annual write-a-thon NaNoWriMo requires participants to write a minimum of 50, 000 words to be eligible for finisher status. As they point out, this might be considered a ‘novella’ and not a full-length novel by some. Even so, at least 50, 000 words counts as ‘long’ fiction.

Why is the word count of a novel important?

In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, author Jane Smiley calls length

the most obvious hallmark of novels since this form of fiction ‘was invented to be long, because what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable (Smiley, ‘What is a Novel?’ p. 16)

It’s true that the length of your novel depends (in part) on what you need to communicate and how long (in narrative terms) that will take. It also depends on at least three other factors:

  • What will readers of your particular genre expect, length-wise?
  • What is the age of your book’s intended audience?
  • What do the publishers you will submit the complete book to prefer?
  • How long do you have to finish writing your book before a publishing or other deadline?

How many words are in a novel? The genre factor

People expect different things from books in different genres. A YA novel (even though this is more a marketing category than a genre proper) tends to be shorter than the average work of fiction. Fantasy books in particular tend to be longer. Here are some suggested word lengths for several of the most common fiction genres:

Literary Fiction

Total word counts for literary novels vary widely. If F. Scott Fitzgerald were alive today and wrote The Great Gatsby for NaNoWriMo, he would have fallen short of the minimum length (it clocks in at 47, 094 words). Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children (which won a Booker Prize and the prestigious ‘Booker of Bookers’) is a much longer 208, 773 words.

The lesson here is this: If you’re writing a book you consider literary, don’t assume it has to be long. If a 47, 094 –word book can be taught as a classic in the school system, so can your own shorter work. Chuck Sambucchino at Writer’s Digest and literary agent Rachelle Gardner suggest keeping the length of your novel between 80, 000 and 89, 999 words.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

When you think of a fantasy novel, you might think of an epic such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (455, 125 words) or one of the five books in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (based on this infographic Martin’s five books have an average length of 354, 000 words).

If you’re a fantasy author and you’re writing about epic multi-generational feuds, unending quests or complex worlds, then it’s likely your book could be longer than Sambucchino and Gardner’s maximum. Even so, the second book in C.S. Lewis’ famous Narnia fantasy series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was only 36, 363 words long. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in judging their annual Nebula Awards classify anything longer than 40, 000 words as a novel.

To find an appropriate fantasy novel word count for your book, remember:

  • Readers of different ages have differing stamina. As J.K. Rowling’s first audience grew into their late teens, she could write longer and more complex books. The longest book in the Harry Potter series is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – 257, 154 words.
  • If you want to write a novel that could be submitted for awards (such as the Nebula) or to a specific publishing house you need to find out any word count requirements first.

As with fantasy, science fiction novels vary in length, from interplanetary epics to shorter novellas. The sci-fi writer H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine runs to only 73 pages, whereas Peter K. Hamilton’s space opera The Naked God spans 1,174 pages.

When setting your word count target for a fantasy or science fiction novel, consider whether you want to go the traditional publishing route or self-publish. Many publishers prefer a modest (below 100, 000 words) word count since books of this size are less expensive to produce.

Romance

Top romance novel publishers make creating a goal for your final word count easier since many indicate their preferred word counts for submissions. Harlequin prefers that writers submit manuscripts between 55, 000 and 60, 000 words long for its Silhouette Romantic Suspense series.

Remember that subgenres also tend to have their own typical book lengths. Mills and Boon requires submissions for its ‘medical romance’ series (sizzlers set in the medical world) to be 50, 000 words, while historical romance submissions can be longer (a maximum word count of 75, 000).

Suspense, Mysteries and Thrillers

These novels follow a similar pattern to romances in that the historical subgenre typically has a longer word count than a novel in a more contemporary setting. Lit Rejections suggests that a reasonable length for a Cozy mystery is 70, 000 to 75, 000 words, while a historical book could be 10, 000 to 15, 000 words longer.

Making word count work in your favour

If you’re a pantser, you’ll most likely write your novel until it feels as though you’ve reached a logical ending point. For many writers, this results in having to spend lots of time cutting sections – even good ones – to whittle down the text to editors’ or publishers’ requirements. Occasionally publishers don’t mind if your book breaks from convention where length is concerned– the general sentiment in these cases, though, is ‘this had better be worth it’.

Agents and in-house editors at publishing companies see countless manuscripts cross their desks. As Lit Rejections cautions, this makes it ‘easier for a literary agent to reject than accept’. Given that the word count of your novel should appear on your one-page synopsis, being over the preferred word count could make the difference between being read and being put to one side.

When planning your novel, or making cuts during the editing phase, remember to think about what the ideal word count for your particular story and genre would be. Keep to publishers’ submission guidelines and write a book that has a sensible length for your ideal reader. These will make the word count of your book work for (rather than against) you, standing you a better chance of publication.

What do you think the idea length of a book is? Join a writing group on Now Novel and discuss your favourite genres with like-minded writers.

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