word count

A Note on Word Count

Word counts – I’ll get straight into it, starting with books for grown ups. Popular fiction in particular. My first book, Three Times a Lady was roughly 100,000 words. Here’s how I worked out the word count - I literally counted the words in a Cathy Kelly book, a Sheila O’Flanagan book and a Marian Keyes book and figured that 90 to 120k was about right! This was in 2000. (When I say counted – I counted the number of words on one page and multiplied it by the number of total pages – I’m not a complete lunatic! But you knew that, right? Someone in a writing class I once taught thought I was suggesting they count every word – honestly!)

Some of my other books have been shorter – 85k, 86k, some longer. 126,000 is the longest – When the Boys Were Away. That year publishers were looking for longer books and my story luckily just naturally longer.

I have a feeling the next adult book will be shorter. It’s for a slightly younger age group – older teens, 20s, early 30s – and so far the story just seems to be zipping along and not getting sidetracked by sub plots, which can stretch a book out. So I’d say 80 to 90k.

I’ve asked a few of my friends who write popular fiction and they are mainly in the 90k to 110k category.

Children’s books are a little more complicated. I am constantly asked how many words should a children’s book actually be?

Now, this is a rather vague question. So I ask ‘What kind of children’s book?’ And they say ‘Oh, you know, a novel. Anyone would love it. I’d say age 6 to 80.’ My heart always sinks at this, as it means the writer hasn’t grasped one of the fundamentals of writing for children – and this is that you must know your audience.

Children of 6 do not read the same books as teenagers of 14. And yes, of course there are rare ‘crossover’ books like Harry Potter or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, but in general different age groups have different tastes. And their stories need different word counts.

Knowing you audience and their needs is an interesting one – I’ll make a note to come back to it at a later stage. But for now – word count.

These are very much just guidelines, oh writerly ones!

Picture books are short generally, people, SHORT. Read some picture books, count the words and get a feel for it. Usually less than 400 or 500 words.

Early readers are also SHORT. My Emma the Penguin book in the O’Brien Panda series is 800 words long, and, I hope, not a word out of place. Most publishers will tell you what word count they need for their early reading series – contact then and ask. Just ring O’Brien Press – 01 – 492333 (Dublin) and ask them. They are very helpful. I’m not sure what they are taking on at the moment, but again, that’s useful to know too – again, just ask them. Friendly folk, the O’Brien gang.

Novels for age 8/9/10 - 30,000/35,000 is the norm. Of course some books are longer than that (Yes, yes, you don’t need to mention Harry Potter), but if they are going to be must longer they need to be pretty darned good.

Novels for age 10+ – my Ask Amy Green books are usually around 50,000 words which is quite long for this age group I am told. Judi Curtin’s are about 30,000, Cathy Cassidy’s about 30 to 40,000. But Amy just has a lot to say I guess!

Older teens – less than 60/70,000 would be the norm. But fantasy books do tend to be longer.

The best thing to do is always – ALWAYS – to read a hell of a lot of books in the age group and the genre you intend to write for. Get a really good feel for it and then with that in mind, write your own book. Won’t you get influenced by other people’s work? It’s a risk worth taking. If you are influenced by excellent children’s books – and note I said influenced, by which I mean inspired, I am not suggesting you write ‘like’ anyone else but yourself – surely this is a good thing as long as you stay true to your own voice and your characters and plot are wholly original.

Below I’ve posted a section from the blog of American literary agent, Mary Kole who has some darned good advice and comments on word count on www.kidlit.com – check it out.

She points out that these are just estimates gathered from her (wide) experience. And they relate to the American market in particular, but are also useful for the UK/Irish market: Word counts -

• Board Book — 100 words max • Early Picturebook — 500 words max • Picturebook — 1,000 words max (Seriously. Max.) • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max • Early Reader — This varies widely, depending on grade level. I’d say 3,500 words is an absolute max. • Chapterbook — 10,000 words max • Middle Grade — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical • YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

And here’s more useful stuff from Mary: Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside. It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts. There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there. I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic. Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm. But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

Interesting, honest stuff! I'll be keeping an eye on Mary's blog from now on!

Yours in writing,

Sarah X Word count of this blog - 1, 318!