Novels – the long and the short of it

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At the new year, there was a quote doing the rounds. It went something along the lines of “today is the first page of a 365 page book – make it a great one.” (Hang on, hasn’t that just described a diary?) Anyway, after clicking “like”, I started wondering just how long the average book is…

Just how long is the average book?
Well, that’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string.

Just how long is a piece of string?
Stop doing that. Pieces of string vary in length, depending on where you cut them. (And they’ll always be slightly too short for their intended use.) As for novels, it’s a little less blurry. Google defines anything over 40,000 words as a novel. And NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has its aim as 50,000 words to complete your novel draft.There are a few opinions out there, but to cut a long story short (literally), this is what we define the various story lengths as here at the Australian Writers’ Centre:

A short short story: under 1,000 words.
A short story: between 1,000 and 5,000 words.
A long short story: between 5,000 and 10,000 words.
A novella: between 10,000 and 40,000 words.
A novel: over 40,000 words.
That famous story by Hemingway: 6 words
Tell us your favourite holiday spot and win: Less than 25 words

Novel thinking
Okay, so anything over 40,000 words is a novel. But these days hitting the 40k mark may be a little on the short side (okay, a lot). Don’t expect balloons, streamers and publishing deals to fall from the sky.

Once upon a time (before balloons and streamers were readily available for arbitrary celebrations), books were a lot shorter. Because, well, typewriters, ink, pages and who knows, maybe people had less to say. But these days, it’s considered undercooked if your novel is anything south of 60,000 words, and actually most adult novels will land within the 70-100k mark.

How many pages is that?
Estimating pages is indeed an estimate. The choice of font, point size and even the size of the pages themselves are going to skew the count. Your 400-page book on your bedside pile may have fewer words than your 300-page book. But if publishers need to approximate page count (remember though, word count is king), they’re likely to go with the “250 words per page” rule.

So in our hypothetical “365-page book – make it a great one” quote, that book is going to weigh in at around 91,000 words. So, yeah, it’s actually pretty on target for length.

Does the genre affect the length?
Yes, definitely. Lighter stories such as some popular women’s fiction (“chick lit”), some literary fiction or young adult novels tend to set up camp at the lower 70k end. They’re open and shut cases, often set in a contemporary world and filled with locations that we can easily identify with – i.e. involving less exposition on the writer’s part.

At the other end of the scale, you’ll regularly see fantasy or sci-fi books pushing the 110-130k word mark, without batting too many publishers' eyelids. This time, typically the writer needs a lot more ink to describe the world and everything about it. Once you get into epic fantasy series, with multiple story arcs and an ensemble of characters, word counts can start resembling phone numbers. (Think A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin or Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, or maybe any author who has the initials ‘R.R’…)

Something else that affects novel length
If you’re a first time author, you represent a greasy, steaming pile of risk. Agents and publishers are most certainly in the business of creativity, but they’re also in the business of making money. And an untested author means that unless the writing is spectacular (and we mean ‘spectacular’), you’re safest providing a manuscript in the 80-100k ballpark. It’s not going to scare off anyone.

First novels tend to be shorter than further works by an author, and there’s a simple reason for this. Dollars. To edit more words and print more pages costs more money – and a publisher is less inclined to do this for someone new. Even JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book came in at a modest 77,000ish words. As the series went on, the rulebook went out the window (as the cash came in) and she could write as many words as she wanted thank you very much. The fifth book was consequently over 250,000 words! (And she could have titled the final book “Harry Potter and the fluffy cat of doom” and written just 1000 words and it still would have sold gazillions.)

Chances are that if you’re a first time author, you’ll quite rightly be too busy focussing on little things like a plot and characters, and the word count should not really define your endeavour. Just keep in mind that the one of the biggest reasons that literary agents will reject a manuscript is because it’s too long. If an agent can’t sell it, it’s not worth pursuing.For new writers, aiming to keep the novel under 100k should be encouraged – perhaps under 120k if it’s a fantasy/sci-fi, but those better be mighty fine words.

“I have written a masterpiece. It doesn’t matter how long it is.”
Firstly, congrats on the confidence – rather rare in the slurry of self doubt that usually plagues writers. And hey, it’s true; there are 45,000-word classic novels and there are 200,000-word successful debut novels too. After all, it’s not how long it is – it’s what you do with it, right? Sort of. We hear about the successes, but there are hundreds of rejections for every success story – and that’s just within the accepted word count range. Straying too far either side will not spell your doom, but it may damage your chances. But again, if you truly believe your masterpiece needs to be the word count it is, then just be prepared to edit/add words! (Remember, this is all about traditional publishing – if you’re self publishing, well it’s completely up to you of course. Although more than ever, you’ll want those words to be the best they can be.)

Fun fact
The 2013 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, is a story told in 12 parts, and each of those parts has exactly half the word count as the one that came before it. Considering part one is 170,000 words, the resulting total word count is over 300k and almost 900 pages long! It was Eleanor’s second novel and the longest book to ever win the prize.

A list of books and their word counts
Finally, for fun and maybe to offer some much-needed context, here are some popular titles and their word counts. (And yes, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is 450,000+ words for three movies, while The Hobbit is 95,000 words for three movies. But that’s another story…)

Harry Potter Books

Philosopher’s Stone – 77,325

Chamber of Secrets – 84,799

Prisoner of Azkaban – 106,821

Goblet of Fire – 190,858

Order of the Phoenix – 257,154

Half Blood Prince – 169,441

Deathly Hallows – 198,227

Other Books 
not written by J.K. Rowling (there are many)
189: Mr Messy by Roger Hargreaves
30,644: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

36,363: Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis

47,094: The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

58,428: The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

59,900: Lord of the Flies – William Golding

69,066: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

73,404: The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

82,762: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

87,978: Persuasion – Jane Austen

88,942: Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

91,419: Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

95,022: The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

100,388: To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
105,000: Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James
109,571 – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

118,501: Twilight – Stephenie Meyer
119,529: My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

123,378: Atonement – Ian McEwan

134,462: The Return of the King – J. R. R. Tolkien

134,710: Schindler’s List – Thomas Keneally

135,420: A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

144,523: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

166,622: Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

169,389: White Teeth – Zadie Smith

169,481: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinback

174,269: Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

177,679: The Poisonwood Bible – Kingsolver, Barbara

186,418: Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

206,052: Moby Dick – Herman Melville

208,773: Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

284,000: A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
418,053: Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

455,125: The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

561,996: Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

587,287: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

591,554: A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

The moral of this story
Don’t get obsessed with word count. (Get obsessed with writing the best book instead.) Great novels (like great authors) come in all shapes and sizes. But it is something to keep in mind if your manuscript is being knocked back. And if you like visuals, check out this cool infographic from Electric Literature on word counts.

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