Recommended word counts cause so much angst.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, check out this Writer’s Digest post, or this post on children’s fiction. (Unfortunately, they’re both pretty old. Still, you get the point.)

Agents and publishers look for novels with word counts within a certain range. This length varies by genre and the rules aren’t set in stone, but they’re pretty good guidelines for what an “average” book looks like. And that makes sense, right? A cozy romance the size of War and Peace would probably struggle to find a niche, wouldn’t it?

(None of this matters if you self-publish, of course. You may have a hard time finding a lot of readers for a 300,000-word MG epic, but you know what? No one’s going to stop you.)

But when folks go the agent and/or publisher route, this whole “word count” thing causes them no ends of angst. And while too-short novels can be an issue, the real heartache happens at the other end of the spectrum, when someone wants to pitch a much longer-than-average novel.

So let’s talk about it!

Why are word counts important?

If there was a mandatory law that debut authors could never go over 100,000 words, authors might agonize less. But instead, it’s a messy, messy world.

Let’s take YA fantasy as an example. A totally informal, but often-quoted rule of thumb is that a debut novel should be under 100,000 words. That’s fuzzy enough as it is, of course, because sub-genres differ, and contemporary stuff tends to be shorter than high fantasy and SF. But let’s give a huge range: YA fantasy debut novels can be 60,000 to 100,000 words long, with a sweet spot somewhere around 70-80K.

But there are people who have sold much longer books. And you will find lots of novels that are well over this range. So word counts don’t matter, right? Write whatever you want! But that can bite you in the butt.

Here’s why: if you’re querying a YA fantasy and it’s in the normal range, the agent probably won’t bat an eye. That’s a “normal” book. That’s fine.

But if it’s 200,000 words long, that’s going to raise some eyebrows. Like… was that intentional? Is this really the right length for this story? Does the author know much about the market, or read many books in this genre? And did they still submit a story this length, even knowing that most other books aren’t? It’s not the end of the world, but it’s… not a red flag, certainly, but an orange one? A small sign that this might be a difficult, weird, or unedited book?

And in the end, agents look for any reason to say no. If they’re on the fence and they see a potentially weird word count–something that you’d have to justify–they might just pass.

So that’s it. You’re making a difficult job harder. Now that agent won’t just ask themselves “Is this premise killer?” Instead, they’re thinking, “I like the premise, but it’s really long. Do I love it enough to request it anyway…?”

And word counts are exceptionally agonizing to fantasy authors.

Do you like fantasy? I like fantasy. I’ve read tons of high fantasy novels, and man–they are long. That’s the sign of a great one, right? Sprawling epics! Massive scales! Immense detail! ZILLIONS OF WORDS!

And there are lots of novels out there–some of them even debut novels!–that are well over 100K. Heck, you’ll find ones in the 200,000 range. So authors often put two and two together: Fantasy is long. Some people have written very long books and been published. So I shouldn’t worry when I submit my 175,000-word fantasy, right? It’s perfect! The length probably makes it better!

Sadly, every fantasy author thinks they’re the exception.

I know the pain. You want to write an epic. And if you have four POV characters, two countries, a war, and a plague, 100,000 words might seem a little restrictive. And if some people have gotten away with more, then surely you’ll be OK, right?

Except, see above. It bites people in the butt. And an agent isn’t going to waive the word count because you’re a fantasy author. They’ll see a very high word count, raise an eyebrow, and wonder: Is this 175,000 words after it’s been edited into lean, clean, streamlined perfection? Or did the author not know about the market? Or maybe they just didn’t edit themselves, because they thought it’d be fine because it’s fantasy?

It’s a pitfall. It’s tricky. But remember: There are a lot of new and hopeful fantasy authors writing mega-epics, all hoping that theirs will be the one that is so good that an agent picks it up anyway. And you could make your life a little easier by being at least somewhere near the 100,000 limit.

Besides, why does this have to be a bad thing?

Writing within word counts can actually be helpful!

Word counts don’t have to be an arbitrary cap on your creativity. They can be very useful things:

  • An average-length book will be easier to sell and market.
  • Writing with a word count limit can help you with pacing and plotting. If you want your book to be around 80,000 words long, for example, you’ll know that you’re in trouble if nothing has happened by word 50,000, or if your climax hasn’t ramped up by the 70,000 mark.
  • It makes the querying process easier, as it removes one reason to say “no.”
  • It makes it easier to find publishers, because your book will most likely fall within their requested range.
  • If you do happen to have a huge book, intentionally capping it at a certain point gives you a good idea how much you can “fit” in one book–and gives you content for sequels.
  • If you can get yourself established with an agent or publisher with a “normal” book, you can always use your early success to justify taking risks on much longer-than-normal books later.

Does every book have to be exactly the same? Of course not. Are there books that need to be long to tell their stories? Absolutely!

But if you’re a debut author, you don’t have a lot of clout. These people don’t know you. No one knows how popular your works will be. So it’ll be extra-difficult to convince someone that you shouldn’t just be the one rare soul they choose to work with–but that they should do so, even if your story is longer than what they’re looking for.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to take that gamble, of course! Lots of people win out. But it’s always good to know the potential pitfalls before you start.

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The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.

Cover of the novel 'The Luck Uglies.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My full review is on Goodreads!

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to read more Middle Grade.

I love YA, I write YA, I read YA, but goodness! How often have I written book reviews that said, “Well, it was fun, but I wish they would keep the romance from overpowering the story so we can just have an adventure?”

And oh, this was an adventure. The Luck Uglies is a charming and atmospheric MG fantasy. And that’s where it shines–despite being based on some common fantasy premises (like capricious, ignorant medieval lords and rouges with hearts of gold), the world is delightful, the atmosphere is great, and the characters are universally charming.

And, yes, it was a welcome break from all the YA I’ve been reading, as–in true MG fashion–there’s no romance at all. It’s all about the heroine discovering the truth about her family. Otherwise, it’s all childhood friends and wild adventure.

There were a few rough bits, sure. Those are in my Goodreads review. But it was still one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Cover of the novel, 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

The more I think about this novel the more conflicted I become. My full review is on Goodreads.

YA readers have been raving about Daughter of Shadow and Bone and its sequels, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. And I’m conflicted. Still.

Here’s the problem: I don’t really like romance. I do like adventure stories! I like friends and conflict and angst and love as much as anyone, but I don’t like romance as a genre. This is an extremely fine line, and probably not one I can accurately describe, but I like action where people fall in love on the way. I do not like stories where the story is people in love.

So, I was not fated to adore Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is a fantasy/romance. Roughly one third of the novel is backstory, and it’s all cuddly-wuddly I’ll give up the world for you, I’ll do anything for you, you are the perfect one for meeeeeeee romance. Of the two-thirds that are left, roughly half of that is a slightly different flavor of the same romance. The rest is really good, really beautiful fantasy.

And so I’m conflicted. When I first read the novel I was so struck by the beauty of the writing that I was willing to forgive it anything. But I was undecided on the romance after I read it, and time has only made it worse. Do I want to read more? It’s certainly pretty. There was an amazing cliffhanger. But if I’m on the fence about the romance, I’m probably not going to change my mind later.

But ohhhh goodness the author writes beautifully.

It’s been years since I was a teenager, but I was everything you’d expect from a young, naive writer. I thought I was great at writing, I wanted to major in it, and I was determined to write for a living. I was a novelist. A writer! All I had to do was, you know, finish a novel. But I loved to write, so clearly I was destined for something special.

Ah, youth. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.

1. Finish Everything You Start

Finishing is everything. I now believe that it’s more important than skill. It certainly more important than perfection. Finishing a project is literally the most important skill you can ever learn. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you can’t see a project through to the end.

I spent my teenage years writing the opening chapters of dozens stories. I wrote scenes. I created characters. I created supplementary languages and poems. But I didn’t actually finish a manuscript until I was 21 years old. (Then it took me 3 more years to write one that was the correct length for my genre.) I loved writing, but I had nothing to show for it until my mid-20s. And that’s awful.

Do you want someone else to edit your work? Finish it. Do you want to submit it somewhere? Well, you aren’t going to submit the first 4 chapters. Even if your first novel is trash and you hate it and you know it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, finish it. You can do something with an imperfect manuscript. You can’t do anything meaningful with a fragment of a story.

2. Write For Every Market You Can

I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to write novel-length fantasy. So that’s what I did. I wrote nothing but fantasy novels, all the time. And since writing novels is hard, that meant I just never published anything.

But oh, short stories are wonderful. It takes me less than a week to write, edit, polish, and submit one, and 2-3 months to get a response. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and re-edit a single novel (and I still haven’t gotten an agent.)

But the moment I started writing short stories, I started getting publishing credits. And you know what? I can put that on an agent query. Now I don’t have to shyly, innocently avoid the fact that I’m unpublished.

So be flexible. Write your novels and finish them in a timely manner. But write short stories, too. And articles. Anything. Write for any legitimate market that will take you. That’s way better than being unpublished and waiting until your novel gets lucky.

3. Write in any Genre You Can

And, finally, don’t limit yourself to what you love. Every genre can teach you something about the art of writing.

My journalism degree taught me loads about being pithy. (You probably can’t tell. But trust me, I was much worse before.) Professional communications taught me how to simply describe complicated topics. All these made me think about my writing, and all of them made me better at it.

So don’t be afraid of non-fiction. Write for everything. Anything. If you like it, do it. If it pays, try it.

I still have a lot to learn, of course. I’ve only sold two short stories. But I finally have a goal, a plan, and a little success to show for it. I wish I had been this organized ten years ago.

Moving is awful. I just moved from one side of America to the other, and it’s dreadful. I don’t even have my furniture yet. It is, needless to say, extremely hard to write (or focus, or work, or do much of anything), so the blog updates are going to be sparse until I have, for example, a chair that doesn’t destroy my back.

But I did sell a second short story! Thanks to the magic of smart phones, I signed a contract for Parsec Ink’s Triangulation: Parch Anthology before I even had the internet set up. I really cannot express how happy I am. I’ve only been writing short stories since March of this year, and I’ve already had some luck. This is exciting!

I’ll post more information when I know it! And that will probably be a while.

I moved across the whole darn country last week, so I couldn’t post this earlier. The new Humble eBook Bundle is out! And there’s still time to buy it:

Humble eBook Bundle 4 pay what you want and help charity

It’s the same as always: Pay what you want, get lots of books. At the time I wrote this draft (on Sunday morning), you just had to pay $10 or more for 13 books. This one seems to have a lot of adult high fantasy, along with the smattering of nerdy stuff that all these bundles have.