Word counts and book length

Maggie Stiefvater writes some insightful posts. One of her latest is about word count. A fan/reader wrote in to say their book looked to be headed for a word count of 156k but they couldn’t see anything to drop; they asked, "how do I know where the line between a long book and rambling is?"

Maggie wrote a very good and thoughtful response. She talks in her post about genre expectations and cutting extraneous words and sentences to bring down the count and stuff like that; I’ll direct you there for more about that. But she made one comment in particular that interested me: "I think nearly any writing question can be answered by looking at it from the perspective of a reader."

Length is not an automatic killer of a book. Not even a YA book. Some of my favourite reads recently have been exceptionally long (these figures rounded to the nearest thousand):

  • DIVERGENT – 105,000
  • GRACELING – 115,000
  • CITY OF BONES – 131,000 (All of Clare’s books are up in this range)
  • HUNGER GAMES – 100,000
  • HP & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – 198,000 (!!)

What do all of these have in common? They’re all extremely popular YA titles, they’re all above the accepted word count range of 60,000 to 90,000 words for YA… and they all didn’t feel like long books.

It’s this last point that’s important. Why could these books get away with such long word counts? It’s because they were engaging. They were well-written and there was always something going on with the plot that kept the reader wanting to know what comes next. (And as a result, I think it’s mostly genre (plot-based) books that can get away with long word counts. Literary (character-driven) books would have a harder time of it because you’re not kept on the edge of your seat the same way. It’s all about the wanting to know what happens.)

I think word/page count is only a partial measure of how long a book is. It’s possible for a 120,000-word book to feel a lot shorter than an 80,000-word one, if the latter has a slow story and the former a quick one. It’s unfortunate that when querying a manuscript you can’t really show the pacing, only the word count (it’s hard to convey pacing well in just the first five pages). Fortunately, by the time it reaches bookstores the word count is hidden between two covers and doesn’t matter as much; it’s the premise that sells the book then.

So the answer to Maggie’s reader’s question is (in my mind): the two are not on the same continuum. A book can be long without being rambling, and another can be rambling without being long. Some can be both, true, and possibly many first drafts that are long are rambling, but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption and there is no real line past which a long book becomes rambling. If you do it right, if you keep the reader turning pages wanting to know what happens, word count doesn’t matter.


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