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In most cases, the answer to the question of “how long should my book be?” is h
And the shape of your story is something that is greatly influenced by your intended audience.
When I wrote the first book in my children’s series, P, my intended audience was two reluctant readers who were about to enter high school. Neither of the boys had ever read a full-length book. They had not come from a literature-rich background and as a result, never developed any interest in reading. My hope was to change that — and, indeed, the length of the story would be a key factor into the success of this effort.
As I have previously noted, the first thing I needed to consider was a story that was not only familiar to the boys, but something that they had experienced themselves. So, after I became the director at a summer camp they attended, they literally gave me that subject: a resident ghost at the camp. The rest, as they say, is history. P
Here is my top advice for how to use the expectations of your intended reader to determine the ideal length of your next book project.
What Are Your Readers’ Needs?
Back to my intended audience: these guys had never read a full-length novel, so the challenge was to figure out a way to trick them into doing so. As I knew that the first thing they would do was to look at the length of the book — i.e. how many pages — it was important for them to see that it wasn’t long and that the short chapters would be manageable. A colleague of mine who writes reviews on novels for major publishing companies (and who was also a high school English teacher) suggested that I focus on intensity and anticipation, and do it quickly.
As it turned out, this was great advice, and it brought me back to many years spent reading series like The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew as a youngster. (Yes, I read all of Nancy Drew!) The formulaic element of short, quick-paced chapters with increasing intrigue, danger, and suspense turned me into an avid reader at a very young age. As my colleague suggested, the chapters were short, intense, and always left me wanting to read the next one.
Now, though this formula-derived technique worked well for me in the arena of children’s books, I have found the writing of my first full-length novel to be a vastly different experience.
As I write the draft of my first novel for adults, I am discovering that the length of the novel will a be influenced by the writing itself. My writing process is similar (including a rough plan that provides for plot, characters, story arc, etc.) but I have found that I have not given a lot of thought to the length of it in the draft process. That’s because my intended audience is adult, proficient readers. I’m allowing myself to let the story unfold and concern myself with the length of it once I see where it ends up. I will attempt to keep it within industry standard guidelines a
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What’s the Industry Standard in Your Genre?
While the perspective I’ve offered above is my own personal approach, there’s a more mechanical component to book length all writers can (and should) consider as well: industry standards.
Like the Hardy Boys books and my upcoming adult novel, readers of certain genres have expectations when it comes to book length. These standard word counts are signposts that you can (and should) use as a guide. The word count of your completed manuscript shouldn’t stray too far from the “sweet spot” that is often based on a book’s genre, which in turn is determined by your target audience: a book that’s not too short, but not too long, either. This is one of those few instances when you w
And in terms of economics, the traditional publishing industry dictates that shorter novels are often more marketable, whereas longer novels are more expensive to print.
But what if you are self-publishing your book? Even with the unfettered freedom that comes with complete creative control, you should still keep word counts top of mind. First, get your story written — it will be in the work that you do with your editor and publishing services provider where your final word count will be determined. A good editor will be your guide in this, and a good publishing company (like FriesenPress) should have support personnel available to aid you in this effort as well.
For first-time writers, the general rule is a debut novel should land between 80,000 and 100,000 words. 50,000 is considered a minimum novel length and anything over 100,000 may be considered too long. 180,000 word debut novels (such as the first H
To confirm I was on the right track when writing P, I read other juvenile fiction novels to get a sense of their length. Prior to this, I tried to keep the word count to between 30,000 and 40,000, which would turn into a short novel of approximately 150 pages. This, happily, fell well into the industry recommended word length for middle grade fiction novels.
Research to Get You Started
To assist you in your quest to find the appropriate word count for your book, I conducted a bit of research within the world of literary fiction. As well as looking at other publishing companies’ guidelines, I spoke with Frank B. Edwards, the publisher of three of my novels. Frank’s background as a senior editor for Canadian Geographic, Harrowsmith Magazine, and owner & publisher at Pokeweed Press and Bungalo Books provided him with a thorough knowledge of book lengths both for children’s illustrated books, middle grade fiction and Young Adult fiction.
Here is what I learned — and what you might consider as a guideline in your determination of the length of your story:
Thriller: A good suspense story has to keep the plot moving to keep the reader engaged. The ideal count for a mystery is a 70,000 and 90,000 word novel.
Science fiction and fantasy: Sci-fi novels are an art in world-building. The need to invent a completely new environment makes this genre longer than many others, on average. A fantasy novel will usually have 90,000 to 120,000 words.
Romance novels: Not every love story is an epic like W. Contemporary romantic plots tend to be fun, fast reads. Some are as short as 50,000 words — the perfect length for a beach vacation. The high-end romance novel word count is 100,000.
Historical fiction: Fleshing out an imagined historical world lends itself to a higher word count, so historical fiction tends to be closer to 100,000 words.
Nonfiction: There is no definitive word count guide for nonfiction books due to the many subgenres. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, be sure to look up your subgenre to find the length of similar books. Memoirs, for example, are generally 80,000 to 90,000 words.
Novella: If you’re writing a novella, you’re looking at anywhere from 10,000-40,000 words.
Short Story: A short story should be within the range of 5,000-10,000 words, but they can be anything over 1,000 words.
Young Adult: A young adult novel can be anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 words. This is much closer to an adult novel and good preparation for them in becoming an adult reader.
Middle Grade: As noted, a good middle-grade fiction novel should be between 20,000 and 50,000 for kids who are 8-12 years of age. The word count may be relative to the age of the child, so a book for an 8 year old might be shorter than a book for a 12 year old.
Children’s Books: These usually come in around 1,000 to 10,000 words. This is the 7-8 year old age range who are beginning to read chapter books.
Children’s Illustrated Books: These books which are usually read to 4-8 year old children, and those emerging early readers, should be in the 500-600 word range.
So, once you’ve decided on the genre and/or type of your story, I hope that this information helps. I will remind you, however, that these are just guides. What is important is your focus on your story and ensuring that you tell it the way you want without concern, particularly in the draft part of the process, with the length of your work.
As usual, feel free to be in touch. I am T, and you can reach me at [email protected]
Paul Toffanello is a retired director of education and an accomplished author who has written a trilogy for junior level students called T. He’s also writing I, a softly spooky illustrated series of stories for emerging readers. Paul has presented his novels to students in over 700 schools across Canada and the United States, sharing his story and inspiring them to read.
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