Wow! What a Word Count!

I like to believe every writer struggles with word count. Whether you don’t have quite enough words to fit your genre or you just have WAY too many. For my non-writer friends, allow me to explain:

Word count is kind of a big deal in the writing world–especially for debut authors. Agents and publishers want to know how many words are in your novel right off the bat and if its an acceptable length for your genre. Too little words and, well, you don’t quite have a story. Too many, and your book becomes too expensive to take a risk on. It may not seem right. I mean, a story is a story, who cares how long or short it is? BUT, would you want to read a novel that’s over two inches thick? There’s a lot of judgement that comes from readers. People look at the size, the cover, the summary on the back, and one wrong thing can make them put it back on the shelf. If a brand new book is too thick, less people will be willing to read it and agents and publishers will be out of money.

So, what’s the ideal word count? Well, for my genre: Young/New Adult Fantasy, the ideal is anywhere in between 75,000 and 95,000 words. It can vary, depending on who you ask, but the range typically hits the same ball park. For epic fantasies (which is my playground), the word count can get up to 150,000 words, but that is not ideal for debut authors.

You might be thinking: “Wow that’s a lot of words! But is that really?” Let me give you a little context. Consider J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s 76,944 words long which meets the lower end of the YA fantasy ideal word count. Then, you have J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. At 95,356 words, it meets the upper end of the YA fantasy ideal word count.

“Yeah, but Nikki, J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien ended up writing books longer than that!”

You’re right. They wrote longer books after getting these first ones published. From the research I’ve done and the trends I’ve seen, once an author establishes a fanbase and gets readers interested in their stories, it doesn’t matter how long your next books are. I mean, Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix was over 257,000 words! And Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien’s next book was over 187,000 words! The point is that people will read stories they enjoy and if they correlate good stories to an author, they’ll follow that author regardless of what they write.

“So, Nikki, I’m a writer and I can’t get my word count to ideal.”

I can’t either. I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with word count for as long as I’ve been writing! The first draft of my novel was over 300,000 words! That’s as long as George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows. But, I also had a lot of filler in my novel. There was a bunch of scenes that didn’t help the story, I didn’t have my characters following the best arch possible, and my descriptions were WAY too long. I still cringe at the thought of my first draft. It’s like looking back at your high school yearbook, seeing what you were wearing, and asking yourself: “What was I thinking?!”

The first time I did a word count edit on my novel I was able to knock it down to 137,000 words. I rewrote the entire thing just to get it there. It was tough. I mean, I spent a lot of time building that first draft, it hurt to think it wasn’t perfect, but that’s what it means to be a writer. You have to rewrite your story over and over again to make it a masterpiece. It’s a long journey, but if you keep applying what you learn, its worth it in the end. You’ll start to look at your story and think: “Wow, I wrote that!”

“So, if you can’t get it to the ideal word count, what do you do?”

Get it the best you can. My opinion may be unpopular with agents and editors, but–to me–the story comes first. The characters come first and if its going to take me 125,000 words to tell that story through the eyes of the characters, then I’m gonna do it. If you’ve been following my webposts, you know that my New Year’s resolution is to complete my novel’s current draft and I’m about halfway through it. 2021’s version of my novel was about 127,000 words. I compared the word count of where I’m at currently to the word count of where I’m at in my old draft and I’ve decreased my word count by about 6,000 words!

“Nikki, that doesn’t seem like a lot and aren’t you cutting story content with that?”

You’re right. It may not seem like a lot when you compare it to the ideal word count, but it’s encouraging because I’m only halfway through! I’ve got more cleaning up planned and I’m proving to myself that it’s possible to improve a story while decreasing word count. I’ve gotten feedback from my trusty, alpha readers that the new chapters are preferred over the old ones. I’m not cutting story content because I did that already with the 300,000 word draft. What I’m focusing on now is cleaning up descriptions and rewording sentences to fix fragments and boost clarity. My problem with descriptions is that I often give too much. I want the reader to see exactly what I’m seeing down to the tiniest detail that I don’t give the reader the chance to build the setting for themselves. That’s one of the best things about reading, right? Being able to craft an author’s world and characters that when the book becomes a movie, you furrow your brow at the screen and think: “That’s not how I envisioned it, but alright.”

So, I’m learning is to trust my reader with descriptions. They’re clearly more than capable of imagining what an alchemist’s shop or a castle looks like. If you’re also a writer struggling with word count, I encourage you to take a look at your descriptions and decide what’s really needed. Do you need to go into the details of all the beakers and test tubes on your scientific scene or can you say you’re character enters a laboratory and leave the rest up to the reader?

“What if you still can’t reach that ideal word count?”

It’s not the end of the world, but you’re going to struggle with publication. Cassandra Clare’s first novel was City of Bones and it is roughly 128,000 words. Sarah J. Maas wrote The Throne of Glass. The first time she submitted, it was at 240,000 words. She got rejected. She then got it down to 145,000 words and got rejected by editors. Finally, at 104,000 words, she got published. It isn’t impossible to get published at a higher word count, but it’s definitely tough. You’ll see a lot of articles out there telling you to “Be the rule, not the exception.” It definitely increases your odds of getting published if you do. You could try querying at your high word count and if rejections start coming in, you might have to take another hard look at your novel. Or, you might just have to write a new novel to be your debut. I know that sounds like starting over, but if you feel you can’t shorten your story anymore without hurting it, you just might have too.

In the end, word count is important and it can make or break you. My advice for a brand new writers ready to get their first draft on the page is to not worry about it yet. For your first draft, get every little detail, every scene, and character your heart desires on that page and save the word count struggles for later drafts down the road. It’s a lot easier to clean up a story than to write one, so enjoy the writing in the first draft. Enjoy the characters, the setting, the story’s twists and turns. Then when you’re done, set your heart aside and let your brain go to work in figuring out what’s helping the story and what isn’t. If you manage to write your story in the ideal word count range, congratulations! You’re ahead of the game!

For those of you working on decreasing word count: I know how daunting it can be. I know how much it hurts to remove scenes or characters from the story that aren’t helping it, but in the end you’ll be better for it. You can always save those scenes and those characters for other novels you write. Maybe a side character in this story would be better main character in your next one? Never throw away your ideas. Just stick them on the shelf for a while. As time goes on, you’ll get new ideas to improve scenes and you may end up cringing at your first draft like I do. You just have to keep at it. Writing is an art and a muscle. You have to keep working it to improve. Someday, word count might be the last thing you think about when writing. Who knows? You may end up with a series over 1,000,000 words long. What a word count that would be.

Published by Nikki

I am an aspiring author with one novel written and ready for representation and many in the works.

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