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How Long Should Your Novel Be?

Today’s Writing Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, focuses on figuring out how long your novel should be.

In the novel realm of writing, different genres traditionally demand different word counts.

A fantasy novel, for instance, is automatically allowed to be longer than something set in the real-world present day. Why? Because fantasy writers usually need more space to establish their worlds.

The same goes for strictly historical fiction. Since readers aren’t going to be instantly familiar with the setting they’re reading about – the way characters dress, the particular shapes of houses and buildings, any political or economic turmoil, etc. – authors need some extra word-count allowances to make their audiences feel right at home.

If we’re talking about young adult novels, meanwhile, we’re probably going to look on the shorter end of the 70,000-120,000 word range that I gave on Tuesday.

For those of you who are into the YA genre, you might have noticed a major change in how these books are presented. Once upon a time, they incorporated the same fonts and text sizes – not to mention page margins – as their more mature siblings down the bookstore aisle. As a result, you could easily get an idea of how many words they comprise by just looking at them.

Today though, young adult novels – and to a lesser degree, all novels – play fast and loose with what used to be industry standards. From one point of view, you could say they involve a significant bit of slate of hand, where they make you think you’re getting a lot more plot for your buck.

I know, as a multi-genre reader, I’ve been pretty disappointed before at how very short my supposedly thick, full-length YA novels have been. Sometimes, if the characters and plot details are compelling enough, I won’t care. But if they’re anything less than riveting, I’m probably going to feel somewhat ripped off.

No matter though, because thanks to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and the sort, the young adult genre is alive and kicking.

It’s probably important not to pick on just YA anyway. After all, as much as publishers and literary agents – and yes, even editors – talk about industry standards, good luck trying to find them these days.

Perhaps, back in the time of Charles Dickens or even as recently as when Danielle Steele first started seeing her books in print, there was some semblance of logic, reason or guidelines that governed the whole publishing world.

But that isn’t really the case now.

You figure that out quickly enough once you do a simple web search for the genre you’re writing in (or plan to write in) plus “word count” or “how many words should it be.”

Different sources will quote you different figures depending on the year they published the e-article, their connection to the industry, whether they’re taking first-time authors into consideration, and even whether they’re truly reputable or not.

In a lot of ways, it’s a hodgepodge mess.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a worthwhile rough estimate of your expected word count. My advice is this:

Don’t do a search, click on the first article you find and assume it’s the answer you need. Look into more than one source. Maybe six to 10. Then come to a logical conclusion based on that collection of data.

Bottom line: If you’re working on a novel, it’s a good thing to know your basic genre-specific word-count limit. Now. So look it up, research it – thoroughly – and wrap your mind around it.

Your novel's word count could end up making or breaking your publishing career.

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