Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Long Does it Take to Tell a Story?

Somewhere along the line, I read that a YA book by a first-time author should never be more than 80,000 words. I think it had something to do with the cost of publishing verses the risk of the unknown, as well as the (apparent) ideal length an average young-adult wants to read.

So, always keen to take on good advice, I've tried to keep to this length in all my writing, and have usually managed to come in almost exactly on target (by dumb luck rather than careful planning, I can promise).

But then recently I've read two books by first-time authors that are more in the region of 200,000 words. The first is Wounded Guardian, by Duncan Lay (well worth a visit to his blog, he gives some great advice), and the second is book 1 of the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Perhaps the 80K rule is one of those things that generally applies, but can sometimes be broken.

For me, though, I've always been comfortable with the 80,000 word target. I think if I tried to write something bigger than that, I'd probably end up fluffing it out with unnecessary detail and would only bore the daylights out of the reader, rather than adding anything of value. Perhaps that's just my style, or perhaps that's the length of book that I prefer as a reader (not to take away from either of the excellent titles referenced above).

Or perhaps it's the nightmare of having to edit a 200,000 word manuscript. I'm finding 80,000 words challenging enough as it is!


  1. My Goblin Bros novel is only going to be about 60k words. *g*

    I think it just depends on the kinds of stories you like to write. I prefer writing (and reading) fairly fast-paced stuff that sticks to one or two POV characters and has a ticking time bomb in the background (none of these years-spanning quests, laugh). Most of the longer novels I pick up have multiple POV characters (I usually don't care for half of them) and take place over months or years (I get bored during the sections where nothing plot-significant is happening).

  2. Hi Lindsay,

    That's an interesting comment about longer novels having multiple POV. I usually write in one person's POV, but I notice the longer book I'm reading is omniscient multiple POV. I guess if you're getting into so many people's heads, and you have an omniscient narrator who can give unlimited information about the world, there's a lot more scope to write a bigger book.

    I think it also has something to do with how quick a reader you are. I'm shockingly slow, so I can still get my money's worth out of an 80K book, whereas others would read it in a few hours.

  3. 80,000 is a challenge for me too. I think if the story grabs some agents/publishers they overlook the numbers by a few hundred.

  4. Hi Glynis,

    I've noticed a few agents say that they stop reading a query if the wordcount is too high (or low). But I think you're right - if they found one they loved they'd probably overlook word count. Either that or work with the author to cut it down a bit.

  5. I believe so long as you don't go over the dreaded 120,000, you're okay on word count. Really, 70,000-80,0000 is fine for a story. A story with elaborate world-building may run higher or like Lindsay says, one of those multiple POV novels that spans "generations."

    However, I wouldn't try pawning anything higher than 120,000 and that would be for an adult novel. Even so, something as vast as Drood or Under the Dome have turned me off due to the sizes of the novels. Maybe later, but right now, I just don't have the patience to sit down with something that elaborate (and this from a major Stephen King fan).

    Good article, Peter.