Thursday, March 18, 2010

Word counts are making me miserable

A couple weeks ago I was enjoying being back in "writing mode" and working on editing/polishing up my children's fantasy novel, the Valley of the Unicorns.I was enjoying it, that is, until I really seriously started thinking about word counts.

A while back I ran across this article, Word Count for Novels and Children's Books: The Definitive Post, on an agent's website. I vaguely remembered reading that while fantasy and science fiction novels are allowed to be a little longer because of the need for world-building, that for first-time authors (who don't have a record of published successes yet), you basically don't want to exceed 100,000 words, which works out to about 300 pages.

I opened up all the documents I have my chapters stored in and added up all the word counts, and discovered that my novel is about 130,000 words (that's an estimate, because I still have five partial chapters I'm working on).So I needed to take a good look at the "scenes" in the novel and come up with a plan for getting down to 100,000 words or less. I made an outline of all my chapters and scenes, and looked for ones that could go (telling myself I can always save them for a sequel). After much hemming and hawing, I got rid of two chapters - and this only brought the word count down by 5,000 words. I started to realize I was going to have to do some major plot changes to hit that 100,000 mark. Which means another major re-write.

This may have contributed to my relapse into depression last week.

After two days of feeling sorry for myself, I began to resurface. I had already planned on writing a couple sequels to the book, anyway, so I started looking at taking current book and turning it into two books. I fiddled with the chapter outlines for a couple days, re-arranging it from the original 48 chapters to 31 chapters. My average chapter length is about 2650 words, so 31 x 2650 = 82,150 words - BINGO! And I was really starting to warm up to the idea of extending my plot out over several books. I had enough ideas now to maybe even go as far as six or seven books, like Harry Potter!

But just to make sure I was on the right track, I re-read the post mentioned above, and several others that I found. Turns out, I had correctly remembered the 100,000 word count... for ADULT NOVELS. Young adult novels range from 55,000-70,000 words, but my book (which has talking animals in it) actually falls in the middle grade genre. Middle grade books (ages 9-12) range from 32,000 to 40,000 - with the allowance that fantasy/sci-fi may be a little longer.

That's crazy! Children's books are larger print, so they average about 250 words per page. 40,000/250 is only 160 pages! Even Charlotte's Web is 192 pages! The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is 206 pages. Anne of Green Gables is 312 pages.

I just scanned the children's 100 best sellers lists on Amazon, and I only found one chapter book that was less than 200 pages. And there was only one other book that was less than 300 pages! Most books were between 320-400 pages. That's between 80,000-100,000 words.
Okay, those are the best-sellers. The top 0.1% of published books. Nice to dream one of my books would make it there. But on the other hand, it's quite obvious that short books aren't making it to the best seller list like long ones. I think that's because short stories just aren't as satisfying. You don't get to go on a long fulfilling "journey" with the characters. You don't have the same emotional investment. I think it is worth it to keep my book longer.

And yet I am faced with the fact that agents are agreeing on this: "But for a debut novelist who is trying to catch the eye of an agent or editor for the first time? Err on the side of caution with your word count."

Miserable may be a little exaggerated. But I am, most definitely, frustrated.

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