Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Revising the Novel - Word Count
Before we delve deeper into our subject of outlining, I wanted to share what I've learned about a very commonly asked question.
How long should my novel be?
The answer is not "long enough to tell the story." While that may be what we all would love to hear, the truth is publishers and agents have very specific guidelines for novel length depending upon the genre. As I've said before, my work is mainstream fiction, a medical thriller, so that's really all I'm qualified to talk about. If you're writing a romance, or horror, or sci-fi, or literary fiction, you should refer to a good reference book for the answer to that question, like the Writer's Guide. If you're writing a thriller or other mainstream fiction, this is what I've learned. Understand that my goal in writing is publishing and establishing a career, not a whimsical fairy tale of life as an author.
For a first time author, your book length should be 90,000 to 100,000 words, which is about 450 pages. Strict. No more, no less. While you may tell the world's greatest story in 175,000 words, and it may become a huge best-seller, it will be awfully hard, as a first-time writer, to get an agent to look at a book of that length. It may happen. If your writing is so undeniably fantastic, you may be able to hook that agent. And if you are an undeniable talent, your agent may be able to convince a Publishing House to buy your book. But the odds are stacked against you.
Publishing Houses do not like to take chances and invest big dollars into first-time authors. They're very conservative. So what you need to do is follow their guidelines, play their game. They're the ones setting the rules. Once you're as big as Ken Follett you can break the rules and unleash your 1000 page tome. Not now.
So how many pages is 100,000 words?
Obviously, that will depend upon the type and size of font you use. What I recommend, from what I've learned in discussions with agents, is Times New Roman font, 12 point size. Courier is also an accepted font by agents but Times New Roman is the best, and here's why.
The spacing of Courier font adds length to your manuscript. So while the word count may be acceptable, the number of pages is increased. With my manuscript, at 106,000 words (I know, I know, still too long, I'm working on it. Got the Ten-Point Revision Strategy at my side) the page count was 560 pages. With Times New Roman, it is 477 pages.
What this means is that with Times New Roman, your number of manuscript pages is approximately equal to the number of printed pages in an average book. This makes for an easy guide to determine your novel length.
In general, the formula comes down to the average text has 10 words per line, 25 lines per page for a total of 250 words per page. This is comparable to the word count of a published novel.
So while the romantic, walking through the garden, following your lovely muse response to the question would be; "write until the book is finished, not one word more or less." In reality, this just isn't true. It's fine, if you really don't care about publishing. But the honest, business-like, non-romantic, but infinitely more practical advice for a first-time writer, is follow the rules. 90,000-100,000 words for mainstream/thriller fiction. It shows professionalism on your part, writing skill, knowledge and will greatly increase your chances of actually getting your novel read.