I recently published a post about why it’s important to write short novels, especially at the beginning of your publishing career. Write a novel that’s too long for your genre and your age market will mean instant headaches both for you and for the people you’re pitching the book to. Write a novel that’s too short? Not ideal, but still a much better option than going too long.
What’s most ideal is that the word count of your novel falls within the range of books in your genre and age market that have sold before. You don’t have to hit the magic number. There never really is a magic number. But you should fall within the range whenever possible, especially when your book is polished and ready to go on submission to agents or editors.
From what I’ve gathered from writing novels and querying them to agents, along with research I’ve done online, here are some guidelines you should follow for word counts…
ADULT LITERARY NOVELS (70,000–110,000)
For a typical adult literary novel, you’re looking at a range anywhere between 70,000 words and 110,000 words. Adult novels I would argue has the largest range, in that you could make the case for shorter works (The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is only 58,000 words) and novels that go way above the high end (The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, is 155,000 words).
But if you’re an unpublished author querying an adult novel to literary agents, I guarantee you that anything less than 70,000 words and anything over 110,000 is going to raise some eyebrows, and not in a good way. Querying your adult novel at 140,000 words will eliminate probably ninety percent or more of the agents you’re querying. Querying your adult novel at 52,000 words will also make a literary agent think you haven’t done your homework.
I’ve written three adult novels, but have only queried one of them. Each of the three revised and polished manuscripts came in between 75,000 and 85,000 words. The perfect number you should aim for, at least in a first draft, is 90,000 words, and then you can revise the work to your liking, making it shorter or adding more. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: unless you have a really good reason, you should try to keep the book under 100,000 words when you get to the querying stage. You don’t want to scare away agents because they see that your book is 104,000 words, instead of, say, 96,000 words. Aim for 90,000 words, and then go from there.
SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY NOVELS (90,000–130,000)
The big exception to the “never go over 100,000 words” rule is if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy novels, especially for adults. Since you are creating entire worlds from scratch, you are meant to go longer in these genres, and anything less than 90,000 words might be looked at with concern. I’m sure 85,000 words is probably OK, maybe even a little less, but once you start dipping under 80,000, you’re probably too short.
110,000 words or so seems to be the magic number for science fiction and fantasy. The Martian, by Andy Weir, comes in at 104,000 words, although Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, comes in a lot longer at 136,000 words. Again, don’t feel scared to query if your fantasy novel is 120,000 words and you feel like you’ve cut everything you can, but at the same time, don’t query your fantasy novel if it’s at 200,000 words either.
MYSTERY & THRILLER NOVELS (70,000–110,000)
At the low end of this genre for adults is cozy mysteries, which clock in around 70,000 words, and at the high end are more literary adult thrillers that clock in well above 100,000 words. One of my favorite novels of recent years, Gone Girl, is a whopping 145,000 words, wow! And the recent bestseller The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is 101,000 words. I think your best bet for mystery and thriller novels is something around 90,000 words.
ROMANCE NOVELS (70,000–100,000)
Romance novels typically come in between 70,000 and 100,000 words, although of course there are exceptions. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook is only 48,000 words (holy moly!), while Kristin Cashore’s Graceling comes in at 115,000 words. But for the most part, aim for anything between 80,000 and 90,000 words, at least for the first draft. Notice, for example, that Sparks’ novels became a lot longer after The Notebook, often reaching 80,000 words or higher.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS (60,000–90,000)
Okay, now it gets a little tricky. I’ve been writing young adult fiction for nearly ten years now. I’ve queried YA novels as long as 92,000 words and as short as 58,000 words. You know when I had the most success? When I queried YA novels between 65,000 words and 75,000 words. Again, a little on the shorter end — but also not too short. I think anything 60,000 words and up will be fine, while 90,000 and under you’re probably OK, although it still might be in your best interest to go below 85,000 words, at least during the querying stage.
What gets tricky about YA is that there’s a flood of different genres. Yes, if you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction YA, you may be able to go above 90,000 words. Think of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which is 99,000 words, and Divergent, by Veronica Roth, which is 105,000 words. But still, keep in mind, anytime you go above 90,000 words, you risk alienating more than a few literary agents with that super high word count.
If you feel your story needs to be long, don’t make it 65,000 words because you feel like that might get you a better response from agents. By all means, go to 90,000, or even 95,000. But ask yourself, if that novel is sitting at 109,000 words, if you’ve done everything you can to make it shorter. Does it really need to be that long? It’s worth asking yourself, and maybe taking another month or two to try to get it to a more reasonable length.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS (20,000–60,000)
I have written three middle grade novels to date, one of which is on submission to editors, and another of which is currently in the revising stages. I made a huge mistake when I attempted my first middle grade novel — the first draft came in at 85,000 words. I since revised the book five times and got it down to 70,000, but in looking at the 80,000-word second draft recently, I realized that the story I wrote actually works better at the longer length than at the shorter one. So I’ve put it aside for now, thinking maybe one day, when I have some middle grade books in the world, I might be able to return to it.
My second middle grade book I wrote, the one currently on submission, varied in lengths from its first draft to its latest draft over the course of three years. The first draft was 41,000 words. At it shortest, about five drafts in, it was 34,000 words. At its longest, during a heavy revision process with my agent, I got it up to 45,000 words. The draft that was submitted to editors is 43,000 words. I think 43,000 words is a solid length for a middle grade novel, one that’s long enough to tell a complete story with lots of detail and character development.
But you can definitely go longer than that. My third middle grade novel, which I’m currently working on, came in at 60,000 words for its first draft, and is now at 56,000 words after its second draft. Why is this newer MG title so much longer than the last one? Ultimately it comes down to the story I’m telling, the amount of characters, the length of time that passes in the story, the emotional stakes. I felt that this one needed to be on a bit of the higher end of MG word counts, but also not so high that someone might care to skip it.
Middle grade can go as low as 20,000 words for younger MG readers (think The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, which is 26,000 words) and then reach 50,000 words and up for the older MG readers (think Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein, at 47,000 words). There is the occasional exception, like Wonder, which is 73,000 words. But it’s absolutely in your best interest to get your MG novel below 60,000 words before you query.
Make your novel as long as it needs to be, while at the same time keeping it in the range of your genre and age market. You can shout to the rooftops all you want that your novel has to be 160,000 words, but nobody will ever hear you. Feel free to go to the lower end or the higher end of the range, but unless you have a really strong reason why, don’t fall or rise completely outside of it.
At the end of the day, you want to get your novel published, don’t you? The world needs your stories. Don’t make a stupid mistake like the wrong word count to prevent them from reaching the masses.