Thursday, November 17, 2016

Size does matter: keep an eye on manuscript word count

I write long, especially on first drafts—and I am not alone. I see the same dangerous prolixity in the manuscripts of many of my editing clients and writing students. It’s easy to understand why we all do this—we ramble on, blundering about in the uncharted darkness of our own imaginations as we try to find the right path into the heart of our stories. And the more we ramble, the higher our word count creeps.

I’m struggling with that now on my ghost story. Intended as a middle grade novel, at the rate I’m going, I’m worried that it’s  going to top out at over 70,000 words. And although it’s true that the first Harry Potter novel was about the same length—77,325 words, to be exact—my projected 70,000 words is still on the long side for a middle grade book.

“Hold on a minute,” you may be thinking. “Are you actually obsessive enough to count every word in 'Sorcerer’s Stone?' "

No—but the Accelerated Reader program did. And they have a free tool that you can use to learn just how many words a published book contains.

Why should you care? “My book is special,” I often hear. “Sure, it’s on the long side, but 'So-and-So' is long, too. I’m sure it won’t matter to editors that my picture book is 2,000 words instead of the 500 to 800 they are asking for these days, or that my YA paranormal is 120,000 words when they expect 70,000.”

Don’t delude yourself. Whether we like it or not, size does matter to prospective publishers. The longer the book, the more it costs them to print it, and the more they have to charge for it. And this in turn increases the risk that the book will sell fewer copies due to price resistance on the part of parents, schools, and young readers.

So yes, a proven writer with a successful sales record and a built-in audience of fans frothing at the mouth for the next book can write as long as she wants. That’s why the fifth book in the Potter series, Order of the Phoenix, was a whopping 257,154 words long. But don’t expect any publisher on the planet to give the rest of us mere mortals the same perk.

To estimate how long your manuscript should be, I think it’s helpful to make up a list of several titles in the same age range for which you are writing, then go to the AR book finder site to see what the word count of those books is.

Do a search for the book you want to check, then click on the blue underlined title in the result that comes up. That will take you to a window where you will find the word count. See what the median word count is for all the books you check, and aim to hit that mark in your own manuscript. For most of us, that means streamlining—for me, too!

There is of course another compelling reason to streamline your manuscripts: the tighter you write, the more powerful your prose and the more gripping your story will be.

Remember, especially you first-time authors, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the length of a manuscript and its chances of finding a publisher. In other words, the shorter the better.

PS: Many thanks to Katie Davis at the Institute for Writers for sharing this site with me.

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