I am obsessed with word counts. My current work in progress is sitting at just over 60k, and even though I have a couple more chapters to go, I’m beginning to panic that it won’t be long enough. I’ve been scouring the web trying to find out the word counts of other authors, and came across this awesome site: http://www.arbookfind.com.au (no affiliate) which gives the word counts of practically every book ever written! As handy as it is, my question still remains, what IS long enough? Having looked at some of the more recent YA fantasy series, my concern is, that if it isn’t above 100k in word count, then it’s a paltry excuse for a book… Really?
Word counts for YA novels etc, according to WritersDigest.com, are categorised as falling between 55 – 80k. But in the following paragraph it mentioned that if it’s higher than 80k, then it had better be scifi or fantasy, because there’s the element of world building etc that can extend the story. Helpful as this is, it still kind of skirts around the question a bit, but then if we’re going to have to go by any single publisher’s overall opinion then we’re all doomed, because these can differ depending on current trends, the genre, the publisher’s preference etc.
Recent YA Fantasy
Just to name a few of the more popular, and recent YA fantasy word counts, here’s a handful of examples as a ‘first book’ in the series, because rarely is there ever standalone fantasy fiction anymore:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (99750)
- Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend (89778)
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (118975)
- Eragon by Christopher Paolini (157220)
The lowest word count here is close to 90k, which certainly fits in the requirement, and Nevermoor has been making waves since it came to light at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017. So is a writer’s perception of what is an acceptable word count all in their head?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that a rather significant YA fantasy is missing, but I’ll come to that later. What I do want to have a look at are some of the YA fantasy novels from several decades ago, when fantasy perhaps wasn’t as rampant as it is today.
Earlier YA Fantasy
Here are a few examples of YA fantasy that you may or may not have heard of:
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (49965)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis (36363)
- The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton (41523)
- The BFG by Roald Dahl (37568)
Some might argue that some of these examples aren’t YA fiction, but I disagree. The Magic Faraway Tree, written by the legendary Enid Blyton was a beloved author with many a young fan who gobbled up her books, even as they got older.
The BFG, written by Roald Dahl is just as loved now as it was when it was first published and has even been transformed into a movie. And in spite of CS Lewis’ most infamous classic, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, being the shortest in this list, how many times has it been reprinted and retold on screen? And of course A Wrinkle in Time has just been made into an incredible movie as well.
In trying to answer the question of ‘how long is long enough?’ it seems the answer runs along similar lines as ‘how long is a piece of string?’ What’s important is that the story is told, that the characters are well formed, that the setting is believable, and that you are able to escort your reader to a world that for the most part is a great deal different to the one they currently reside in.
If taking into account the whole checklist of planning and writing a novel, the actual word count comes in at maybe number 73 in the list of things that need doing. In fact, it shouldn’t even matter, but, I think what worries authors and writers and does have them considering the word count is the end result of, how does it look on the shelf?
Is Word Count Really Important?
Now let’s look at the missing piece… the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling, because it’s probably a good basis for comparison in that it’s fantasy, was written for the YA market, and has perhaps been the go to of ‘what to do to become a super successful author’:
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (77325)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (84799)
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (106821)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (190858)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (257154)
- Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (169441)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (198227)
Rowling’s first book in the series is 77+k words, and most people are aware of the story of how it was rejected multiple times, and then came to perhaps be the most phenomenal series of books ever written. What I’m trying to point out here though, is that Rowling didn’t break the 100k mark until her third novel in the series, and then it was only just over. As the plots grew thicker, and more and more was discovered by Harry and co. the size of the story also grew. But what’s important is that Rowling didn’t need to carry all seven of her books over the 100k mark. She told the story, and once it was finished, that was its word count.
Writers are too caught up with word count because it seems that it’s the norm (it definitely seems like the current trend) to cross that 100k mark that no one ever set as the limit. No publisher stood up and said that all fantasy YA books, from now on, must be over 100k! Because that would lead to poorly written work and novels full of guff simply to tip it over the scale, and there’s plenty enough of that without actually asking for it.
So as much as word count is my obsession, and probably will continue to be, as a writer and author, I can’t find it in myself to do wrong by my readers, and fill a book with inconsequential narrative or description simply to reach a word goal.
Write the story, and once it’s all said and done, if that is your word count, then you’ve done a fantastic job of getting it there.
What do you think? Are word counts more important that the actual content? Let me know if the comments below.