• Robert Sadler

Quandary-#of Pages & Writing Goals

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

HOW MANY WORDS IN A NOVEL? One Writer's Opinion:

As existential questions go, “HOW MANY WORDS IN A NOVEL?” is not at the top of the ‘prepper’s survival list. So who should be concerned enough about the number of words in a novel to voice an opinion? I offer the ‘usual suspects’: writer, reader, reviewer, editor, and publisher (which in the IndiePub world could be all of the above or the same person) there can be quite a difference.

As I prepared to mentally commit to several writing goals for the up coming year of 2022, I was considering changing my usual writer’s word count goal of 95K words—my novels range between 85K and 105K (with most averaging toward the top end, some a little longer). More on that later. So I was considering novel lengths. You most likely have seen the word count ranges for books in different genres as well as the boilerplate shoe sizes for different types of fiction.

This list (found on where I also found the cool uncredited graphic above which I modified) is within some plus or minus factor of the generally accepted number of words per category, particularly if you agree with these categories. (And it’s okay if you disagree with these categories.)

microfiction: 100 - 500 words

sudden fiction: up to 750 words

flash fiction up to 1,500 words

short stories 2,000 - 5,000 words

novelettes 7,500 - 17, 500 words

novellas 17,500 - 40,000 words

novels * 40,000 and beyond

(* this is my contribution, recognizing there are novel categories such as short and long, etc.)

There are various historical lists that show the decline of novel page length (usually predictive of word count—depending on font size) from a high page count twenty years ago to a lower page count today. I also found other lists with the opposite take.

So as writer, in particular a novelist, what voice do you listen to, to find your novel length sweet-spot?

Earlier I listed these voices as the ‘usual suspects’: writer, reader, reviewer, editor, and publisher. I could even include agent, retailer and librarian, but haven’t. Let’s leave writer for last and take the reader’s pulse.

The purchasing ‘reader’ may have preferences or predictors, in terms of word or page count. These predictors can include: price, time to read, reason for reading and preferred author/s.

The ‘reviewer’ may be an unpaid first-reader, reading for continuity, misspellings, and general typographical errors, etc. Or the reviewer might be a blogger touting books as a service to their subscribers, Or perhaps the reviewer is paid to read and then review books on-line, on radio, on television, or in print. Though they may have preferences as to length, they may be most constrained by time or deadlines—which could limit their choices or books to review, or their employer might limit their choices of what to review—again perhaps heavily weighted toward time constraints.

The ‘editor’ is likely to have the most constraints as to word count/page length/time. The author-hired editor will be working for a fee (often per/word). As such the price of these fees may be a limiting constraint for the author and for the editor, it can be a way to limit the work in which the editor wishes to engage. Here there are time constraints on both sides. The brick and mortar editor, working for a publisher, often has marching orders as to the length of books the publisher wishes to have considered for publication.

The ‘publisher’, as in ‘TradPub’. will have quite definite limits on book length based on genre, in-house predilections, past book sales, author popularity. production cost, market place, expenses and availability of trees/wood pulp/paper.

This leaves us lastly with the ‘writer’, which actually came first in my list… and I suggest, should be first in your list as well. For it is the author who writes and submits their work for publication. It is their intellectual property.

For sometime I have espoused a simple writing mantra: “Write what you want to write, how you want to write it.” And paraphrasing a prolific fiction writer, Harvey Stanbrough, you should strive to write the best book you can given your current level of expertise and craft.

Thus it should be the writer who takes center stage when it comes to setting goals for the number or words in their novel, which directly correlates to ‘number of pages’, i.e., book length. Which I not only commend, I do. NOTE: The writer, unless under contract to a publisher, is rarely constrained by the voices of the 'usual suspects'.

However, to my mind, as a writer whose process is called ‘Writing Into The Dark’ or ‘WITD’, there is only one entity’s opinion that matters. That entity is singularly the CHARACTER, or in the aggregate THE CHARACTERS. And, time and again the character’s answer to the burning question of “HOW MANY WORDS” should there be “IN A NOVEL?” is: “Enough to tell the story!

It is the character or characters who are ‘telling the story’. You, the writer, are only the stenographer writing down their thoughts, words and deeds. In this sublime atmosphere the writer need not concern his or herself with ‘how many’.

That said, I mentally sit down with my character/s at the beginning of a novel and have a discussion about the potential length of the story they are about to relay to me. (And when WITD there is no possible way to know, much less predict, how long a story will be.) So I put no limits on what they tell, or how they tell their story and make no caveat as to how long it should be. I do however ask (merely a request mind you) if possible could they tell their story in ‘X’ amount of words. I assure them that I will gladly write down whatever they tell me and that whether their story is a little somewhat-more or a little somewhat-less than ‘X’ will be fine with me; let’s get started.

I personally like long novels. So I was not surprised when my first few novels came in around the 100K+ word range. I don’t recall when I said, at a ‘story meeting’, I’m hoping this story will come in around 95K. But, low and behold my next dozen or so novels came in around 95K words, plus or minus—very possibly because the word count goal was 95K.

For my last two novels, because I (the writer) had a time crunch asked at the story meeting, “Can you tell this story in 65K words?” I got no objections from the characters. Turns out my last two novels came in within 1K words of that non-binding, arbitrary word count.

2022 Goals

Finally, in considering my goals for 2022, I’ve decided I would write at least six (6) novels with the goal of 70K words plus or minus. The math is pretty easy. Six novels with a word goal of seventy thousand would equal 420,000 words. (Not that many, is it?) And when you divide that number by the 95K of my ‘usual’ goal, it equals 4.4 novels. So this is a stretch, but not a leap. Especially when you consider that six novels is only two a month. I'm not yet in the one a month club, but who knows--why limit myself.

The interesting thing I realized about writing my last two books, which had, goal-wise, literally 30K less words was duh, time to mss completion. For some reason (duh) this new ‘lesser goal’ significantly cuts down on the writing time which was to be expected but (I think) it seemed to kept me much more engaged, as writer, in the stories my characters were telling.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year in 2022. And to my writer friends, ‘Happy Writing’… if you’re not happy writing, why do it?

rjs Saturday, December 11, 2021

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