Thursday, 17 December 2009

Is My Novel Too Long?

The first draft of The Ghost Effect is now complete at just a little over 74,000 words. Is this too much? Of course, I know there's no easy answer to this. Except, wait! My agent did once tell me that a story is only too long if it feels too long. So there's my answer. The problem is, the last person to judge that is the author himself.

All first drafts need several edits to get them into shape, and my novel is no different. The very first revision will of course include the rampant removal of rogue elements, maybe even whole scenes, and this could bring the text below the magic 70k threshold. But why have I even imposed such an arbitrary limit on myself? Philip Pullman doesn't seem concerned (not that I'd have the brass neck to pursue such a comparison).

The fact is, I'm baffled by this subject, and even my imaginary eleven-year-old is too precocious to help me. Authors should write with a clear idea of their readership, but while those who write for fellow adults can use themselves as ideal readers, children's writers have to peer into the fog of otherness for a glimpse of theirs. My own memories of being eleventyteen are too faint to go much beyond abstract unhappiness and apprehension about homework. My own two children won't be able to help me do better than this for at least another six years yet, so I'm reduced to picking up what I can, where I can get it – mostly from other books targeted at a similar age. This is what makes people like this so important to someone like me.

For those who don't know, children's books are roughly age-banded into four main groups: picture books for the under fives, first reader/chapter books for 5 to 8, first novels for 9 to 12 (termed 'middle grade' in the US) and then 'teen fiction' or 'young adult', which usually trails off at about 16 because readers older than this can and do wade out into the deeper currents of mainstream literature.

So step one for a children's writer is to consciously aim at some place on this spectrum, whilst hoping that the book will also appeal to others outside it, especially in a world where adults are increasingly turning to kid-lit for their kicks. The Ghost Effect was written straight at the upper end of 9 to 12, with a little overlap beyond. This sub-band is sometimes termed 'upper middle grade' or 'tween' fiction. So, how long should a book for this age group ideally be? I really don't know, and frankly I don't think anyone does, but editors I submit my text to will all have an opinion.

Some on-line sources say that fiction for 9 to 12-year-olds should rarely exceed 50k words, but others (perhaps more recent) note that 9-year-olds are tackling longer and longer texts. This is encouraging but it doesn't really answer my question.

I recently discovered that you can find a word count for selected books on Amazon by hunting for the 'Text stats' link in the 'Inside This Book' sub-menu (about half way down a given book's page). It's a shame this isn't available for all books, but it does help deepen my unholy obsession with quantity.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this moveable feast, whether you're writing for children/young adults or not. I know the answer is 'it depends', but still...


  1. My first book for young adults is 83,000 words and it looks pretty chunky. I was going for 80,000 so I thought I'd done pretty well. The sequel is 93,000 words. I kept trying to reign it in but to no avail. The publisher is happy though, that's the main thing. I think your agent is right.

  2. Bah...don't worry about word count at 74K. When you edit/trim it will come down. Besides, if every word deserves to be in the manuscript, then 74K is ok.

  3. Do chapter length or scene length play into it?
    As long as the book is sub-divided into manageable chunks then any length shouldnt' feel overwhelming? Or is that something else entirely.

    Also, here's another idea: do the have beta-readers? Advertizing uses focus groups to test out new ideas. Sending a book out to a bunch of teens and getting their direct feedback is probably better than anything. If that doesn't exist there may be opportunity there to make a bzillion dollars/pounds/euros by doing it online...although security could be an issue.


  4. 74K sounds reasonable to me. My daughter is 11 and happily romps through books that are longer. My own novel is aimed for the same age group and fluctuates between 50K and 55K each rewrite. I keep worrying that it's too short.

    But hey, I'm still looking for an agent so what do I know :-)

  5. That Matt guy is so clever! Actually, he stole my idea as we are in the midst of reading the Artemis Fowl series (ok, so I'm on the 1st book and he's on the 4th) and I just said to him last night that I find the chapters are waaay too long. I seem to remember always saying to my mother (at age 11-teen) "I'll do it as soon as I finish this chapter.". I'd probably have been strangled if I was reading A.F. at the time and the table would never have been set/cleared.

    I was a voracious reader at that age and I also remember licking my chops at a good meaty book- the beefier it was, the more impressed I was with myself for reading/finishing it (I think my friends and I used to like the one-upmanship of bigger and bigger books). So I'm not sure I'd stress about size...but then, maybe it would appeal to a greater number of kids if it was smaller (Ah, I see how you get yourself in a loop....).

    I currently only know one 11yr. old and he hates reading (gasp! and he's surrounded by a very-reading-bookish family!?!) so I can't help by finding you tweens to interview...


  6. I'm glad to see healthy none concern for word count out there. Many thanks for all the comments. Actually, part of my concern is that I could easily have written a lot more than I did. Just where is that balancing point between the desire to evoke, develop and deepen -- and the space it takes to do all that -- and the need to be economical? Is my novel too short?

    Matt and Jenn, that's a good point about chapter length. Short chapters do help make long texts more readable, especially if they are structured so that they always end on moments of high interest or question (not necessarily a cliff hanger). My story is divided into 24 chapters.

    On the other thing, it may sound counter-intuitive but while young readers are great at telling you what they do and don't like, they usually have no experience in giving objective and constructive criticism. So while it's always interesting to hear what they say, I would be wary of making changes as a result. That's not to say I wouldn't of course.

    I read and enjoyed the first Artemis Fowl book, though not quite enough to read any more just yet. I see there's one about time travel. Matt, is it any good?

  7. You seem to have covered all the relevant points very thoroughly. One factor to be taken into account is just how engaging and fast-moving the plot is. Very young kids read all the Harry Potters, but the characters are so well drawn and the world so compelling, that kids stay plugged. Another thing JK does very well is to keep each chapter manageable and interesting. Of course if you divide your chapters at very critical junctures, many people will read on. So I would say under 40k for tweens unless the story and characters are unusually strong.

    In your place, I would find people in your circle who have kids the right age, who like to read, but who don't "bump the curve" to read it. Ask the kids how they like it and ask their parents how engrossed they got in it, how long they read at a stretch.

    I have just released a novel, Angela 1: Starting Over, the first in a series of three, for YA and all the way up from there. It's only around 42K. But I like to keep my fiction very economical and fast-moving and the story doesn't warrant a longer treatment. If interested, look it up by clicking on my name and following the link to my website. I also invite everyone to read my blog and leave a comment if you like, at Thanks!

  8. I did a lot of word count research when I finished my manuscript last spring. I was worried that it was too short (it's only 40,000 words). I looked up popular MG novels on this site

    (it's a website that distributes AR quizzes, which is random I know, but if you search a book it will give you the word count.)

    I discovered that it doesn't really matter. There were a few popular books with word counts under 20,000 and a few over 100,000. Most were somewhere in between. I'd say 70,000 is just fine if that's what it takes to tell the story.

    And I gave you a little award on my blog today. :)

  9. Wish I could help, but I have no idea about the word length for this genre. Good luck.

    Lynnette Labelle

  10. Thanks for all the comments.

    David, I read your blog and was interested in what you had to say about central characters. I think my story and characters are strong enough to hold a reader's interest, but I'll wait to hear back from those who have kindly offered to read the book -- perhaps I'm in for an unpleasant surprise. Let's hope not.

    Natalie, I'm very curious to find out more about your novel. I think 40k words is fine, though I know from experience that I find it difficult not to write something longer myself. I suppose the nature of the story is everything. Kit's Wilderness by David Almond, one of my favourite books, is only 42,000 words.

    Oh, and Thanks for the website.

    Lynette, thanks for commenting anyway and for following my blog. I'll go and investigate yours today.

  11. The chapter length that someone raised above is an interesting. In my last edit I went through to look at how I whether I could cut my chapters in half - I had 20 at 2500 words each. Interestingly enough I could as there were suitable cliff-hanger-ish break points midway in most of them - I now have 37 much shorter chapters.

    Fascinating discussion. :-)

  12. What? Artemis Fowl has a time travel story?!?!....argh! That's ruined everything!

    Only joking :)

    I think that's the sixth book, I just finished the fourth book today, so I'll let you know my thoughts when I get there.
    I do remember that I read Lightning by Dean Koontz (time travel theme) when I was mid-teens, and it blew my mind! The writing was pulp-thriller, but just thinking about the whys, wherefores, and the hows made my head spin (in a good way). I'm looking forward to your book already :)

  13. It doesn't seem too long to me. My own ten year old had no problem reading the Harry Potters and some of those are way more. Perhaps I should try your manuscript on her?

  14. Simon, I would be very grateful if your daughter found the time to read my ms. She'd be more than welcome.

    I'm greatly enjoying Egne, by the way. I'll e-mail you soon.

  15. Thomas,

    Can't promise a sensible response - they're very flighty these 10 year olds - but we'll have a go!

  16. Sometimes more can be less and less can be more. There is no right or wrong length, nothing good is formulaic. Some kids want longer books, more of a world to lose themselves in. Some need shorter. My favorite book of last year was the arrivals, by shaun tan, a book with no words. How can you ever ever know when it is right, when it is finished. Somehow I think you have to decide when you have finished with it, or it has done with you, move on and release it into the wild.


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