The ‘how long?’ question has to be one of the most commonly asked by new authors – perhaps even experienced ones, too. It was certainly one of the first to pass my lips when I began to cross genres.
“What’s the age range?” I asked a multi-published at my local OCC/RWA Chapter monthly meeting.
“I’m thinking of aiming for older children,” I told her.
“That would be ages eight to twelve, then. In that case, it should be between 30,000 and 50,000 words.”
The precision of her answer was satisfying, but it also piqued my curiosity.
“Why that particular length?”
“It’s just considered to be the ‘right’ length at the moment for that age range,” she explained. “Not too long, not too short.”
This ‘Goldilocks’ principle is good general advice to keep in mind, but there are also more specific factors to consider that will help you nail the ‘right’ length for whatever genre book you’re writing. While you should work to your natural style, it’s advisable to be aware of and (as much as possible) write to the length that publisher and readers expect (logon to a publisher’s website for ‘publisher-specific’ guidelines.)
Type of book and target audience
You can hone in on a rough idea of ‘how long’ simply by categorizing what kind of book you’re writing and its target audience. Clearly, any six-year-olds without the miraculous intellect of Roald Dahl’s Matilda aren’t going to want to read something the length of A Tale of Two Cities. Similarly, most adults won’t be very interested in a 40-page picture book.
Most of the data I’ll be using throughout this article was sourced from Writer’s Digest and personal experience.
Children’s picture book: 500–600 words over 32–48 pages.
Children’s chapter book: 1,000–10,000 words.
Middle grade: 20,000–50,000 words.
Young Adult (YA): 40,000–70,000 words.
Flash fiction: 500 words or less.
Short Story: 5,000–10,000 words.
Novella: 10,000–40,000 words.
Novel: Anything over 40,000 words. Anything over 110,000 words is an ‘epic’.
Adult literary and commercial fiction: 80,000–100,000 words is considered to be the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, though you could get away with 70,000 words minimum and 109,000 words max.
Again, when considering the authority of agents and publishers, “adhering to the expected word count demonstrates that you understand your market.” The ‘right’ answer to ‘how long should my book be?’ is dictated by the audience’s expectations.
Genre has more influence on book length than you might think...
Here’s a guide to the recommended lengths for genre books.
Sci-fi/Fantasy: 90,000–120,000, anything over 150,000 words might be testing for your readers. As I just touched on above, books in these genres are allowed and expected to run longer than others. This is due to the amount of world building required to introduce a reader to a fictional setting, but be careful not to let this expectation manipulate your natural style.
Historical: As above.
Romance: 50,000–100,000 words. The wide range for this genre is because of the number of sub-genres that it can divide into: supernatural, erotica, historical, ‘chick-lit’, etc. It’s also worth bearing in mind that longer romance novels seem to be the trend du jour, with bestsellers Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey both comfortably over 100,000 words.
Crime/Mystery/Thriller/Horror: 70,000–90,000 words. Suspense is key to all of these genres. Pacing is vital in creating suspense, which means it couldn’t be any more important to nail the word count.
While you should certainly keep the data I’ve provided in mind, being too prescriptive about sticking to word counts will only impede your personal writing style. If you end up way under the standard word count, you know that you either need to slow the pace a little or flesh out some underdeveloped areas.
Never, ever loose your 'voice'. The way each and every author tells a story is unique. Your readers are downloading your novel or snagging it off a bookseller's self knowing you are a gifted storyteller. Allow your readers to feel the emotion of first love, see and hear the waterfalls, experience the sweet taste of a huckleberry. . .the possibilities are endless. Allow your readers to live this adventure--guide them well!