Why should you care about word count?
Honestly, you shouldn't---not at first anyway.
Before you consider word count, you need to get a sense for the story you're telling. How big is it?
It's like packing for a trip. It's easier to decide on appropriate luggage after you know the size and scope of your adventure. Sometimes we don't have enough information to figure this out until after we've started writing.
We do this with short stories all the time. We start with flash fiction and then realize there's no way the story is going to fit. So we decide it's a short story. Then we decide it's a novella. Then, finally, we realize the idea is book-size.
It can happen on a bigger scale too. We can write a single book and realize we have enough material for a series.
Too often we let our luggage determine our destination.
We spend far too much time trying to figure out how to fit all our stuff into one, small case and then, when we're finally done, the story doesn't work anymore. We trim to the allotted size and all the delightful banter and detail get stripped away. Everything happens so fast that the action is hard to follow. I've seen writers get stuck for years trying to pare down their writing when, really, it's the completely wrong approach.
Keep in mind that the opposite happens too. Sometimes writers don't have enough story for the container, so they start adding filler. I see this in published books far too often. The author sends off a wonderful first book and the editor thinks it's so good that the writer gets a two- or three-book deal.
I've read the results of filler novels and I know you have too. The first book in the trilogy is awesome. We buy the second book, anticipating greatness, and it reads like a bridge to the third book. The third books comes out and we don't buy it. Instead, we flip pages in the bookstore to confirm our suspicions and sure enough: filler all the way up to those last few chapters that could have been condensed to an epilogue for the first book. That's the published version of what happens when we let the luggage determine the destination. It can be done, but even seasoned writers have trouble pulling it off.
Let's face it. Storytelling is a skill we learn on the job. Most of us start out inspired by dreams and mental wandering. In the beginning, we don't know how to make up a good story that fits inside the allotted space. Only experience will teach us---and there's the rub. We have to write books to gain experience.
So we can just self-publish and forget all about word counts, right?
Well, we can---just not if we want readers.
Story length is based on reader expectations.
And yes, reader expectations are often shaped by the publishing industry, but that's a deeper topic about the interplay between public taste and commerce. We'd just end up talking about reality television and whether that plague has visited us because viewers want it or whether it's a car crash from which we cannot look away. We'd end up talking about violence in culture and violence in theater and then we'd have to talk about Sophocles and Batman and then we'd have to stay up late into the night drinking coffee and pacing and waving our arms. So, for now, let's just accept that reader expectations exist.
If you are a new author and I've never heard of you, I'm not going to start reading your 250,000 word novel. I don't care how it's published. Traditional or self-published, it's more of a commitment than I'm willing to make to an unknown writer. It's like arranging to go on a European vacation with a blind date. I'm not doing it.
In general, first novels should be on the short side. And, even then, most readers are not going to take a chance unless they know the author's name or they're introduced through a friend. Reading is an intimate, time-consuming activity and first impressions matter.
The heft of the book makes a huge impression, whether it's physical weight or e-weight.
Let's say I respond to a free download offer on one of the big book sites. I download and open the piece for the first time. If I'm expecting something of substance and I get a ten-page story, I'm only thinking one thing: "I'm so glad I didn't pay for this." Am I inclined to buy a later book from the author based on the fantastic writing in those ten pages? Nope. If I'm in the mood for a novel and I get a ten-page story, I'm irritated. I probably won't read it at all. On the other hand, if the author labels appropriately and calls it a short story, it will meet my expectations and I will be happy.
The same holds true for a book that is too long. If I'm expecting an average-length novel and end up with a tome, it's still the blind date and the European vacation. I don't care if it's free. It's too much of a commitment. I'm not going.
So how do you make your story fit expectations?
As you gain experience, you will develop a sense for the bigness of ideas. You'll know that one particular tingle is book-size and another smaller tingle is a short story. You'll know if the world you're imagining is a base camp for a series of short stories or if it can only be satisfied by a series of novels.
With enough experience, you may be able to create ideas of a particular size to fit your needs, but this is advanced novel wizardry. You cannot attempt this until you get a feel for the size of your creative impulses. And you can't get a real understanding of how many pages it takes to tell a story until you develop your voice. An author with an expansive style will need much more room than an author emulating Hemingway's minimalist approach.
There are, of course, plenty of people who think they can fix this problem by prescribing write-like-Hemingway advice. My personal theory is that those people write in such a sparse style that they have words left over for telling other people exactly how they should write.
Please use caution and beware advice from anyone who tells you what your voice should be. Growing as an author means finding the voice in you that is unlike the voice of anyone else. Own it. Fill the page with it. Then, since you're a new writer, figure out how much story you can fit into the allotted containers.
Word containers can be stacked.
This realization was a big deal for me.
Yes, we know that all stories are really just words stacked together to form meaning. And each of those units of meaning gets stacked to form something bigger, right? This is the basis for the classic five-paragraph essay. We stack paragraphs and make them work together to create a unified essay.
Novel-writing is not so different. We use paragraphs and dialog to create scenes. We can stack scenes together to create short stories or stack scenes into chapters and stack those to create a novel.
Basic stuff, right?
But the same thing works with story containers of a predetermined length.
Focus on the size of the story before determining the number and size of containers needed to hold it.
Harry Potter is a story packed into seven books. Narnia requires the same number of books, but Lewis' style is more sparse than Rowling's, so the total word count is much less. Still? Seven books each. Seven word containers.
So let's pick something else. American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a one-book story of 624 pages, so probably around 156,000 words. That's on the high side for fantasy, but Mr. Gaiman has an established readership, so this is no blind date. The novel is composed of four parts, each of decreasing length. The first and second parts could easily be stand-alone books in a series. The third part is the length of a novella. The last part is the length of a short story. To create this longer novel, Gaiman stacks: novel, novel, novella, story. If he were a new author, he could have released the first part separately. Heck, if he were Charles Dickens, he might have released each chapter separately. No matter how many ways the book could be published, it would still be a series of word containers, stacked together to create unity.
Since I already mentioned Dickens, let's look at Tale of Two Cities. The book was self-published, one chapter at a time, in a weekly circular. The story itself contains three parts (Book the First, Book the Second, Book the Third). The copy I have is 376 pages, so I'm estimating about 94,000 words. Essentially Dickens has three stacks: novella, novella, novella. Each novella is composed of a stack of chapters. Whether we read the book one chapter each week or all in one sitting, the story is the same.
So let's go back to American Gods. If a new author produced a similar work, the advice would probably be to trim words to produce an average-length novel. An inexperienced editor might point at Gaiman's chapter structure, where he stacks short stories among the scenes. Easy advice? Get rid of the short stories. The book still holds together without them, so they must be surplus, right?
Too often we ignore everything beyond a novel's most basic structural integrity. Yes, the book would still hold together without the shorter stories, but the unified vision would be diminished without them. Trimming words is one approach, but not the best. If pressed, I would divide the story into smaller publishing releases rather than taking a word away from the total. Making the novel fit publishing changes the story. Changing the container size or release schedule does not.
The Bottom Line
Tell your story in your voice and then pack your story into acceptable and appropriate-size containers.
Stack scenes into chapters.
Stack chapters into novellas.
Stack three novellas into a book.
Stack two connecting novellas and then weave the chapters together in an alternating sequence.
Stack scenes into short stories and then stack the short stories into a novel.
Use containers to tell the story you need to tell. Do not squash your story or add unnecessary filler. Let your adventure determine the luggage, not the other way around.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America uses the following word length for their Nebula Awards:
- Novel: over 40,000 words
- Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
- Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
- Short Story: under 7,500 words
For my purposes, which have nothing to do with the Nebula Award, I add another smaller container for flash fiction (under 1,000 words).
For the acceptable length of novels, I defer to those who know better and break things up by genre:
- All New and Revised: Word Counts and Novel Length by Colleen Lindsay
- Jacqui Murray breaks down science fiction a bit more in her post.
- Jessica at BookEnds says, "when in doubt, think 80,000 words, give or take."
- Jennifer Laughran breaks down the word count for young adult and children's books.
There you have it: those are your containers. Now write your story and start stacking.