Too Many Words

Over on Evil Editor's blog, someone posted a query for an SF novel that's ::gulp:: 185,000 words.


Even though stories in spec fic can be a lot longer than other genres, even that's too much. SF and fantasy can top out at about 120,000 words, with a minimum of 80,000.

What the writer described in the first part of the query sounded like backstory; this, in itself, might be considered one book of a duology. (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a trilogy; he didn't want to break up what he considered one book--yeow! again--but his publisher wisely broke it up into three parts, because of a paper shortage after World War II and because most people in England at that couldn't afford anything that huge.)

We should always strive to keep in mind the uppermost limits (wordwise, that is) of whatever genre we're writing in. Another thought to keep in mind, and this can be somewhat harder, is where the story begins. It won't necessarily begin when the main character opens a door or hangs up the phone; not only do we, as writers, have to worry about a beginning hook, we also have to know what sets the plot, the main character, in motion.

So if you notice your story heading way, way up there, you might want to start snipping away those words. Insisting that all 200,000 words (or whatever) is necessary for one book will not bring agents to your table, no matter how good a writer you are. And that's especially true if you're a first timer, when agents and publishers have no idea how much you'll sell.

~Nancy Beck


Angie said...

185K for commercial fiction? Whoa. LOL!

Another thought to keep in mind, and this can be somewhat harder, is where the story begins.

Definitely. [nod] I think this is the other end of the structure problem I was talking about the other day. My focus was on a writer who didn't recognize when a story had ended, but a lot of writers (and a lot of the same writers) don't have a good handle on where it starts, either.

Goal --> Conflict --> Struggle = Plot = Story. The reader should be presented with the protag's goal as closely as possible to where they're shown what the conflict is; that's where the story starts.

Or as some writer (or maybe an editor) whose name I forget now once wrote, the story starts on the day everything changed.

It's even possible that all 185K words are legitimately part of a single story, structure-wise. That doesn't make it commercially viable, though, and if the writer's looking for a traditional publisher then commercial viability is an important factor, whether or not it offends someone's sense of creative esthetics. [wry smile] If it really is a good, coherent story even at that length (which I'm sort of skeptical of, but just for the sake of argument) then he could find an audience for it online. It just wouldn't be as large an audience as he (or she) likely wants, and they wouldn't get paid for it. If a writer wants to be handed money, though, then the commercial boundaries are there and have to be worked with.

185K. Wow. [grin]


Shayne Raven said...

What would you say is the standard word count for a fantasy novel?

~Nancy said...

185K. Wow. [grin]

Yeah, my eyes bugged out at that, too.

Structure is definitely one of the problems I'm working on. I have a good Writers Digest book on Plot and Structure that I think is good, esp. for the WIP I'm now concentrating on. (Of course, I left it at home today. Jeez.)

Thanks for your insights - and congrats on that epub contract! :-)

~Nancy said...

Hi, Shayne!

From what I've been able to gather, 120K is the absolute upper limit, with a minimum of about 80K. I'd probably shoot for an 80K-100K average, but when you're writing the first draft, just write it (without succumbing to the editing bug), and length be damned.

Tell you the truth, I'm not sure at this point where my current WIP is, and since I'm still revising, I'm not going to worry about it at the moment.


Thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Angie said...

Nancy -- thanks! :D I'm still boinging, although the amplitude has damped down a bit. ;)

Structure can be tough. [nod] I look back at some of my older "stories" and just wince; it took a while for me to really get a decent handle on just what a story is, what a scene or a chapter or even a paragraph is, from a structural POV. And you have to learn exactly what a plot is too, so you can relate it to story and structure.

Who wrote that book? I have some other Writers Digest books -- and in fact I'm rereading Card's Characters and Viewpoint right now -- but I don't remember whether I have that one.


~Nancy said...


I have that one of Card's, too, and I think it's pretty good.

The plot and structure one is Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) [whew!] by James Scott Bell (sorry, got the name wrong, sheesh!).

It's part of the Write Great Fiction series, which also includes Nancy Kress' Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint, among others. This is a more recent series Writers Digest has put out, and I found Bell's book pretty helpful. His ideas about when the beginning becomes the middle and the middle becomes the end part of your story is simple: He equates them to doors.

I'll copy the review I have up on Amazon: "The first doorway gets your Main Character from beginning to middle; the idea is to create a scene where the MC is thrust into conflict in a way that keeps him/her there. With the second doorway (middle to ending), something has to happen to set up the final confrontation. It's usually a huge clue, a big piece of information, or a major crisis that sends the MC hurtling towards the conclusion."

There's lots of other good stuff in the book, too.