The Elusive Word Count

I’ve kept on with my writing like a good little writer should, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been struggling with and getting aggravated over what may seem, and probably is, trivial.

Word count.

For writers just starting out, you may have realized that there are set guidelines for the average amount of words in an MS (manuscript) for any given genre. Heck, they’ve even incorporated a general word count for book genres in Sims 3! And it’s fairly accurate for the most part, though I’ll beg to differ on their length for “Romance” fiction. Speaking of trivial…

If you’d like a list of standard word counts by genre, here’s a decent and relatively up-to-date list. I want to focus upon the current genre I’m writing: high fantasy to include epic fantasy. The typical word count for high/epic fantasy is 100k-120k words.

Problem:

I began my story with a word count goal of at least 180k. Why? Because I read a lot of long high fantasy and sci-fi novels, to include the Dune series, Martin, Erikson, Goodkind, Williams, etc. and I did an average word count of their novels. They reached 200k and above. So I, being the typical uninformed self, thought I can do that too. And after 30k words into my story, I really thought I could. I still think I could make this a 180k+ word novel. But then for reasons unknown (I really don’t know), I thought, “I’m not a published author. And wait, I hear agents have word count limits. I know I’ve looked into this thing before, but that was a long time ago. Wait, let me look into this again.”

So I began looking up and kept arriving at the numbers 100-120k words. I was crushed. Devastated. Maybe I’m delusional, that my story really wouldn’t be that long, I’m just hoping it’ll be 180k words. But seeing that Book 1 of my story is going to end at around 50k words, it’s possible, or not. I’m not sure. And that’s my problem. Agents give leeway to authors who have a proven track record, which applies to most of those authors I just listed up there. First-time authors? Much less leeway. There are always exceptions, but they are so few and far between that you won’t be able to disprove what I just said up there.

Solution:

  1. I’m thinking much too far ahead. I haven’t even finished my story yet! I’m not even halfway through it, and I’m already fretting about an imaginary word count!
  2. This is a first draft. I’m sure there will be a lot of condensing, merging, deleting (*cringe*), and other methods of reducing that word count.

What I learned from this sad episode is: Don’t worry about technicalities while you’re writing. That’s the whole point of a first draft.

Worry about all these things when you complete your MS. This doesn’t mean I’m going to make the 120k word mark, I might miss it by a long shot (note I’m still confident about making it a super-long novel — I’ll get a good laugh at this when I finish at 90k words!), but it won’t prevent me from querying it. Not that I’m a phenomenal writer, but I’ll never forget what one writer told me: “Write a good story, let your agent worry about it’s length. Especially if you are a first time novelist, the most important thing is quality. Tell a gripping tale and it will find a home.”

ps. For kicks and giggles, I did a word count of a couple fantasy books in my library:

“Wizard’s First Rule”  Terry Goodkind; random page: 366 words. TOR Fantasy, 1994. 836p x 360 = 300,960 total words*
“Otherland River of Blue Fire” Tad Williams; random page: 374 words. DAW Books, 1998. 675p x 370 = 249,750 total words

How’s them numbers?

*total words is average. Could be more or less!

pps. Just look at the fretting and the frustration over word count … there’s more than one page of this! It’s just awful.

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About Jessica M


2 responses to “The Elusive Word Count

  • The Empty Pen

    I obsess over word count but try very hard not to. I’m on draft two and when I realized that I had to delete a large portion of the story, I started to pay attention. Watching that bleeding was terrifying, but I also had quite a bit of the story I needed to build up, so I am adding word count. It just takes much longer to add words that to delete them.

    I know it’s hard, but if you can ignore your word count while working on your first draft, please do it! Let your story come first, then worry about that pesky word count!

    • Jessica M

      “Had to delete a large portion of the story” — ouch! Hopefully it makes the story better as a whole, my best regards with your editing.

      Thank you for your encouragement. I can’t say that I’m still not worried about it, especially now that I’m 50k words into my MS with my MC’s only about a quarter of their way through their journey. I’ve just tucked that nagging word limit to the recesses of my mind, hoping it won’t be returning until I write “The End.”

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