How many words should my novel be?

I get this question a lot. And the answer just got trickier in my mind, on account of how much pain it’s recently caused one of my retreat participants—an amazing writer we’ll call Pam. (Not her real name.)

Pam came to Carmel over a year ago, lugging along the printed pages of her extraordinary novel—a story loosely based on her wilder and dramatically riveting younger days. Soon after our week together, I introduced Pam to an agent in Manhattan named Beth (her real name) who loved the book instantly. Beth and I had only worked together with two other writers, but I knew her to be smart, dedicated, and loyal. She’s been in the game for decades and has skillfully agented a few bestselling authors I greatly admire.

Pam was elated. She found in Beth a wise sounding board, and a friend. They embarked on a year of intricate rewrites together and finally, last week, they both agreed the book was “totally ready” to shop. “It’s perfect!” Beth cooed over the phone to a crying-tears-of-joy Pam. “I’m so proud of you!” Words any writer loves to hear from her agent.

Pam’s retreat mates were ready to break out the champagne!

The book is good sized—around 140,000 words, but incredibly tight and cinematic. Beth’s thinking was that it was better to risk going a bit long because of the quality, and that the editor at the publishing house where it lands may enjoy getting her paw prints on it and doing those final cuts if deemed necessary. (This is ONLY because the book is a page-turner from start to finish.)

But at the last minute, a gal close to Pam—with a very good track record herself in publishing—read the novel and was ADAMANT that she cut the book down to 80,000 words. “It won’t sell unless you do!” she said.

Oh, no biggie. Just cut nearly half the book, which would require losing several key characters and significantly altering plot lines. Meaning—at least six months of round-the-clock work. Pam was heartbroken, and started second guessing all the choices she and Beth had so confidently made.

The thought of cutting 60,000 words after the intense collaboration Pam and Beth had experienced over the prior 13 months put them into a panic. Pam called to get my take and my stomach dropped. After engaging in my own massive cuts and rewrites over the past two years (self imposed, but necessary because I kept adding scenes and my book was ballooning), I knew the agony of thinking the end is in sight, only to be trust back into the mosh pit of word-count overwhelm.

Now, I’ve been writing in a different genre—memoir, not novels. But the issue at hand isn’t so different. Several friends of mine have written short memoirs in the 60,000 – 80,000 word range, and a few were longer, upwards of 100,000. Mine couldn’t seem to edit down to less than 120,000 words, which worried me constantly. I’d pour over the pages, looking for micro and macro cuts anywhere I could. What saved me from slashing scenes that had received positive feedback (just to meet some arbitrary norm and give publishers less production costs and the reader a cheaper price point) was the realization that Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, was around 130,000 words. Thank you, Liz! I for one love a story I can get lost in. Short memoirs tend to leave me grumpy–like I’ve been barred from seconds (and thirds!) from an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

(Look. I’m no dummy. I get that Liz is a once-in-a-lifetime writer and that I risk looking like a jerk comparing myself to her, but that’s not my point. My point is that I loved every scene in EPL and learning of its length freed me to think bigger from a size standpoint.)

Anyhow… Back to Pam! I did a little research on the most successful novels of the past 100 years to see what kind of support and counsel I could give my friend. And I was surprised—and happy to learn that there really are no norms and patterns with the most famous novels.

And I believe Pam’s book is good enough to one day be in that category.

For a few examples, let’s start on the low end of word count where we have The Great Gatsby clocking in at approx. 47,000 words. More recently The Fault in our Stars comes in at 67,000. There’s The Joy Luck Club and The Hobbit at 91,000 and 95,000 words respectively. But Schindler’s List and A Tale of Two Cities are each in the 130’s, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that The Signature of All ThingsMemoirs of a Geisha, and Goblet of Fire come in at 163,000, 186,000, and 190,000 words!

That’s a hell of a lot of words, people! (Maybe I could add some of my scenes back.)

But, wait! We’re not even close to hitting the word-count ceiling. On the high, high end we’ve got Gone With The Wind at 418,000 words, and more recently A Suitable Boy at almost 600,000 words.

I know we’re in the Twitter age of 140 characters, but limiting a great book to 80,000 words just rubs me the wrong way and always will. (I’m a tree hugger, though, so mine will be published on recycled paper, like my last book, Generation Green.)

I relayed my search results to Pam, along with my wish that she and Beth NOT buy into anyone else’s fear and shop the book as is to a few editors. See what they have to say BEFORE taking out the scissors. Pam agreed. So did Beth (thank God!), and everyone’s back to being excited and hopeful.

Soon we’ll see what the market has to say. I’m guessing it’ll say that 140,000 of riveting writing is just about right.

Happy weekend, everyone!



P.S. In case you’re wondering, this blog post came in just under 1,000 words.

P.S.S. We still have a few writing retreat spots open for May and June—a beautiful time in Carmel if you’d like to consider joining us.

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