When I’m editing, one of the issues that often arises is the size of both a manuscript and of individual chapters.
If you’re writing a novel for the first time, make sure you know the expectations of your genre. Dana Isaacson, an editor and ghostwriter, has some genre word counts here. Writer’s Digest also has the same here. You may have written a brilliant novel, but if the word count is double or triple the size of regular novels, and your name is not Stephen King, chances are you’ll have a difficult to impossible time finding an agent or publisher. Big novels are costly to publish; each page equals a certain amount of money. Yes, Stephen King writes huge doorstoppers, but he’s guaranteed to bring in sales—big sales. The same can’t be said for an unknown author—or even a previously published author whose sales have been decent, but not spectacular.
If you are a newer author, experts say a safe bet is in the 90,000-word range. Literary agent Paula Munier has a good post about that, including how many words should be written per act.
If you are self-publishing, you can bend these rules. Of course, publishing a print book that is 500 pages will be much costlier than publishing a 300-page book. To make money on a lengthy print book, you’ll have to raise the price. Ask yourself some hard questions: Will readers buy a print book that costs this much from an author they have never read? Will you be doing book signings and other events with print books (which necessitates you first paying for these books)? Or will you be mostly promoting the ebook, which is not affected by length?
Another place where size comes into play is chapters. I’m often asked about chapter lengths. If you are writing a thriller, or any other fast-paced story, you might want to keep your chapters very short—what editor Shawn Coyne calls “potato-chip scenes.” Most of us can’t eat just a couple of potato chips. You start and, before you know it, the whole bag is gone.
Coyne, the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, says: “Two-thousand-word scenes/chapters are potato-chip length. That is, if you are about to go to bed and you’re reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around two-thousand-word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter. But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato-chip scenes all through the night.”
Don’t worry too much about these lengths during the writing process. But, once you are revising, go back and reconsider long scenes and chapters, as well as the overall length of the manuscript, especially if it is too short or too long. Make sure you have the appropriate number of words in each act. Keeping to the right lengths often fixes issues of pacing and will keep readers hooked.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.