Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wordcount Dracula

Q: My middle grade novel is complete at 250,000 words, and have five sequels planned which will each be approximately the same length. I know that this is considered "long" but I really can't cut anything, it is all integral to the story. What do you think?
Hold that thought, I am tying a noose.

In all seriousness... while this actually happens to be a fake question, I get queries for books this long all the time. And really? The idea of reading 1.5 million words, or even 250k words, makes me feel dead inside. Your story does not need to be this long, I promise you. (If it DOES need to be this long, it is not a middle grade, or it should be divided into 20 books, not 6.)

YES, if you are hugely successful with your first book, your publisher will want lots more books from you. YES, the more successful your books, the longer they will get to be without anyone batting an eyelash (see: Harry Potter series). But no publisher will let you publish a debut novel that needs to be a lengthy series in order to make sense, or a debut children's novel of 200,000+ words. This is the reality.

I am on the record as saying I don't really care about word counts unless they are so off-the wall out of bounds that it is absurd. And it is true. But there are generally accepted norms for this sort of thing that you should be aware of. I've pulled some new and classic examples in each fiction category so you can see how they vary.

PICTURE BOOK:  0-1,300 words. Sweet spot: 300-550*
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 336
Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer: 348
Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor: 418
Ladybug Girl by David Soman: 721
* Note: I really advise clients to keep their picture books under 600 words - 800 at the very top. Picture books in the 1,000+ word range are generally folktales and fairy tales... and are not exactly in fashion. Unless you are a really gifted folklorist, I would not go down this road. There are very few such authors in the country. They know who they are.

EARLY READER: 100-2,500 words. Sweet spot: (depends on level)*
Elephant and Piggie: Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems: 199
On the Go with Pirate Pete and Pirate Joe by AE Cannon: 1,180
Dodsworth in London by Tim Egan: 1,293
Little Bear by Else Minarik: 1,630
Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel: 1,727
*Note: Because these books are meant for brand-new readers, these books are often marked according to level - the higher the level, the more sophisticated/longer the text can be. Publishers may have their own specific guidelines about these leveled readers, even requiring a certain number of syllables per page for readability. 

CHAPTER BOOK: 4,000-13,000 words. Sweet spot: 6,000-10,000
Magic Tree House Lions at Lunchtime by Mary Pope Osborne: 5,313
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park: 6,570
My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett: 7,682
Judy Moody was in a Mood by Megan McDonald: 11,049 

REALISTIC MIDDLE GRADE: 25,000-60,000 words. Sweet spot: 30,000-45,000
Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban: 29,052
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson: 32,888
Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech: 44,907
Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner: 48,454 

FANTASY MIDDLE GRADE: 35,000-75,000 words. Sweet spot: 45,000-65,000
Juliet Dove, Queen of Love by Bruce Coville: 43,912
White Mountains by John Christopher: 44,763
Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander: 46,926
Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo: 65,006
Harry Potter & the Sorceror's Stone by JK Rowling: 77,508 

REALISTIC YA: 35,000-75,000 words. Sweet spot: 45,000-70,000
Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles: 40,480
Great Call of China by Cynthea Liu: 52,532
Flash Burnout by LK Madigan: 67,186 
Looking for Alaska by John Green: 69,023
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly: 71,935 

FANTASY YA: 50,000 words to 150,000 words*. Sweet Spot: 65,000-85,000 words.
Magic Under Glass by Jackie Dolamore: 55,787
Tithe by Holly Black: 66,069 
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr: 73,426
Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: 95,605
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: 130,949  
Eragon by Christopher Paolini: 157,000

* It is really not advisable to go over 100,000 words as a debut author, unless you already have a following. Consider yourself warned - 100k is often the magic number that makes editors and agents curse, cry, and possibly delete. Not that you CAN'T be published over 100k, it definitely happens for select super-awesome YA fantasy in particular... just that it really will be yet another hurdle for you.

In every category, there are also a few random outliers, like Sarah, Plain and Tall (a middle grade at 9,000 words) or This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (a YA at 250,000) ... but for the purposes of this exercise, let's assume that you aren't Patricia MacLachlan or Aidan Chambers.  

ETA: Remember, this list is by no means exhaustive and should not be considered law. Don't get too freaked out about it... just find the average word count for books similar to your own, and try to be somewhere vaguely in the ballpark.

So how can you find these numbers yourself? Well, while the Accelerated Reader program is lame in a lot of ways, this is a very handy tool: To find pretty much any kids / YA word count, you can use the AR BookFinder. (Click 'librarian' or 'teacher' and then search for books like yours - click on the titles to get all kinds of info about them, including wordcount!)