I know. Why should there be limitations on how many words are used to tell a particular story? Truly, there aren’t. It’s your story, after all, so you can go on and on and on and on—and on, as long as it serves your tale, right? Well, yes and no.
Adhering to word count isn’t an issue when you’re writing something for yourself, family or friends to read. I’m not saying that’s the only reason you shouldn’t concern yourself with word count, but it is the one time you can count on it not to matter (or at least you can hope it doesn’t—ask a family member at what point in your 200,000 word cozy mystery they tuned out and you might get an idea why genre and word count have such a strict relationship).
And, of course, there are authors out there who, due to their renown or the stupendous stories they weave, will be permitted to exceed expected word count without so much as a peep. There’s nothing wrong with that. We enjoy their stories nonetheless. Their talent shines through. But for mere mortals who are struggling to get published, there are rules and boundaries and expectations.
Even the self-published author might consider keeping their suspense novel to no longer than 75,000 words because, in most cases, those of us looking to read suspense have come to expect the length. Too short, and you’re feeling cheated; too wordy, and the only suspense might be the unfound answer to the constantly circling question in your head as to when it’s all going to end.
There are reasons why publishers have placed word count limits for their various imprints or editorial lines. Experience, naturally, and reader expectation, and some limits ultimately reflect the bottom line (printing costs). Because of this, guidelines regarding length are rather stringent. Self-publishing affords an author more leeway, certainly, but one should still be cognizant of what a reader has come to expect in terms of story length.
For example, let’s say you write romance. Harlequin is a well-known publisher of romance, with various lines. Their Intrigue line is for high-stake thrillers. Word count: 55,000—fast read, fast action. The Harlequin Historical line requires a word count of between 70,000 and 75,000 words. A historical romance (or fiction in general) has more scenery to it, more backdrop in which the characters interact. It moves at a different pace (not dragging, though, or you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else along the line). My novel, Once and Always, a historical set in India in the 19th century, was published by Kensington and consisted of 110,000 words. Each publisher has their own limits. I am only citing these as examples.
Science fiction and fantasy novels require quite a bit of world-building and the usual word count for one of these is 90,000 to 120,000 words. Thrillers generally run about 70,000 words. Cozy mysteries top off at between 50,000 to 60,000 words, although if they’re a bit shorter, no one’s complaining. The length still works. Are mystery novels your forte? Keep it to about 80,000 words. There are, however, mystery sub-genres with varied word counts. In fact, there are exceptions to all of the above, whether because of the story you’re telling, or because a particular publishing house has its own outlines for their needs.
To sum it up, if you’ve written (or are planning to write) the next great [fill in genre here] novel and are seriously looking to have it published by some other means than self-publishing, take a check on word count to see if you’re in the ball park before submitting. Seriously, you could find your work rejected because it doesn’t fit within the word count parameter. If the novel is exceptional, though, you might have an editor asking you to tweak it to fit the boundaries. You know what I say to that? Don’t take the moral high ground. Sit and think about it for a (little) bit. They are, after all, the professionals. You might actually want to work with them and take their advice.
So, as always, research your market. Research, research, research, and always write the best you can and then write it again.
Until next time folks, have a great week!