Write on- and on and on…word count 700,000


The art of writing

Dear Agent

Can I send you my very first novel? It’s only seven hundred thousand odd words.

         Errg…I don’t think so.  A large novel is daunting. It just is. It’s physically large to hold, expensive to produce, and has to be crackingly brilliant to go to all that trouble.  There used to be some rules about how long a novel should be. If you know them let me know, for I firmly believe you are not writing a 2,000 word article for a journal, you are writing a novel and it should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Saying that really contradicts what I first started out writing, ‘don’t send you first novel of 500,000 words out’. That’s the nature of novels though. Some are short some are long and all have to be the best they can be.

Some interesting novel lengths…

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany –that I am just about finishing is a great story of only some 246 pages.  (I only count the actual text pages)

A Conspiracy of Friends by Alexander McCall Smith,– next on my reading list, is  297 pages

Pure by Andrew Miller is 342 pages

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber a massive 833 pages, of which I loved reading and spending all that time engrossed in.

Animal Farm by George Orwell was only 29,000 words and his 1984 is some 88,000 odd words. I was surprised to read that figure, I thought it was longer, but memory does that.

George Elliot’s breath taking Middlemarch is some 310, 000 words

War and Peace a whopping 544,000 words

Milan Kundera’s amazing The Unbearable Lightness of Being some 85,199 thousand words.

Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours comes in at 54,000 words

Lisa See’s,  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is 99,000 words

What does this all mean? The figures are all over the place as is the writing style and topic of each novel. But each is well written and story is brilliant. That’s all a good novel needs.

Publishers Weekly Blog, PWxyz, recently blogged that the average book runs around 64,500 words and they got their information from Amazon’s “Great Text Stats Feature”, which will count away words in novels, digest it and spit out some interesting and maybe worthless figures, but as with any book no matter how many words are in it, it is only as good as the writing and story. No number crunching will change that. You can usually find the Text Stats Link, past the reader’s reviews about half way down the page, an if you click the link it takes you to the world of graphs, number, and word counts. Not all books have this link, but the great classics apparently do.

Do we seriously need to know all this? Either the book is a good read or it’s not. I think it can be highly misleading to read the stats. There is nothing worse than reading a novel that is a word filler. I have a dictionary if I want loads of words. Length is an important quality of the novel. It is part of what makes a novel great and only the story can dictate the length.

And as I write that, I am reminded that National Novel Writing Month requires its novels to be at least 50,000 words, but why? Is it to make the new novelist write a longer piece and get the feel of what a novel should be?

I’ve heard through the publishing grapevine most first novels are taken more seriously if the word count is between 80,000 and 100,000. I have doubts about the grapevine. Is longer better? I don’t think so. One of my favourite authors, Graham Green wrote, “A sprawling style is unlikely to emerge from such an apprenticeship.”


E.M Foster another favourite of mine, wrote. “Long books are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.”

Which I don’t think is a hundred per cent fair, but still has some serious merit. It’s far better to have a reader cry, “it ended too soon!” rather than, “Thank God, I got through that!”

If the writing is brilliant, the story amazing, that is what will sell the book. Write the best novel you can, edit it until your eyes bleed, or your editor’s eyes bleed out errant commas and then send it out.

About susan sheldon nolen

It’s rare to catch me without coffee, a form of camera, or my beloved wire fox terriers. I love the history, the art, and it’s a massive part of my life, as I either paint, write, or get interrupted by my dogs, reminding me of the real world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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6 Responses to Write on- and on and on…word count 700,000

  1. Cameron says:

    Re: NaNoWriMo, my understanding is that the 50K word goal is a balance between pushing a writer towards a challenging but possible daily word average and approaching a sort of commercially viable average length. Having “completed” it twice without getting to the end of the story, I like to treat it as a month’s writing camp.

    You’re right of course, the story is what matters, and the crafting of that story, not the length, but the business of books is always looking at what people will buy based on what they’ve bought before, and then we get projected “ideal lengths” and whatnot. Frankly, it’s maddening. That said, my first novel is very much a genre piece, and so I have aimed to finish inside the industry standard margins to increase the chances someone will take a second look. Hedging my bets, as it were.

  2. Pseu says:

    700 000? WOw!
    Is that a first draft, or an editied version?

    A synpsis and three chapters should get them hooked 🙂

  3. Amen, Susan 🙂 Keep it short, pithy, let it hit you between the eyes.
    I did NOT know that about Middlemarch!
    Great post!

  4. Over here, they keep drumming 75 – 90K in everything I attend. Mine is 80K.

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