Myths About Word Count – Rest Easy, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and NaNoWriMo Writers

mytwocentsOn the eve of NaNoWriMo, the 50k novel-writing marathon, it might be a good time to talk word count.

Now, those familiar with this website know that I have a lot of gripes about this stuntfest. However, I’m not here to pick on NaNo this time, but defend it, because one complaint lodged against NaNoWriMo is incredibly unfair: the idea that 50k isn’t enough for a novel.

It’s ironic, actually, considering that NaNoWriMo is all about a monthly word count, daily word counts, and various accounting strategies for busting out the “winning” 50,000 words by St. Andrew’s Day. But my argument that the annual stuntfest misses the point of writing by fetishizing word count applies equally to NaNoWriMo’s critics who preach a weird dogma that 50k doesn’t qualify as novel-length.

In fact, specific to science fiction and fantasy, there is a widely held belief that 50k isn’t even half enough for a novel, November-written or not.

As this Writer’s Digest piece (amusingly billed as “The Definitive Post” on word count) asserts: “Science fiction and fantasy are the big exceptions because these categories tend to run long. It has to do with all the descriptions and world-building in the writing. With these genres, I would say 100,000 – 115,000 is an excellent range.” Even among non-sf novels, The Definitive Post claims that below 70k is “too short.”

I call double bullshit on that. And, I really don’t care that the WD writer admits that there are “exceptions to the rule.” That’s bullshit, too, passive-aggressive bullshit. There is no such rule. The rule being preached here is a myth. The reason the “exceptions” are unusual has nothing to do with some imaginary quantitative rule; it has to do with the fact that we aren’t paying attention to the real qualitative rules of storytelling that make those so-called exceptions work.

By paying homage to a superficial, legalistic idol of perceived word-count standards, we miss the true spirit of fiction, what Brian McDonald calls the “invisible ink” of storytelling. Those word-count standards are largely numerological hocus-pocus, heresy and superstition rather than the true faith of literature.

But, let me pick it apart one patty at a time.

Firstly, the idea that the tendency to greater length in science fiction and fantasy novels has anything to do with world building is inane. Writer’s Digest uses this lame excuse to explain an extra 10,000 words (100k minus 90k) to set up that imaginary world! That’s a lot of exposition, folks.

This belief is absurd at face. If this were a genuine requirement for writing in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, there would be no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy short story. There would be no Analog or Asimov’s or Clarkesworld. There would be no “Ponies” by Kij Johnson. Setting up the fantastical world would drag out too long. Yet, in the real world of science fiction and fantasy writing, the fact is that it doesn’t have to drag out too long.

Facts are stubborn things. Even in fiction.

More importantly, as Juliette Wade points out, good writers of non-fantastical fiction are not privileged above sci-fi and fantasy writers in this regard. They can’t simply rely on a reader’s “default settings” any more than sci-fi and fantasy authors can. Not if they want to write powerful and effective stories with a real sense of place, like the masterfully evoked Sweden of Stieg Larsson’s mysteries. Not if they want to avoid tripping over prejudices and stereotypes about what the reader’s default settings might be in regard to gender, sexuality, race, culture, etc.

It might be fair to say that good fantasy writers will have to write more words per story than lazy, chauvinistic authors of realist fiction writing for a stereotyped audience, but that’s not really about comparing genres, is it? It’s about comparing good writing to bad writing. Moreover, good writers not only build their worlds carefully regardless of genre, they find ways to do it inside the telling of the story, not by tacking on extra words. Certainly not by adding 10 thousand more words per novel.

Again, qualitative factors are what matter. Bean-counters put down your calculators and pay attention.

The second bullshit I’m calling is that our word count expectations in general are absurd, both the 6-digit fantasy bias and the “70k is too short” bias for other genres. This myth persists because so many existing novels contain a lot of writing that should have been edited out or—if it was kept because it was such good writing—could have been edited out without seriously affecting the novel-length story being told. We can excuse the inclusion this extra material as supporting character development, or theme, or mood, or whatever, but the basic truth is that most novels could be well trimmed without the novel-length story suffering.

This means that the word-count numbers are bloated because the stories aren’t as tight as they might have been. It’s like when deleted scenes get reinserted for the director’s cut DVD of a film: yes, the story works either way, but the question we’re asking is about what’s necessary. That’s what a rule is.

I am reminded of the ruined school scene in the extended cut of James Cameron’s Avatar. Yes, it punches up the emotional impact of the film. Yes, it adds to our understanding of Neytiri’s motivation. Yes, it provides colorful background. But, no … absolutely no … no-effin’-way no is it necessary for the story. It was cut from the theatrical release because it could be cut. And any honest and rational “rule” about length requirements for stories cannot arbitrarily include cuttable material simply because it’s usually not cut.

And, typical published novels contain a lot of material that could be cut, but isn’t. This doesn’t always make them worse for being longer and I’m not saying the extra material should always be cut. I’m just saying that standard numbers, based on the typical novel that includes material that could be cut, are not representative of any realistic requirements for novel-length storytelling.

In fact, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: an agent, editor, or publisher looks at a novel perceived to be 50k “too long” differently from a novel perceived to be 20k “too short.” In the former, more opportunities for cutting might stand out, while opportunities for expansion might be “seen” in the latter, actually just to fluff it out to the expected size. The quantitative bias perpetuates itself—not exclusive of realistic qualitative standards based on storytelling and structure, but certainly to their peril.

The bottom line is this: since low-count “exceptions to the rule” exist—i.e., novels that clearly work very well despite not being stretched to meet some arbitrary word-count expectation—then from a storytelling perspective it can only be that the expectation is wrong, inflated by novels that are good but nevertheless not as tightly edited as they might have been.

It’s okay to have those longer novels, which contain well-written but ultimately unnecessary material that gives us our inflated ideas of how long a novel “should” be. Like the uncut versions of films, the typical longer-than-necessary novel is still fun to read and profitable. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But, it’s not fair or rational (or professional) to put those bloated numbers out as goal posts that novel writers have to reach to be taken seriously. Pros have a lot of inside experience that translates as great advice to writers, but this is one case where it is the agents and publishers who really need to pull their heads out of their asses and change the way they think.


So, let’s get down to brass tacks take a look at some very financially successful, very well-received real-world examples of NaNo-length and sci-fi/fantasy fiction. And no, I do not accept that this is pointing out “exceptions” to some superficial, quantitative rule of novel-length word-count. These stories are evidence of the true, but invisible, qualitative rules of novel-length storytelling.

First, in the NaNoWriMo ballpark (30-60k):

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis ~36k

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury ~46k

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald ~47k

The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton ~49k

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut ~49k

The Hours, Michael Cunningham ~54k

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner ~57k

Lord of the Flies, William Golding ~60k

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell ~60k

And, below the sci-fi/fantasy myth of 100+k:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? Philip K. Dick ~61k

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley ~64k

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury ~65k

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling ~77k (Chamber of Secrets stands at ~85k)

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde ~78k

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein ~85k

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell ~90k

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien ~95k*

Not bad company, eh? Do these novels fail at world building? No, so that explanation is nonsense. And, so is the idea that NaNoWriMo efforts don’t count as novels (based on word count) or that sci-fi/fantasy novels should be 100+ thousand words long.

So, if you’re not pounding it out to the mythical standards of novel length, don’t sweat it.

Don’t sweat the word count, that is. You still need to sweat the story-telling, because that’s what makes a novel work regardless of whether it’s in the Narnian mid-30s or stretched to Tolstoyan half-a-million heights. Focus on the quality of your story, not the quantity.

* And, let’s not forget that Tolkien’s 455k The Lord of the Rings, often considered a single novel and published in three volumes for economic reasons, is organized by the author himself into six books, giving us an average of ~76k per book.

You may also like...