Thursday, December 08, 2005

Size Does Matter

How long should your story be?

a) as long as it takes to tell
b) a predetermined length that automatically fills a slot

If you picked b) you have a much better chance of selling your work.

Short stories usually have length limitations, due to space constraints. It's much easier to find a market for something 5k than 15k.

And whenever you speak of length, speak in terms of word count, NOT page numbers. Someone using hevlecta 10pt single space can cram 700 words on a page, while an arial 14pt double-spacer with a lot of dialog might fit 150. (for the record, use courier 12pt double space, 1 inch margins, unless you know it's okay to do otherwise)

You should find out the writer's guidelines for length for a particular market before you begin--after all, why write anything without knowing who might buy it?

But if I am writing without a market in mind, I try to keep my shorts between 1500 and 7500 words.

If I go over 7500, I cut. And if I've learned one thing, it's that EVERYTHING can be cut.

Why keep it that length? I edited an anthology (coming out next year from Bleak House Books) and I learned that if given the choice between two 3000 words stories, and a 6000 words story, I go with the two.

When you pick up an antho or a magazine, do you read it cover to cover? Or do you skip around, sampling this story and that story? And which stories do you read first?

In my case, it's the shortest ones.

Every word should count in a narrative, and if you can make it shorter, you should. Didn't Hemingway have some kind of comment about, "I apologize for the length, I didn't have time to make it shorter?"

As for novels, there are no rules set in stone, but this is what I've noticed.

First novels have a better chance of selling if they are under 90k.

The reason is wholly monetary. Your publisher will probably lose money on your first book. But a 150k book will cost more to print, more to ship, and less will fit in a carton. Cost of production figures heavily into a publisher's decision whether to buy or not to buy.

Some genres, such as fantasy and historical romance, tend to be lengthier.

If your book is under 60k, it will have a harder time finding a buyer, both through a publisher and through a customer.

Fiction has set prices. Around 6 bucks for a paperback, 13 bucks for trade paper, and 24 dollars for a hardcover. Some are slightly more or less. Bestsellers command higher prices (I've seen a lot of 29 dollar price tags) but then they're discounted 30%.

So chances are your book will be about $24. A consumer will look at a thin 60K word book, and a thicker 100K word book, see they're both the same price, and assume bigger is better.

It's unlikely a publisher will price your book lower because it's shorter, for the same reason Shell sells gas comparable to Mobil--they want to stay competitive.

Are there exceptions? Always. But if you're trying to break into this business, which is hard enough, why stack even more odds against yourself?

Whiskey Sour was 68k. The hardcover was 270 pages, and it was 45 chapters.

Bloody Mary was 71k, 307 pages, 53 chapters.

Rusty Nail was 78k, 289 pages, 54 chapters.

Same font size/style/typesetting for all of them, so why do the numbers seem strange?

The page count/word count ratio changes, depending on how much dialog is in a book. Dialog takes up page space, but involves less words.

Rusty Nail was more action in it than Whiskey Sour, which had more dialog.

This brings up another point: White space.

Be aware of white space. Readers like dialog. They like looking at a page and seeing a lot of white space. Long, clunky paragraphs are intimidating.

Have you ever watched someone browse? They'll flip through a few pages, and you can see the gears in their heads turning as they think: Do I have time to read this? Will it be fun or a chore? Can I finish it in one or two sittings? Does it have long chapters, or short ones I can finish before I go to sleep or while I take a bath?

Think about your own reading habits. What do you like to see on a page? What makes a book look inviting, before you've even read a single word?

In my younger days, when I needed to buy some classic for some college class, I'd crack open different editions and find the one that was the most eye-friendly. Big font, not a lot of words crammed on each page.

Dialog makes a book more eye-friendly. At least, to my inner reader.

If I have a paragraph that lasts for more than half the page, I try to break it up. If I have a chapter that lasts longer than 15 pages (3700 words) I try to break it up.

Your words should be good, but also be aware of how they look on the page. Are they enticing your eyes to lock onto random bits of dialog or action? Or do they look boring?

Readers skip long paragraphs.

I randomly picked 5 pages from each of my three novels, to see how many paragraphs they averaged per page (by couting the indents.)

Whiskey Sour averaged 16.8 paragraphs per page. Bloody Mary was 13.4. Rusty Nail was 14.4.

Overall, if you open one of my books, you'll see 14.8 indents per full page.

Let's look at some other authors (hardcover editions.) Here are some bestsellers:

ONE SHOT by Lee Child - 16.6 paraphs per page
CHILL OF FEAR by Kay Hooper - 11.4 per page
TO THE NINES by Jaent Evanovich - 13.8 per page
SCARECROW by Matt Reilly - 16.4 per page
VANISH by Tess Gerritsen - 15.8 per page
STONE COLD by Robert Parker - 17 per page

Here are some debuts:

HUNDREDTH MAN by Jack Kerley - 13.8 per page
BAHAMARAMA by Bob Morris - 13 per page
MISDEMEANOR MAN by Dylan Schaffer - 16.2 per page
KILLER SWELL by Jeff Shelby - 14 per page
STILL RIVER by Harry Hunsicker - 11.8

What does any of this mean?

Well, if you write mysteries or thrillers, it means to avoid long paragraphs, and have a lot of dialog.

Besides looking good on a page, this also has the side-effect of making the books move faster.

By comparision, I went through some POD books that I have from previous contests I've judged.

I looked through three of them. They averaged 7.2 paragraphs a page.

Draw your own conclusions.


Jude Hardin said...

Awesome post, Joe.

One question: What's the preferred method of calculating word count (assuming 12pt courier). The software count isn't really practical from a production standpoint, because of all the white space you mentioned. I've seen a variety of word count methods, but I'm just curious which one is used by most agents and editors. It can make a big difference, as much as 10K words per 50K.

JA Konrath said...

12pt courier double space 1" margins words out to 250 words per page average--at least, that's what editors say.

Convert text from some of your stuff into that, then get an average word count to see if you're in the ballpark.

But the software count is the most accurate, and the one you should use when pitching your work.

As long as you're around 90k, the actual page count doesn't matter... but watch the white space.

Jude Hardin said...

With my widows and orphans function ON, using 12pt dark courier, my pages end up with 22 or 23 lines. That's with 1" margins all around. I think the 250 word/page is based on a 25 line page, but I can't fit that many lines on a page unless I turn widows/orphans off and decrease the size of the bottom margin.

I know in the end it's the work that counts, but like Mark said I don't want to prejudice an editor right off the bat with improper formatting.

So what's the rule here? Go with 25 lines/page with tiny bottom margins, or let MS word do its thing? To me, a manuscript looks better and is easier to read with widows/orphans ON.

Also, Mark, I'm pretty sure the word count/page is much higher using Times New Roman 12 pt, more like 350. I think courier is the touchstone for word count purposes.

Adam Hurtubise said...


Fabulous post.

I don't mean to hijack anything, but I wanted to share some of my own writing experiences, because your post is highly, highly instructive. So instructive, in fact, that I wish I'd read it before writing my novel.

Because I had to learn it all the hard way.

I love long books. Big, long, bold thrillers are fun. And I'd always wanted to write one.

So I started working on my own big, long, bold thriller.

First draft came in at 259,000 words. Which means the page count is somewhere North of a telephone book. Second draft came in at 256,000 words and I was pleased with myself.

I queried an agent who represents a (published) friend of mine, and he suggested I "trim" it (his words, not mine). So I got all pissed off... and then I cut it to 175,000 words and called him back.

The only thing he wanted to know was the word count. The rest of the conversation was: It's still too long.

I got it down to 125,000 words and the agent showed a lot of interest at that point. Enough that things got serious, but not enough for him to represent me.

I had to cut story, rearrange things, make it more of a thriller and less of whatever it was before it was a thriller... but I kept it at 125,000 words. Shorter pages. Snappier dialogue. More, as you said, white space. I use Palatino 12, by the way, with one inch margins, on Word, for Mac.

After a ton of rejections, I "Thriller-ed it up" again, cut about 2,000 more words, and queried one of the agents from my "I dream of having this agent represent me" list.

She represents me. She represents you, too, Joe.

It's now 5,000 words shorter than it was when I signed. Thing is, I had to cut some story, and you're right, everything can be cut, but it's still the same story, at a lot less than half the original length.

And the thing that proves your point is that it's a much, much, much better story.

If I'd written it the way I like to read books, it would have been different still... 256,000 words, sure, but with nice short chapters and snappy paragraphs. Sort of a hybrid between the monster I created and the thing I pared it down to over several more rounds.

The only exception to your method, for me, is All the King's Men.

That's still the best book I've ever read, and it violates everything I know about what readers want. It certainly violates everything you said.

It has hundreds and hundreds of pages, often with only 2 or 3 paragraphs/indents per page.

There's dialogue, but it's spaced out and sparse.

The chapters last 30 or 40 pages, with few breaks. I think Chapter 1 is about 75 pages long.

And yet it's the best book I've ever read. It's clearly the exception, however, and not the rule.

Lots and lots of writers who know they can write resist constructive criticism from people who know the writing business. They think they can drop a 250,000 word manuscript on somebody's desk and sign a contract in 15 minutes.

What I'm saying is: Resist the urge NOT to listen to agents. They do know what they're talking about.

The goal is to get published, right? So write it the way that agents and editors want it written, and you're more likely to get published.

Again, I learned that all pre-Joe, the hard way. Joe is right on target here.

Thanks for sharing, Joe.


Mindy Tarquini said...

*screams in laughter, raises hand*

Guilty as charged. I do ALL this stuff now. I wrote my masterpieces, got little interest. Now I package the product like a...product. Short chapters, punchy dialogue, breaks for action, lots of paragraphs, lots of white space. I even pay attention to where certain pages end - page 5, 10, 20, 30, 50. I'm ruthless about word counts and how long each major section of the story has to be.

The new experiment - write for the market. Does the writing suffer? I don't think so, not in my case. In some ways, it's more liberating. I'm free to tell the story without feeling like I have to create the next classic piece of literature. I'm a storyteller. I like people to read my stories. I want them to be entertained. Best way to do that is to write something that will sell.

Great post, Joe. Thanks.

Jude Hardin said...

I found a good explanation of word count at

Mark, my point on Times New Roman is that it doesn't work out to the same number of words per page as courier. In my middle-grade mystery, for example, using the software word count, it averages 178 words/page in courier, and 222 words/page in Times New Roman. I guess TNR saves paper come printing time, but to me it's harder to read than courier. And, TNR being a proportional font, it would be more difficult for an editor to estimate how much space the manuscript will take up when set into type.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Joe has a pdf on his site that handles all those pesky questions. He even has an example page of 'How the Manuscript Should Look.' Probably seems ridiculous to many-times published authors, but that information is like gold to those of us fairly new at navigating the waters. said to use Times New Roman. Somebody I know has gotten a Very Good Deal using Times New Roman.

I suppose story content had something to do with it also (she deadpanned).

This has created a mid-query font crisis for me.

Jude Hardin said...

TNR makes sense for a query letter, because you can fit more words on a single page (queries should always be only one page).

But for manuscripts, I don't think you can go wrong with courier. I've read comments from editors on a variety of websites, and they all prefer courier. Why? It's easy to read, for one thing, and it's non-proportional, meaning that each character takes up the exact same amount of space. Therefore, it's easier to estimate how many pages (i.e. the production costs) the book will end up being when typeset.

Look at a variety of sources and then make up your mind. I saw several things (at a glance) on that I don't agree with.

Unknown said...

Very helpful post. It's nice to see your word counts to compare to what I have in my novel. Mine is around 340 pages in courier new, but it's around 70k words. (So obviously that 250/page thing is bunk.) But here I thought that might be too short for a mystery. Now I'm thinking I still might cut a couple Ks.

Thanks, Joe.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Font, font, font.

All my queries went out in Palatino 12, just like my MS.

I have an agent, but no book deal, so I'm more than halfway there, but I'm not as qualified as some of you to say Font doesn't matter.

Something close to a traditional font (Times, TNR, Courier, Palatino) should be fine.

The MS needs to look professional and it needs to look like whoever wrote it treated the MS and the agent professionally.


Jude Hardin said...

The thing is, from everything I've read, courier is universally accepted. So why gamble? You can write your drafts in whatever font pleases you, but when you send it out why not go with the industry standard?

Palatino does appear to be non-proportional, so I suppose it's preferable to TNR, which is proportional (various letters take up different amounts of space on the page). But why use an odd font when it's so easy to change everything to courier? Obviously Jane has no problem with reading Palatino, but perhaps some of the editors she's pitching to would rather read courier. It's a no-brainer. Go with what's universally accepted.

By the way, congrats Adam for getting rep from one of the best agents in the biz.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Exact word count, I'm told, is not as important as space. The 250 word per page thing is merely an average for the publisher's benefit, even though short paragraphs and dialogue may cut that count down considerably.

Joe, I wish I'd listened to your advice before writing my first book. I went 100k and now they want another one at the same length. To think I could have shaved at least a quarter off that.


Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Good post Joe! Thanks for the info. This is one of those posts that I print out and stick in my manuscript check folder.

Julia said...


As usual, you've answered questions I didn't even know I should be asking.


Adam Hurtubise said...

Capt. Anom--

Thanks re: Jane. Jane rules. Jane's partner Miriam also rules.

I don't want to put words in Joe's mouth, but I'm fairly sure he agrees with me on that front.

It's been a very easy two years for me.

They don't seem to care a bit about which font I'm using, and they'd tell me to use a different font if they thought it would make a difference.

The other thing I meant to add is: the query font and the MS font should be the same, which was one reason why I DID NOT use Courier.

For me, and this is only for me, I thought it looked less professional to use 2 different fonts.

Bottom line remains that I don't think it makes a hell of a lot of difference what font to use as long as it's one of the more commonly accepted serif fonts (Times, TNR, Courier, Palatino).

I also made liberal use of Italics, smaller font sizes (part of the novel includes newspaper stories), etc. All those big no-nos, but they worked, and nobody said anything, and Jane and Miriam have been repping me for 2 years, and we're working on another novel.

So my take-away from that was very similar to what Joe said early on in his blog, and earlier still on his website: You don't need to follow all the rules to land an agent. He didn't include SASEs, for example, but he sent very professional looking brochures.

The key is that if you're going to break rules, look like a professional when you break them.


Stacey Cochran said...

This is good solid advice. Particularly for the short stories.

I'll only add that it's different for other genres. For example, many major sci-fi editors prefer novels to be at least 100,000 words and usually under 150,000. Fantasy is much the same.

Romance novels tend be shorter 50,000-75,000 words.

Young Adult novels (age 12-18) tend to be in the 30-50,000 word range. And for middle grade readers, 20,000-30,000 words is ideal.

A quick Amazon scan shows that all of Dan Brown's novels incidentally (even his first) were over 120,000 words.

But for those who are just starting out, I'd agree. Shoot for a 70-90,000 word novel.

That's your best bet.

As always, there are exceptions to every rule. If you can sell readers on a 500,000 word novel, hey, go write it. Here's a list of several long novels followed by their word counts:

War and Peace: 540,853 words

The Stand: 464,218 words

The Brothers Karamazov: 384,361 words

East of Eden: 226,979 words

Watchers: 161,814 words

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

I would second everything you said but offer one caveat about paragraphs.

I am seeing more and more books and manuscripts where every sentence--or nearly so--is a separate paragraph. Sentences that should be together for pacing and rhythm are hacked apart.

Although the advice to avoid long, text-heavy paragraphs is good, one also needs to be aware of pacing and the flow of language. Arbitrary division of paragraphs is no better than not dividing them enough.

PJ Parrish said...

I'm going to be a contrarian here, I guess. While I agree it is wise to err on the side of brevity -- especially if you're just starting out -- you still have to tell the story. And as someone point out, what works for a thriller or a chick-lit cozy might not work for a P.D. James-esque mystery with multiple narrative threats and big cast of characters.

I've read crime novels of 200 pages that felt like gum surgery. I've read mysteries of 400 plus-pages that, because of the author's mastery of pacing and suspense, fly by in one night.

My MSs clock in at 120K words or more. I've tried but I just can't tell the story in anything less.

But I gotta agree with those of you preaching the value of white space. Reading is a visual thing (aural too but that's another topic!) and what worked for Dickens and Proust doesn't cut it in our age. At least if you're writing entertainment.

Jude Hardin said...


What genre do you write for? Are your books better edited than your blog posts?

What is a 1.5 book?

Do you really think that paragraphs are getting shorter because of reading level? Do you purposely write on an eighth grade level?

Read Joe's "Quitting" post.

Think about it.

Jude Hardin said...

Lydia just sounds a little too cute to be true. Where's her web site? If she has books out there, why is she hiding? Is she afraid to promote her own work?

What's up, Lyd? If you're for real, I'll be happy to swallow my snark. In fact, I'd be happy to learn some things from you. Sounds like you've found some angles that nobody else knows about.