Jan 21 2010

How Long Should Your Novel Manuscript Be Before You Submit It?

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

The shortest, most cheesy answer is “however long it takes to tell the story.”  Unfortunately, if it takes you hundreds of thousands of words to tell the story, getting it published it will be practically impossible.

According to Chuck Sambuchino, the most publisher-friendly length for an adult novel manuscript is between 80,000-100,000 words.  Science fiction and fantasy authors usually need a bit more space for worldbuilding, so he says the ideal range for them is between 100,000-115,000 words.  However, Chuck is sort of working for the Devil, so I’d feel bad if he were my only source for this post.

Colleen Lindsay, a literary agent at FinePrint, has similar guidelines: around 100K for epic fantasy or sci-fi, 80-90K for thrillers and 80-100K for crime fiction. Also, she’s not in league with Lucifer.

Both Chuck and Colleen emphasize that there are exceptions, like first-time novelists publishing 200,000 word behemoths.  But such exceptions are extremely rare. If you try going well above or below the usual range, your writing needs to be extraordinary. I would not recommend doing so unless you are absolutely sure that your story cannot work at a more conventional range.

UPDATE: If you’re writing for a younger audience (YA, middle grade, picture books, etc), please see this.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “How Long Should Your Novel Manuscript Be Before You Submit It?”

  1. Contra Gloveon 22 Jan 2010 at 9:58 am

    Hmm.

    My story does not take place on contemporary Earth, the historical past, or “twenty minutes into the future.” In short, some worldbuilding is in order.

    However, do you have any tips for not letting it slow the story down too much? Granted, it does feature cultural practices derived from those of modern-day Earth, and the characters are aware of it, but I do not want to freeze the story with a wall of text about things not relevant to the action.

  2. B. Macon 22 Jan 2010 at 10:40 am

    Hmm. I think that’s a good question. Here are some suggestions.

    Please focus on showing us the society in action rather than sifting through backstory. The backstory is usually less important and almost always less interesting. For example, are people afraid of the police? Showing that is probably a much better introduction to your society than opening with a history lesson about how Generalissimo Smith came to power.

    As much as possible, put your world-building into action and dialogue rather than narratorial exposition. That usually sets a more active pace and makes it easier to tie the world-building into what is actually happening.

    Be really careful about “as you know, Bob” dialogue. For example, let’s say you’ve got two characters in an alternate universe that veered off from ours when McCain got elected President. It’d sound pretty tacky to have one character say something like “As you know, McCain got elected last year” because it doesn’t sound natural for people to talk about information they already know like that. The dialogue would feel much more believable if it built on the characters’ shared knowledge. Something like “I haven’t felt this [ADJECTIVE] since McCain got elected!”

    One setup that’s often effective is introducing an outsider to the society or using a protagonist that’s an outsider. For example, Harry Potter is raised by nonwizards, so he’s an outsider that has to be gradually introduced to magical stuff. This will probably make that character more relatable (because we know as little about the world as he does) and we’ll learn more as the world is introduced to him.

    Introduce details about the world, particularly the backstory, gradually. Otherwise, readers might get overwhelmed. Also, please be careful about imaginary words (words that won’t immediately make sense to the readers, like Narnia or Muggle or Hogwarts or whatever).

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  4. Contra Gloveon 13 Feb 2010 at 7:42 am

    Now I have a question about languages.

    In my story, I will write all dialogue and narration in English; however, the characters are “really” speaking Russian (though they use a lot of American idioms), for reasons having to do with the backstory.

    How do I indicate this elegantly? Dropping foreign words into speech written in English makes no sense from the standpoint of the Translation Convention (see this published author’s website and scroll down to “Language”.) Visual mediums have an easy solution: show lots of writing and signage in the foreign language. Prose doesn’t have this.

  5. B. Macon 13 Feb 2010 at 8:16 am

    They’re really speaking Russian, but use American idioms? Hmm. What’s the target audience? I think adult readers would wonder why these Russians use distinctly American phrases. It might them to suspend their disbelief.

    One alternative would be checking out a book with Russian slang/idioms. If you translated those idioms literally into English and gave us context clues, I think that the dialogue would sound more authentic but still be easy to understand.

    For example, an American might call somebody running a company a “fat cat,” but the closest Spanish phrase would be “pez gordo,” which literally means fat fish. So if you were writing a Spanish character, he might refer to somebody as a fat fish.

  6. Contra Gloveon 13 Feb 2010 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for your input. I may have to use actual Russian turns-of-phrase just to indicate that the characters don’t speak English — and from the standpoint of the backstory, it would actually make more sense.

    However, no one — not even lower-class types — will speak mat in my story.

  7. B. Macon 13 Feb 2010 at 11:10 am

    Heavy vulgarity can limit the appeal…

  8. Lighting Manon 13 Feb 2010 at 2:16 pm

    My understanding, mostly coming from reading terrible novels is that you mark the first instance with an asterisk and then indicate at the bottom of the page that it is translated from Russian and just continue like that. An example off the top of my head, of that, and of a terrible novel would be Battlefield Earth, the majority of the time, the lead antagonist is speaking only in Psychlo (I think that’s what the language was) so L. Ron Clam-God indicated when he spoke a phrase or sentence in English, instead of reminding the reader each sentence that he was speaking Psychlo.

  9. Contra Gloveon 13 Feb 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Lighting Man, your suggestion can work too. I’ll keep both your idea and B. Mac’s in mind when actually writing the thing. I’m still outlining all of the chapters; though I have actually written a few chapters, they need heavy revision to plug up some enormous plot holes.

  10. B. Macon 13 Feb 2010 at 4:31 pm

    If the characters in the novel sometimes use Russian and sometimes use English, you could probably throw in brief pointers like “XYZ,” John said in Russian. It’s not the most artful writing, but it easily conveys information that is probably important.

    However, if all of the dialogue in the book is in Russian, I wouldn’t recommend that.

  11. Contra Gloveon 13 Feb 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Funny you should mention that; the characters do use English as a naming language for minor towns and the like (the way Latin is used today) though in the story, English naming is falling into disuse. However, all of the dialogue is in Russian, so “[character] said in Russian” isn’t a viable choice.

    I’m sure I’ll figure out how to communicate all of this elegantly. It’ll take many revisions, but I will figure it out.

  12. B. Macon 13 Feb 2010 at 5:36 pm

    You could have the narrator make an observation about the Russian language early on. That would probably cue readers that the characters aren’t speaking English, or would at least give you opportunities to suggest it.

    I don’t know enough about Russian to offer any such observations, but hopefully your research uncovered something. For example, if Gary were narrating a Superhero Nation novel, I might have him say something like “Agent Orange learned English from a thesaurus and espionage from James Bond marathons.” I think that’d help prepare readers for why that character has such a bizarre voice.

  13. Contra Gloveon 13 Feb 2010 at 8:25 pm

    I’ll just use an “Explanatory” like the one in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (even though that book’s Explanatory wasn’t about language.) It only needs to be a few sentences long, so it will be unobtrusive.

  14. A1Writeron 14 Feb 2010 at 6:56 pm

    How would you determine the word count to see what range you fall in? Is that just a word processor number or that 250 Rule people talk about? I hear a lot about the 80,000 mark, but I never know what method of word count they are referring to. And if it’s the 250 Rule, does that imply courier 12 with 25 lines per page? Thanks!

  15. B. Macon 14 Feb 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Have your word processor count up the words for you and round to the nearest 500 words. If your word processor does not have a word-count feature, please use the Word Count Tool online.

    Please do not use the “250 Rule.”* It’s a very, very sketchy estimate that was a lot more useful before the age of fast-and-accurate computerized word-counts.



    *For the reference of other people: the “250 Rule” is a crude way to estimate the number of words in a manuscript by multiplying the number of pages by 250. Unfortunately, depending on your typesetting and page breaks, this estimate may be WILDLY inaccurate. For example, on my default settings, I usually get around 325-350 words per page in Microsoft Word with Times New Roman and 275 with Courier. If I had 400 pages in Courier, the rule of 250 would estimate that my manuscript is 100,000 words long. But the manuscript is actually 110,000 words long! An editor would probably not be amused by the discrepancy.

  16. Contra Gloveon 06 Apr 2010 at 1:18 pm

    For a superhero novel aimed at teenagers, is 50,000 words a good length? If not, what is?

  17. B. Macon 06 Apr 2010 at 3:52 pm

    According to Colleen Lindsay, 50,000-80,000 is conventional for mainstream YA.

    However, if you’re focusing on readers aged 15-18 rather than 13-15, I think it might help to go up to 60,000-70,000.

  18. Contra Gloveon 02 May 2010 at 9:08 am

    I want to ask again; is 50K a deal killer for YA? I say this because I’m concerned that I only have enough story for 50,000 words.

  19. Steton 02 May 2010 at 11:05 am

    50,000 is fine. A tight 50,000-word novel that’s a compelling read with a strong premise will absolutely sell. I sold a 48,000ish-word YA last year. Mine was maybe more like an upper MG, but still: if the ms. is strong enough, 50k is not a problem. Word count is only disqualifying when it starts alarms flashing: 30,000 words (though they certainly exist) or 300,000 (though they, too, sadly, exist).

    If you want something to worry about, worry about this: if you’re focusing on readers 15-18, and writing superhero stuff, you’re probably trying to reach -boys- from 15-18, and that’s considered something between laughable and impossible.

    I suspect that if we include enough sex and violence, then of course 16 year old boys will read the books. But publishing (in my limited experience) is nervous about really gritty stuff for teenage boys in a way that they’re not for teenage girls. (Read ‘Tender Morsels’ some time …) I think we’re afraid of boys. In Kick Ass, if I understand it, you’ve got a homicidal 11-year-old-girl who says ‘cunt’ and kills dozens and doesn’t learn a redemptive lesson. If she were a boy, people would’ve freaked and written letters to the editor about Columbine.

  20. Contra Gloveon 02 May 2010 at 11:47 am

    @ Stet

    No need. The story is aimed at girls (though the main villain doesn’t bat an eye at shooting innocents.)

    Thanks for the advice! :)

  21. B. Macon 02 May 2010 at 12:36 pm

    CG, the two sources in the post above recommend 50-80K and 55-70K for mainstream YA. If the manuscript is good enough, I think an editor or agent would give you some latitude on length. So I think you’re mostly okay on length (but if you can figure out a way to extend the plot without padding, it probably wouldn’t hurt).

  22. [...] a follow up to their post about how long adult novels should be, Superhero Nation discusses How long should a book for children or young adults [...]

  23. [...] a follow up to their post about how long adult novels should be, Superhero Nation discusses How long should a book for children or young adults [...]

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