Part of
Margot Finke's of Writing for Children

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Word Count

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Bev Cooke

Margot, I have to agree with you. While mid-grades are getting longer, thanks to Rowling, even published authors have to justify length over the usual for the publisher. I've heard 50,000 is about tops for a YA, and around 30,000 for a mid-grade.

Diana, I second Margot's advice, but I also have something to add:

You mentioned how many characters you had that all seemed to want to have their say. One thing you might do is sit down and figure out just how crucial each character is to the overall story. If they aren't utterly necessary, then see if you can combine their purposes and function and eliminate a lot of them from the story. This serves two purposes - one, it gives the reader fewer names and faces to keep track of - always a good thing - and two, it can cut quite a lot out of the book - you can eliminate the description, the completely unecessary dialogue - or combine and condense it with the other characters you've decided are expendable.

Don't feel too bad, Diana - I had to cut from 100,000 to 26,000 words in my first novel, thanks to a wonky word counter on my word processing program. It got stuck at 30,000 and wouldn't admit there were more words in the document. When I figured it out, I despaired of being able to cut that much - but I managed and I had a much tighter and faster moving story when I had done. I wish I could follow it up and say it got accepted, but it's still languishing in my trunk, waiting for a major rewrite on some very shaky plot issues.

The other thing is to look at every scene and ask yourself "how does this move the story forward? How does it advance the journey of the hero to the resolution of the conflict/problem/trip he or she is on." If it doesn't, then look at how it builds character, raises tension and develops subplot. If it doesn't do that, then the scene isn't functioning, and it should come out. If it does one of those other
things, but doens't move the story forward, see if you can combine it with another scene that advances the plot. That also will cut your word count, raise the tension in the story, and keep the reader turning pages.

A good hint for other stories - scenes that do multiple things, advance the story, build character and complicate relationships, work much better than a scene that does only one thing.


Bev Cooke

Karen: Yes she was an unknown when the books started, but face it - most of us don't write that quality of stuff for our first novel. And it wasn't easy for her, either - it was rejected by a number of houses at least partly on the basis of length.

And not to disparage Diana's hard work, but most first novels are much too long - and this is true whether you're talking picture book or YA. It's one of the hallmarks of a beginning writer, becuase they haven't learned what to leave out yet.

And it's not unfair - Rowling has paid her dues and proven herself. Unpublished writers haven't. What's unfair about that?

The problem is that Rowling is exceptional and 90% of us aren't going to be up there where she is, so there's no point in saying that if Rowling did it, the rest of us can too. Longer mid-grades are becoming the norm, thanks in part to her, but the fact of the matter is that you and I and Diana will never have the influence on the industry that she does, because our work isn't going to catch the public imagination the way hers did. So for everyone to assume that because Rowling did it, they can too, right out of the gate, is unrealistic and unfair to a beginning writer.


Margot Finke

In part, Karen Syed wrote:

Yes, Rowling and Paolini have changed things, but it is unfair to say that Rowling can get away with this because she is Rowling. She was a virtual nobody when she submitted that first book. The key isn't so much the length as it is the content and the quality. You can get a 90,000 word book published for this age group, but it is going to have little to do with the length, and way more to do with how well it is written, your style, and the cohesive nature of the story.

### Karen is right. I was a little facetious when I intimated that only Rowlings could get away with 90,000 words or more. What I should have written, was that your 90,000 words need to be involved with a plot and characters that are tight and terrific, and tell a story that is gripping and wonderful to read. I think we will all agree that it takes great writing talent to keep kid-readers interested for 90,000 words.

Of course, there are authors out there who can and DO write stories far longer than the norm, AND have them accepted. However, there are a huge number of writers whose 90,000 words stories are 50% waffle. And as a lot of you know, "Waffles are for breakfast, not for books!" This is not to say that the ideas behind these plots and characters are not great: they probably are. And perhaps, if they prune out the excess wordage and side tracks, the main focus will then shine on the plot and the characters, delivering a shorter read that is more likely to hook an editor.

But one rule is not in question - whatever the word count, only the right bait will hook an editor!


Daniel Chase

The issue is not about how long a book is, but what is making it long. A book can be long, but it can contain a lot of excellent lean material; i.e. important material that somehow progresses or enhances the plot or the characters. This is very rare. Most of what makes a book long is fatty extraneous author indulgences; i.e., stuff that is pure author ego-isms, pure Clancy-isms, and pure boring to everyone else. I've found a good litmus test as to whether the material in my book is fatty or lean - cut it out. If a month later I don't realize it's gone, it was probably just an ego-ism.

My first YA book started at 75,000 words fully edited. At the time I couldn't think of a thing more that could be cut out. Five years later, after I'd written several more books, and I went back and cut it down to 47,000 words. Only by growing as a writer was I able to have the blinders taken off regarding excessive words in my first YA book. Less is more. Keep it simple. Say what you mean. Get right to the point. And avoid making your book a chore to your readers.