Writing a Book? It’s All in the Numbers.
Blogger: Michelle Ule
While Janet continues her time away from the office because of her husband’s death, I’m filling in for her today.
A friend asked me once how many words I had to write to complete a novel.
My answer: How ever many it takes.
That’s not quite true. Numerically analyzing the necessary length of a manuscript falls to genre and style, but good writing involves rhythm. I have four pointers (plus a bonus!) to help you to calculate the best way to figure out your project.
1. Find your genre to calculate your story length.
Various genres have conventions as to length of story. They vary somewhat from house to house and among subgenres, but generally speaking you would expect a women’s fiction to be about 85,000 words, a light romance should clock in around 50,000-60,00 and a historical novel usually touches 100,000. A larger list (from 2010) can be found here.
Science fiction and fantasy can be anyone’s guess; they tend to be longer since they depict new worlds. The same is true of historical fiction because the author has to describe a time and place most of us no longer know.
Nonfiction self-help or Christian living generally are about 40,000-50,000 words long.
Speaking from the agenting end, we can usually tell a beginning novelist when their project’s word count is outside conventional numbers. Sure, J.K. Rowling did it with her later Harry Potter books, but she stayed within the norm on the first several books she wrote.
You can do anything you want with subsequent books, if you sell a gazillion copies of the first book or two.
2. Compute the length of your average chapter.
My chapters generally run 1,500-2,000 words. At 250 words per page (using Times Roman 12 and one-inch margins), that means they’re usually six to eight pages long. Sometimes, however, I incorporate more than one scene in a chapter and thus the number may double. (I use three asterisks to divide the chapter into two scenes: ***. I try to make each scene the same length.)
For nonfiction, shorter chapters generally work better. Readers like to “take a break” by moving onto the next chapter. Ten pages per chapter is the norm. You better have some pretty compelling reason to make a chapter 15-20 pages in length.
Obviously, the length of a chapter depends on the type of manuscript you’re writing, the amount of description you use, and how you’re telling your story or making your point. Your personal writing style and voice will dictate that–not me.
Generally speaking, you should aim to have all your chapters approximately the same length, give or take a page or two. Your reader expects a rhythm in a book and that includes the length of the chapter, as well as the frequency of switching between points of view for fiction.
If in writing your manuscript it feels like it should be two long chapters and then a one-pager, that’s fine as long as you keep up that pattern throughout the manuscript. If you can’t keep it up, rework the chapters.
3. Keep an eye on what your paragraphs look like.
When I open a book I’m reading for fun, but the first page is all one paragraph, I close it. Maybe it’s my age or my experience, perhaps my eyes, but I don’t want to read such a dense manuscript. I can glance at the page, not even take in the words, and that will tell me if I want to continue.
Obviously, plenty of people think and read more deeply than I do, but for the average reader, who spends a lot of time reading short spurts of copy on the Internet, lengthy paragraphs will be too daunting to be comfortable.
If your book isn’t “easy” to read, the leisure reader won’t stay with it.
I personally like dialogue, even in nonfiction as stories are added to illustrate a point. So if I glance at a page and don’t see any dialogue, you’re going to have to really wow me with exquisite writing.
A better approach would be to balance between the two–but you already know that.
Some people prefer prose and aren’t looking for dialogue–match your writing to your genre. Historical fiction, perhaps, can get away with denser paragraphs because they’re describing things people need to picture. Dialogue has a specific place in nonfiction; so readers look at a page with a different mindset than a novel reader.
Light romance, though, needs quick and flippy paragraphs.
4. Check the rhythm and flow of your sentences.
The length of sentence determines the speed at which the reader reads.
Short sentences go quickly.
Long, convoluted sentences slow down the reader as he takes time to embrace and picture every idea you include.
Depending on the genre, you need to match your sentences to the style. Quick, short sentences can build tension. Long, lugubrious sentences can allow the reader to cozy into their chair and relax.
5. Bonus: Can these types of number predict a best-seller?
Some people believe a best-seller can be predicted by a numerical analysis of the project using a complex algorithm focusing on word complexity and sentence length. Try it. You’d be surprised at what you’ll find here.
Long or short? Complex or simple? What have you observed about your rhythm and writing style?