Minimum Word Counts

When I lived in St. Louis and began to finally put genuine effort to a career in writing, I began the Third World, an epic setting required of every major fantasy author. To that point, I did not read critically. I read what I enjoyed and read for enjoyment. I did not stop to ponder word choice or sentence structure, pacing or plot. I just read. And because of that, I just wrote.

I wrote chapters for the story of that chapter and gave no thought to reader fatigue1 or for that matter writer fatigue. Both CAUSE AND CONVICTION (originally titled THE END OF BLISS) and A CIRCLE OF CRIMSON STONE have chapters that are 10,000 words long. So when you look at the Queue and you see a word count of 40,000 words, that means that book only has 4 chapters written.

Shortly after this, I joined my first writers' group. The response was the same as everyone else's response would eventually be: shock. One chapter is 10,000 words?! Are you crazy? That's so long? Is it? I didn't think it was. Perhaps it was just a difference of genre. They wrote thriller, sci-fi, women's paranormal and...well, not sure about the last lady. But none of them wrote epic fantasy. So clearly mine was more appropriate for my genre.

Was it? I was sure I had read plenty of epic fantasies with similar word counts. But there would only be one way I could know for sure. I went home and pulled books off my shelf. Martin, Williams, Rothfuss, and others. All epic fantasies, the bellwethers of word count. 250k minimum per manuscript. Then I did a cast off2 on a sampling of chapters in each novel. I got the evidence I needed.

The average word count was 2000 to 2500 words per chapter. In the monsters of the genre, the chapters were still only 1/4 the size of the chapters I was writing. Instead of having 25 chapters, they had 100 or more. So, in my next work, I decided I'd try writing shorter chapters.

My next work was BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE which ended up with chapters as short as 500 words, though most averaged about 2000. This proved to be a good move on my part because--as you can imagine--writing 10,000 word chapters can be exhausting. So now, as a rule for first-draft writing, all my chapters will be 2000 words long (minimum). This has been a great yardstick to use. 1100 words and I'm not fleshing out the scene enough. 4000 words and I've included too much back story. 1800-3300 words seems to be a great sweet spot.

This is also why I'm able to write in order and so quickly. I write 1000 words on my way into work. I write 1000 words on my way home, completing one chapter. 5 chapters--10,000 words--a week, and in 2-3 months, my novel's first draft is complete.

1 It's a weird psychological effect, but readers don't seem to handle long chapters well. They get mentally tired and want a break. Even if they don't take a break from reading, a chapter break seems to reset the internal clock, give them a sense of advancement, of knowing the story is moving toward its end. I could take the same ten-thousand word chapter and split it into two five-thousand word chapters, and the response from readers would be more favorable toward the latter. It's weird, but I've found this to be the case regardless of region or reader level.

2 The whole 250 words/page thing? Yeah, that's crap. That's the metric you use in a meeting when you're asked for the total page count and you haven't done a cast off yet. If you want a quick but accurate measure of how many words there are per page, you take a book of like design (you may not realize it, but books have different interior designs allowing for greater or fewer words per page), and do the following. Find five to ten pages that have a fair balance of dialogue and description (not all description and not all dialogue). Count how many words appear in the first five or six lines and divide by the number of lines. This gives you a word-per-line average. Then count the number of lines on each page and divide by the number of pages: lines-per-page. Divide the total word count by wpl average. Multiply this result by the lpp average and that is your projected page count.

There are ways to get even more precise page counts, but this one can be done in 5 to 15 minutes and is accurate enough for our purposes. For adult fantasy, the word count per page is closer to 300 to 350 per page rather than 250. Over the course of 100k-250k, that extra 100wpp can make a big difference.