Writers and the Word Count Myth

Today I want to talk about a topic that has niggled at me for years, one I just can’t stand staying silent on any longer. It’s this: the myth that all novels should be of a certain word length, namely around 90k, and anything over that must be crap or not written right. Well my response is this: what a load of utter fucking bullshit.

The problem I have with this, is that this ‘guide’ basically places all novels into the same box. This is a stupid thing to do. Firstly, different genres tend to have different parameters, so keep this in mind when touting the ‘preferred’ word length. And it’s not just the genre aspect of things that needs to be considered. The most basic, fundamental, point to be taken into account here, is the story. That’s right, THE STORY.

A story will take as long as it takes. And every story is different. You cannot try to fit every story into a one-size fits all novel. That’s just fucking ludicrous.

Telling new writers that if their novel is 120k or over then it’s probably too long, is bullshit. How do you know it’s too long if you haven’t read what the story is about? Telling a new writer that their novel must be about 90k is a potentially sure-fire way to rip the soul out of some stories. Granted, a word count target can be a useful ‘gauge’ to aim for, but too often it’s passed as a hard and fast RULE.

You cannot compare books like this. You cannot say that if they’re over a certain length then they’re wrong somehow. That’s like saying all humans should be the same height, because *that’s* what a human is supposed to be. Tell that to the four-footers! Tell that to the seven-footers! Novels, like humans, are all different.

WHAT COUNTS IS THE STORY BEING TOLD.

If you’re telling a story with multiple character POVs, that spans years, maybe generations, you cannot tell such a story in 90k. Well, you can, but my guess is that it will be a shallow tale.

On the other hand, if you’re telling a story with one POV that takes place within a 24 hour time period, a 90k book will probably be perfect. Hell, you might even tell it in less!

The writing world today seems so fixed on word count. I think, in part, the use of screenwriting techniques may be to blame for this. Don’t get me wrong, novel writers can learn a lot from the art-form that is screenwriting, but I think it’s important that novel writers understand that screenwriting is a specialist form of writing. Screenwriters, whether writing for a TV show or film, must stick to certain lengths, because they won’t be able to sell their product otherwise. If the TV stations are looking to buy 1 hour shows, it makes no sense to write a 3 hour show, does it? Of course not. Screenwriters must tell their story within a certain time limit, because it’s a parameter of their job.

But novels aren’t TV shows or films. They’re novels.

Novels have a certain flexibility afforded to them that TV shows and films don’t have, and that’s because they have different market/audiences. How many times have you heard someone say: ‘the book was better than the film.” Now stop and think, why did they say this? They said this, because the novel afforded them a certain depth that the TV show/film simply didn’t have time to give the audience. Why? Because the screenwriters had to tell the same story in a restricted time frame. They had no choice but to only pick out the bones of the story, and leave some of the flesh behind.

People like to read novels because they get that extra added depth to their stories. So it annoys me when I see people saying ‘Oh, I have to cut 30k out of this story to get it back to 90k’ to appease some imaginary god that said so on twitter. BULL-FUCKING-SHIT. If cutting that 30k out of your novel leaves it bland and soulless with cardboard cut-outs for characters, then you are doing more harm than good.

There’s nothing wrong with a longer novel if the story calls for it to be so. Just ask George R.R. Martin or Peter F Hamilton. Their long books seem to be selling alright and captivating their fans – bringing them back for more. Now, think about their stories and imagine how they would be if they were stripped back to a 90k novel . . .

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a shorter novel, if the story calls for it to be so. Sometimes too much is too much, and readers can spot padding a mile away.

But I tell you this, all the people who say novels should be around 90k and look down from their pedestals at those with longer books and claim they’re too long or they’re doing something wrong, I say this: FUCK RIGHT OFF.

Yes, you heard me: Take your pretty pedestal and FUCK RIGHT OFF.

If your book is wonderful at 90k, then good for you! You’re obviously telling the kind of story that fits perfectly into that length. But don’t tell me my books should be that length too, because I’m telling a different story from you. I’m telling a Space Opera saga that covers multiple POVs and will span years by its end. So fuck off, because I’m telling my story, my way, with the appropriate parameters that suit my STORY.

I believe new writers should be told this: There is no right or wrong way when it comes to writing books. Just write the story you want to tell, then do your best to edit it and cut out the fat. Trim it as much as you can, but just make sure you don’t lose the heart of your story in the process. Characters are the heart of a story, and it’s their depth that winds up being culled to get that word count down.

A 90k novel with a tight plot but cardboard cut-out characters, is still a novel with cardboard cut-out characters. You might hit the ‘right’ word count, but you may just miss the readers.

*puts soapbox away*

About Amanda Bridgeman

Amanda is an author and screenwriter. She is Tin Duck Award winner, an Aurealis and Ditmar Awards finalist and author of several science fiction novels, including THE SUBJUGATE which has been optioned for TV. She is also a two-time pitch finalist for Universal (AU) and AACTA.