Size Matters: Word Count

Last week, I stated that I would not edit Carmilla’s Ghost until after Christmas. Sadly, that lasted for about three days before I reread the manuscript and made plans for the edits. So technically, I still haven’t edited the text, but I have reviewed and thought about what I’m going to do. I have spent most of the time resting, playing video games, and snuggling my cats. I’m also working on a companion novella in a different genre that will be series-adjacent and connect to an upcoming adventure for Samantha Hain. And since what I’m working on is a novella, that leads to what I want to talk about today:  word count.

Why Word Count?

Yes, word count is a holdover from modern print publishing standards, but it’s not going away. Debut novels and unestablished authors are often advised to go for a lower word count in their genre’s range, but exceptions do happen. But the real question is, “Why word count and not page count”. Well, as anyone who has had trouble finding enough content for a class essay can tell you, page count can be manipulated by font size, margin size, spacing between lines, and page size. Page count in and of itself does not guarantee that the manuscript has enough content. Word count helps alleviate that. Neither guarantees that the content will be great, but word count helps standardize the amount of content.

As a brief aside, word count used to be important for serialized literary magazines in the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers were paid by the word. As a result, they often padded the serializations with long, flowery sentences, which we call “purple prose” today. Since most writers today are paid royalties from the sale of the book and not a flat per-word fee, word count can feel archaic.

Word Count and Liam’s Doom

Liam’s Doom, my debut novel, clocks in at just under 74,000 words. As a paranormal urban fantasy, it’s right near the lower end of the normal range. I did that on purpose for two reasons. The first is that it is my debut novel, and the smaller size helps reduce production costs. The second is an audience consideration. I know that as a fantasy and urban fantasy writer and reader, most of us are accustomed to 200,000+ word epic novels. And those are great; however, as I’ve grown older, I have found it hard to finish those books through no fault of the book itself. Graduate school, teaching, research and conferencing, and having a family all take away from time spent reading for pleasure. I no longer have the free time that I once enjoyed as a teenager or young adult. As much as I would love to spend ten hours or more each day reading, I might only have two hours a day to read. And there are weeks where I don’t have time to read for pleasure. With a 300,000-word (often 500+ page) fantasy epic, that can make the book take longer as I have to reread sections to remember what was going on, or I see the massive tome, become discouraged, and put it down.

So, I went for a shorter novel. Since I’m planning a series, I chose to think of each novel as a single episode of a television show. Fans of Supernatural will likely enjoy my writing, by the way. Each episode is roughly 42-44 minutes plus commercials. Some episodes connect to form an arc, but each episode can be digested fairly quickly, and most can stand alone so that if you show your favorite episode to someone who hasn’t seen the show, they can probably follow the plot and enjoy the majority of the content. That’s how I’m planning my novels. I want each to be something that someone could read in a weekend or a week at most. I do have some deep themes and heavy content planned for my books, but I want each book to be something my readers can easily finish in the time it takes for the next book to be released. Also, I promise to write faster than George R.R. Martin.

While many speculate on the word count metric disappearing in this age of digital distribution, understanding it can help writers plan for their audience. Since I’m planning a novel series that follows the adventures of Samantha Hain – some will be more adventure, some more romance, some more horror – I am treating each one like a single episode in a serialized program. It needs to fit into a format that can be easily digested by its audience. I’m choosing to recognize and respect that my audience is likely comprised of busy people. Heck, even college students today are working jobs and doing more work in school to graduate on time. They don’t have the time that I had, and so, I want to respect that by giving them something that they can enjoy without demanding they commit large chunks of their non-existent free time to consume.

And, as a reminder, Liam’s Doom goes on sale 9 March 2021 at all major and minor retail outlets from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to Bookshop.org. I request that you support Bookshop.org, as their site supports local and independent bookstores.