On Word Counts and Debut Fantasy Novels

I’m finding it extraordinarily difficult to judge industry-accepted word count expectations for unpublished fantasy authors.

I think it’s fairly standard for a new fantasy author to want to throw out a Game of Thrones length debut (some even think they can get a Storm of Swords length book published), but it’s clear that many agents and editors would more or less ignore a submission that is far too long.  This I completely understand.  There must be a large population of overeager aspiring fantasy authors who think that there 250,000 word first-in-a-trilogy debut is a polished masterpiece.  We get it into our heads that each character needs just so much development, the fantasy world needs so much texture and depth to be believable, and a complex story must invite multiple subplots.  The truth is probably that hacking off a hundred thousand words or more will make the novel better and not worse, but what really gets me is the “or more” part.

Just how much is enough?  What should the manuscript be wittled down to exactly?

In an ideal world, enough would be enough for the author to feel that it was at the just right length–edited but still complete.  However, that’s not how it’s going to work.  If you submit something that is far too long you won’t have much chance of getting a second glance.  Now I think anywhere above 150,000 words is in the obviously far-too-long category, but based on the research I’ve done, I can’t really find out the specifics about what is acceptable and expected.  I’d link to a website that offers solid advice, but I have seen so many different opinions that it’s maddening.

Some have said that 80,000 is standard word count for new writers.  Some say that fantasy is different, that 120-130,000 is acceptable, nay, required for new novelists.  Others say that 100,000 is right on the money.  I have no idea what to believe, and my range of ‘no idea’ goes from 80,000 words to 130,000 words.  That’s 50,000 words of uncertainty!

My guess is that 100,000 words is playing it safe, but I wonder if that’s enough for a strong world-building fantasy novel.

Does anyone have any solid information on this?  Opinions?  Concerns?

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5 Comments

  1. says:

    August 24, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I’ve wondered the same thing for ages, so thanks for bringing this up. Personally, from what I’ve read on submission guidelines and other blogs/information sites, I’d say anywhere between 80 to 120k would be acceptable, unless the publisher or agent gives a definite number. I know, that’s 40k words to play with, but I think it would depend on the novel. Can you cut it to 80k and it still work, if not, what it is like at 100k? In other words, anywhere between those two numbers that feels right when it’s done.

    I’m currently aiming for between 80 and 100k with my WIP, because that’s how long it feels like it’s going to be so far (I’m at 60k). The end result, of course, will depend on edits and how much is taken out versus how much is added. But I’d say 100k was a good number to aim for.

    • L.B. Gale says:

      August 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

      I think you are probably right. It’s best to be safely within the low end of estimations (80-100K), and it probably gives you good editing experience. I just wish there was a more reliable resource somewhere.

  2. Bradley Wood says:

    March 20, 2014 at 8:41 am

    I’m the president of a new publishing company, Sorcerer Publishing Company, and we publish science fiction, fantasy, and horror works (both long and short fiction). My submission guidelines for word count really depend on the novelist and the feel of the story but I would say that science fiction is around 95,000 to 105,000 typically. A horror story should be faster paced and keep the reader on edge so we like to see something around 70,000 to 80,000 and fantasy we like to see around 100,000 to 120,000 for a first timer.

    • says:

      July 22, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Thanks for the information, Bradley. I’m just finishing up a fantasy novel as a debut author and it’s looking at 130,000 words (cut down from 185,000). Does this range mean that 130,000 word fantasy novels will be discarded? Or just looked at with a higher level of scrutiny?

      • says:

        July 22, 2014 at 7:35 pm

        Congratulations on your finished work! Your work of 130K wouldn’t be looked at any differently. I was merely talking about the average word length that I see with the submissions. In fact, I find that most authors need a little more in the word count area to get the story across. Some can do it in less words and it works and some need some extra. I wish you the most on your future publishing hopes!

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