How long is it? A Reflection on Word Count

Not long ago, as I was nearing the end of the first draft of my first novel, Murder in Greasepaint, I ran across a Goodreads review of Megan Abbott’s Queenpin. This reviewer was complaining about the word count. They speculated whether the book contained even 50K words and therefore had a dubious claim to the term novel. I wasn’t sure this was on the level. Are there really readers who are aware, as they read, of word counts? And, more importantly, feel this is a legitimate measure of whether or not a book is good?

Now, I must state a bias here. If you choose to roll up on Megan Abbott, you’re rolling up on me, if you get my drift. I love her. I will throw down for her. She is an absolutely top-drawer noir/neo-noir/crime/thriller/seedy underbelly storyteller. Her book, Dare Me, is essentially noir set among a troupe of mean-girl high school cheerleaders. While that’s not exactly my wheelhouse, Megan Abbott made me give a shit about mean-girl high school cheerleaders. The story was so compelling. I found myself googling YouTube videos of cheerleading moves described in the book to better visualize them. Totally fucked up my YouTube algorithms for a few weeks, but it was worth it. But my favorite Megan Abbot books are her first four. They are classic, check all the boxes noir-thrillers, while at the same time subverting the tropes enough to be new and fresh. One of the biggest tweaks is that these novels mostly feature women as protagonists and important characters and are told from their points of view.

Not only was I personally insulted at this bold affrontery towards Megan Abbott, I also began to worry a wee bit. Much like when I was in my twenties, I felt it necessary to face the question, “Is length really that important?” Is Murder in Greasepaint long enough? I’ve been telling anyone who would listen, and some who wouldn’t’, that I was finishing up my first novel. It’s coming in at a word count around 66K. Would this same asshole, or others like him, throw stones at me? Did they have grounds to do so? I had to find out.

I did some research on novel word counts. Your friend who says they’ve done their own research on COVID19? I’ve spent at least that long — minutes and minutes. This is what I found. Although there seems to be some mythic industry standard that says 100K is a novel, I find plenty of evidence to the contrary.

According to this site, novels in the 60K range include such notables as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, The Fault in our Stars, The Scarlett Letter, The Color Purple, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Carrie. I’m okay with being in that company. Now, I’m not claiming to be the literary equivalent of these great works. But Twain aside, I’m quite confident that I’m way fucking funnier. So, that’s something.

According to Nanowrimo 50K is the goal. So, I’m good by that metric. But even then, some notable under 50K novels include The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Fight Club. Are you going to raise an index finger and say “Actually” to Kurt Fucking Vonnegut’s face? No. I mean, fuck no. I mean, maybe that first butthead I mentioned at the beginning might. But you and me? Reasonable admirers of good storytelling? No.

Now, Murder in Greasepaint is supposed to be funny. It’s a send-up/homage/pastiche of the hard-drinking-plays-by-his-own-rules detective. It takes inspiration from Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosley and the like. So, I decided to check out some of those. Looks like The Maltese Falcon is ~66K. Woah, right on the nose. This particular line of enquiry led me to this blog entry, whose legitimacy and accuracy I’ve taken absolutely NO steps to verify. Check it out! A couple of Chandlers and Devil in a Blue Dress coming in well under Murder in Greasepaint. To be fair, I’ve found wildly different word count estimates for Devil in a blue dress that vary from 50K to 78K. One in the middle is 65K. Perfect. Like someone who WANTS to ingest a horse de-wormer, or drink their own urine, I have wisely decided to go with the result that confirms my bias. 65K it is! More practically, just go find a copy of Devil. Pick it up and flip through it. It’s no Infinite Jest.  It’s still a great novel.

In search of other, more “contemporary industry standards” definitions, I found this random page from Masterclass. According to this, a thriller/mystery should be between 70-90K. So, I mean, I’m right on the doorstep by that definition. Close enough for me.

Results? I’m starting to believe that the mythical 100K target is more of a commercial concern rather than an artistic one. Understandably, today’s book publishers want to ensure that consumers feel they’ve got their money’s worth. As a writer who publishes his own work independently, I don’t really feel bound by that. Don’t get me wrong, if a publisher came along and offered my good heaps of folding money in exchange for scaring up 35K more words? You better believe I’d be pulling subplots out of my ass like a clown pulling handkerchiefs out of a sleeve. Every bar that Detective Rock Cobbler sets foot in would be described in Tolkienesque detail. Until then, I’m sticking to my guns. A good story is as long as it needs to be.

So, when Murder in Greasepaint comes out in April, if Numbnuts McWordcount tries to call me out, I will confidently, with great dignity and resolve, stand tall and say, “Fuck off you trolling bastard. I’m just as long as Hawthorne and twice as funny!” Please buy my novel.

One comment

  1. As both a reader and now a prominent writer, I didn’t know anything about word count in relation to book types such as novels and novellas until recently. It won’t be a surprise that many thousands of other readers are like me. To me, how big a book is in terms of how many words it contains isn’t what makes it a good book. Also, a good book to me can be the opposite to you, bad.

    Liked by 1 person

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