Falling Short of the Count

I’ve been giving word count a lot of thought lately.  Mainly because as I poured through BD&L prior to sending it into the void that is Harper Voyager, I began to question the wisdom of marketing it in its current state.  It’s been burnished beyond belief, that’s not the issue.  What’s causing me to rethink is that it comes in at barely 75k.  In the world of publishing, there are pretty standard guidelines on word count.  Adult Fantasy, especially that of Epic Proportions, falls into the 80-120k range — not the barely 75k range.  A quick search of the www found this at Cassandra Marshall’s site:

Sci-fi and Fantasy – 80,000-120,000 words, most averaging 100k-115k

And this at Word Dreams:

◦science fiction & fantasy = Here’s where most writers seem to have problems. Most editors I’ve spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, some editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary.  To make this all a little easier, I broke it down even further below:

◦hard sf = 90k to 110k

◦space opera = 90k to 120k

◦epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k

◦contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k

◦romantic SF = 85k to 100k

◦urban fantasy = 90k to 100k

◦new weird = 85k to 110k

◦slipstream = 80k to 100k

◦comic fantasy = 80k to 100k

◦everything else = 90k to 100k


As if I needed more, there was also this at Inside a Writer’s Mind:

I asked my literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, this very question. She said ideal word counts shown below are for first-time authors in the print-book market. They aren’t set in stone, but straying far from these targets, diminishes your chances of finding an agent and publisher.

ALL GENRES from thriller to romance (except Fantasy/Sci-Fi):  85K

FANTASY/SCI-FI:  115K (120K if truly outstanding)

There are many more sites, all of which confirm the standard word counts and all of which leave me pondering if being below the standard word count is just as bad an idea as being over?  It’s caused me to drag my feet in finishing my synopsis and continuing to query agents.  I’ve begun to feel a need to add at least an additional 5k, leaning toward 10k.  Shouldn’t be too hard, right?  That’s just a couple extra chapters.


But where do I add these words?  They can’t be fluff.  They can’t be added just for the sake of bumping my count into the normal range.  They need to mean something; need to move the story, develop character, provide tension, build my world — all that good stuff I’ve so carefully honed the rest of BD&L to do.  And my lovely sub-conscious has already begun to go over the options. A new beginning, showing more of Ciara’s background?  Develop Bolin’s character a bit more?  Extend this or that scene?  Add another minor character?  Stir a sub-plot?


That sound you hear is either me growling, or my brain exploding.

Crack the WIP!


  1. Develop your sub-characters. I recall two about whom I’d like to read more. (Donovan would be a third.) But don’t forget, averages mean that longer and shorter works *both* get published. You want people to complain that the story’s too short!

    • And I believe I know who both of them are. 🙂 I know, averages — but without agent feedback there’s no way to know if it’s been passed because of the word count. Although, I would hope if the writing and story resonates with the right agent, size wouldn’t matter.

  2. I’m on the other side of the thing (about 10K high), so I know your angst. Agent Sarah Megibow does her ‘Ask the Agent’ thing once a month or so on Twitter and FB, and I asked her about it. She told me just about exactly what Josh says about. The numbers are just guidelines. If she loves a premise, she’ll take a fantasy as high as 140 from an unknown (I asked about high wordcount not low, but I presume it works both ways).

    Wish I could give you my extra 10K! 😉 Best of luck!

    • I’d like to get an agent’s thoughts on that — um, I may have via Twitter — grrr. Love Sarah. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her ‘Ask the Agent’ and see if I can get a question in there.

      What an interesting tale that would be — blending your 10k in with mine. Hee, hee.

  3. Yes, averages means that some are higher and some lower. To me, the most important thing is how the story reads. If it’s gripping and satisfying with fewer words, then I’m fine with that. I’m not sure my sci-fi novel will top 80,000 words, either. If it does, that’s fine. But if I’m at 75,000, I’ll shop it anyway. As you say, “padding” isn’t the answer and will turn off agents and readers.

    • I agree with the premise — that being, the story should sell itself regardless of length. However, since most agents go off the query, if they’re wavering or just crabby that day, will that low word count trigger the form rejection? No way of knowing unless one of them speaks up. As Josh pointed out, there are a few minor characters I could flesh out more without adding fluff. But, like Jessica, I feel like I’ve been writing this book FOREVER!

  4. With my last wip I got to 60K with about 10K left to write and decided that the story needed to be longer. I don’t think there is a quick fix, not going up at any rate. I ended up just chucking what I had done to one side and starting again, and the first draft (of essentially the same story) came out at 111K, and now I’m having to cut down to around 95K. If I had the time back over I think I probably would have just done the 10K, not worried about it and sent the shorter story off, then tackled another story as it feels like I have been writing the same story FOREVER. If the editor/agent likes the story but feel it needs another 5K they will just ask. And I think Sci-fi generally require the larger word counts because they need the space for world building, if you can create a convincing sci-fiction world in less words I don’t think that’s a bad thing!!!

    • Won’t start over. Can’t. Do. It. *hyperventalating, needs bag* Wow. I know how you feel though, being stuck on the same story forever. Every time I think it’s done, something comes up. Yes, there are some characters/sub-plots I could develop to give more depth. Should I? Or should I shop it in its current state, and believe that if someone grabs it and feels it’s too short, I can add then? Decisions, decisions.

  5. If you can’t think of any meaningful way of adding 5K, then I’d leave it as is. Regardless of whether an agent is crabby when he reads your Q (and they often tend to be crabby 😉 ), a low word count will turn him off just as much as your title, or how you present the pitch — know what I mean? Anything would turn off an agent if he’s in a sour mood.

    On the flip side, if your pitch is solid and the storyline original, then an agent who is looking for that kind of a book won’t care about wc; it’s going to go through the editing process anyway. If they see places where it can be extended, they’d be sure to tell you.

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