Thursday, February 23, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: L is for Length

Whee! We're halfway through the alphabet. In case you think I can't count, remember the pesky 'V for Voice' insisted it came right after 'C for Characters.' It's also pretty cool to click on the label "abc's of MG" and see the alphabet lining up. I recommend trying it.

Enough celebrating. It's L's turn. When I began writing (about two years ago), I read somewhere that the typical middle grade book falls between 40,000 and 60,000 words. But word count meant nothing to me. I mean, how long is 40,000 words compared to 60,000? I had no idea.

So I ended up staring at my bookshelves and Googling word counts on some that were sitting there. (Just for the record: finding word counts of published books is HARD)! Here's a few I found back then: Because of Winn-Dixie is 34,000; Charlotte's Web is 53,000; and Hoot is 61,000. I'd read all of those, so now word count made a little more sense.

But how important is word count to a middle grader? Do they give a rip about a book's length? Do kids look at the thickness of a book or the size of its type and decide whether or not to read it based on length? Do developed readers consider shorter books too simple? Are reluctant readers turned off by longer books?

I'm inclined to think that kids do care about book length--to an extent. How far that extent reaches, I'm not sure. I have two middle graders living in my house, but they're not good measures of how much book length matters because they'll read anything they consider interesting no matter its length. So, I'll throw the question to you, my knowledgeable friends. As I prepare my manuscript for querying, just how much does word count matter?

15 comments:

  1. I don't think word count matters all that much unless you're talking about things far outside "normal" range. I know a number of folks who have ended up having the final word count change substantially during editorial revision too. The most important thing, imo, is that the book is the length it needs to be to tell the story. I think there are going to be MG books that are 40K that are too short and MG books that are 40K that are too long, but that's because of the story they are trying to tell, not the external metric.

    That said, I've definitely spent some time looking up word counts myself! One site I find highly useful for this is: http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp

    You can search for a book title and get the EXACT word count (click on the result for the book itself). So far every title I've entered has been in their system!

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    1. Excellent point, Deva: some 40K will be too short and some 40K will be too long. It IS story driven. And thanks so much for the site! Now that I've been writing awhile and can grasp word count, I want to know word count out of curiosity.

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  2. I do think that word count matters to an extent. Unless a middle grader is a great reader, they aren't going to read a book of 80,000 to 100,000 words. For us as writers, I think it's important to stay in the word count range for your age group and genre (fantasy can be longer) to get the attention of an agent or publisher if you're querying them directly. For example Natalie Fischer once said she would not look at a middle grade book that was over 70,000. I've taken that to heart and got my middle grade fantasy under 70,000 by cutting 20,000. I'm glad I did because the pace is better and I don't want someone not to consider my book because it's too long.

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    1. Mmmmmm. Good, all of this. And, like you, I'm looking at word count as a pacing thing.

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  3. I think you focus first and foremost on the story. I have a MG two-thirds of the way done and I'm sitting at 18K words. It probably won't ever hit 30K when finished. High word counts don't factor in well to a WIP with short chapters and a fast-paced, dialogue-driven story. And I'm OK with that. :)

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    1. When I'm drafting, I pay no attention to word count. My consideration (later, during revision) of a shorter word count would be that older, developed MG readers may consider a 'short' book not up to their level regardless of the story.

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  4. I tend to think how ever many words the story needs to be and feel complete is the right word count for me. However when it comes to MG readers, I've seen advanced readers snub books that look too thin and I've seen younger readers tackle books that are pretty thick. It really depends on their preferences and level of reading I think.
    Oh and yes you're right about it being hard to find the word count of published books. I wonder why.

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  5. I do believe that MG readers care about the size of a book, whether they're aware of it or not. However, I don't believe there's a universal preference those readers have. Some will prefer longer books, others will prefer shorter ones, and others still will have no preference at all! So, it's best to not worry about what potential readers will think, in this case, and just concentrate on writing the best story possible, whether it ends up becoming a shorty or mammoth in size!

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  6. I think there may be some discrepancy between what a reader thinks is a good length for a story and what a writer heeds necessary to tell that story. I've heard readers of ALL ages say things like: I really liked the story, but it could have been told with a lot less words. Interesting.

    Also of interesting note: According to the website Deva gave for published novel word count, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE has 22,000 words and CHARLOTTE'S WEB has 32,000. HOOT was listed at 61,000, the same as I originally found.

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  7. I agree with everyone who has commented. Word count matters, but just to the extent of certain readers. I don't think it should be something that bogs you down, as long as you are in the range of "standard" word counts for your genre. I think it mostly comes down to the topic and whether it seems interesting to a perspective reader.

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  8. There are some sweet spots for MG, and it also depends on the type. Fantasy can be a little higher in word count, for example.
    Great post! I used to look this stuff up all the time when I wrote my MG.

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  9. i love this post on word count by literaticat http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html

    other agents and editors will have different perspectives, but it seems like a good threshold :)

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  10. Have you seen a kid pick up a book and turn it so the spine faces them? They're checking the thickness. That it not be too big seems critical to some readers--especially boys--and boy-appeal is the holy grail of publishing.

    A not-too-big book is also important to publishers, especially when they are considering a previously unpublished writer. Each time a signature is added to the book the cost of printing goes up. I remember being asked to lose 16 pages of "Anna Casey's Place in the World." I didn't merit the cost of that additional signature--so I went back and found that, much as I loved every word, there were a few I could do without. Amazingly, the book was better without them.

    Great blog Barbara!

    Adrian Fogelin

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    1. So true, Adrian, about kids checking the spine. I've also seen them page through the book investigating the size of the print on the pages.

      And it's also so true that our writing can usually be tightened--and turn out better. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  11. I think the site Deva referenced belongs to that (love it/hate it?) Accelerated Reader program. At least that's the one I used (AR) when I was a new writer and wanted to know more about the books I was reading, word count wise. One of my favorite middle-grade authors is Barbara O'Connor. Kids love her books. They are often quite short. She says she's never checked word counts on her novels. (though I have!)
    Another thing I've noticed is kids checking to see if the book has at least 200 pages when that's the minimum "required" length for book reports! (I used to be a school librarian...)
    But as one of my former critique group members used to say "I book has to be what it wants to be." I think that applies to many things, but quite possibly to word count also.

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