How long should my story be?

1024 587 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Welcome back to the YA Fundamental series, lovely authors! Today I’m talking about word count in YA manuscripts, which is something I see my clients getting in a muddle over all the time. And for good reason! There’s lots of conflicting advice out there, and just when you think you’ve got a handle on the ideal book length in your demographic and genre, you pick up a bestseller that’s 50,000 words longer! So, what is the magic number?

As always, the rules about book length aren’t set in stone but there are conventions and expectations for each age bracket so it’s important to understand these before making choices about your own manuscript. If you’re seeking traditional publication, you want agents to see you as professional and well-informed about your industry, and submitting a YA book that’s short enough to be middle grade or needs cutting in half can indicate that you haven’t done your research and don’t understand the market.

If you’re self-publishing, you don’t want to hurt your chances of success by putting out a book that doesn’t appeal to teenagers because it’s way too short. So, let’s look at those conventions!

YA word counts typically range from around 50,000 to 90,000, with fantasy and sci-fi often going a little longer to account for the world building and plot complexity those genres demand.

As you probably know, YA novels are typically longer than middle grade and that’s partly because teenagers are likely to be more confident, practised readers than younger children but also because the themes YA explores are often heavier and authors may need that extra space to explore them thoroughly.

Here are the word counts for some bestselling YA genre novels:

    • Divergent: 105,143
    • The Hunger Games: 99,750
    • Twilight: 119,000
    • One of Us is Lying: 92,000
    • Children of Blood and Bone: 134,250

As you can see, YA fantasy is currently trending towards the heftier end of the range!

Almost all the manuscripts I work on with authors are too long, but by the time I’ve finished my developmental edit or manuscript critique I’ve highlighted lots of sections – sometimes entire chapters – that can be trimmed back or removed and saved for a future book. So, don’t panic too much about your word count when you’re writing your first draft. Keep the length guidelines in mind and aim to stay within them, but if your manuscript goes over, you can fix this during the editing stage.

But do bear in mind that the longer your manuscript is, the more expensive a professional editor or proofreader will be later down the line if you choose to hire one. That’s because editors base their quote (in part) on your word count, so it pays to do the hard work now, in your own revision process, before reaching out to a professional. That doesn’t mean you should write a shorter novel in order to save money on editing, but if you know that your manuscript is bloated and unwieldy or just not the right length for your intended audience, ask yourself those tough questions I mentioned above and tighten your novel now, so that your editor is only working with the bits of the story that absolutely have to be there.

Read more in the YA Fundamentals series:

Call to Adventure!

How to use this information and advice in your own work

So what does this mean for your manuscript? If your word count is wildly beyond the recommended numbers above, ask yourself if you’re really telling your story in the best way. Think about these five questions:

    1. Are you trying to squeeze too many plot threads into one book? If there’s a subplot that you think could work as a novel on its own, try seeing if the main story can work without it.
    2. Are there more characters than the narratives requires? Make sure every secondary character exists for a reason, fulfilling a role in your main story. If there are two or three supporting characters who blend into each other because they don’t have distinct personalities or roles, consider merging them into one.
    3. Do you spend too much page time filling in backstory that readers don’t actually need to know? Try to focus on the here and now as much as possible, only giving readers expository details that are absolutely necessary to their understanding and enjoyment of the plot.
    4. If your manuscript is well below the suggested minimum word count, ask yourself if you’ve explored the plot, characters and themes sufficiently to produce a satisfying story. Does your protagonist go on a journey, changing and learning over the course of the novel, or do you need to strengthen their character arc more?
    5. How’s the pacing? If the story moves too slowly in places, perhaps there are sections that could be trimmed or cut from the manuscript in order to speed up the action.
Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes