Why can't my YA novel be over 100K words?

| Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Today's Tune: Do It Anyway

This is a question I see over and over and over and OVER AND OVER again from people dipping their toes into the YA sphere. Writers want to know if their YA novel can be over 100,000 words long. Most people will tell them it's not recommended (agents have repeatedly said so), but there are always a handful of folks who say, "Ignore all that because X book and Y book and Z book were all over 100K and they went on to be HUGE. Write as many words as you want. If it's good, someone will take it anyway."

This is... not the best advice. It's not WRONG. It is true that in some select cases, literary agents and editors have taken on debut YA novels upward of 120-150,000 words. It does happen. However, people who tend to spout this line of reasoning often edge around some pretty important differentiating factors.

Most YA novels that clock in at 100K or more are not debut novels.

Look, if you do very well with your first book or two and/or you have an extensive following? You can do things that other authors don't get to do. Like write really long books. When you're a brand new baby author, your publisher doesn't know what kind of bet they've made yet. They don't know if your 180K tome is going to sell like hotcakes or flop and lose them a bunch of money. So they tend to start smaller. Long books cost more money to make and can be more prohibitive for some readers. If it turns out you're the kind of author that the readers gobble up, you get more leeway. A lot of those massive books you see on shelves? Usually not from a first-time author.

People like to quote massive bestsellers when making this argument. But here's the thing: MASSIVE. BEST. SELLERS.

You guys. Massive bestselling books do not count when it comes to "writing rules." I know everyone likes to talk about how they're the exception and look how successful they were anyway, but that's because they're exceptions. Not rules. You'll notice a lot of people pointing at Twilight, City of Bones, Eragon, Divergent, etc. as debut YA novels that broke the 100K marker and went on to sell loads. But these books? All super popular. All sold well worth their weight. No, the publishers didn't KNOW that would happen, but publishers do occasionally know how to make a good bet. These were good bets. You'll also notice how their size crept up as they sold more and grew in popularity, not before. And sure, the authors may have bent the rules and written past the "recommended" amount. It DOES happen. But it's not common. It's usually better to assume you're just like everyone else, not one of the super special exceptions.

Also: Cassandra Clare had a large following before publishing her debut. Christopher Paolini had previously published his book and seen some success with it. Twilight... well, it's TWILIGHT and basically immune to all of the rules. Veronica Roth's debut didn't start out that big (more on that later). Seeing a theme?

Longer books usually, USUALLY, tend to be a symptom of overwriting in unpublished writers.

I'd like to emphasize, once again, USUALLY. I'm not saying that unpublished writers never write awesome lengthy books. But, especially with people who haven't been in the game long, big books tend to mean more exposition, longer-winded description, lack of editing, and prose that hasn't been trimmed properly. It's actually very easy to write a super long book. You sit, you write everything that comes into your head, and you don't stop. Learning to distill your prose into its strongest state and cut scenes you love because they don't serve the greater story? That's the hard part. You have to make sure that every. single. word. serves a purpose. If you or your readers are skimming because you don't need to read every word to get the point, it's time to revisit those words with the delete key.

Longer books also usually tend to be in the genres of Fantasy, Paranormal, Science Fiction, or Dystopian. Genres with a lot of worldbuilding, that is.

Know why Fantasy novels tend to be bulkier than Contemporary novels? Because the audience needs to be introduced to a world unlike our own. A lot of the text comes from creating the environment and introducing the beings that fill the world. These are things you can't just skim over, at least not if you want your audience to understand what's going on. When your Contemporary novel starts creeping up in word count, it's often because you're trying to cram too much in there. Pick your plot thread and stick to it. Don't meander.

Many of the larger YA novels on shelves didn't start out that big.

Books change during professional editing. Word counts change. Editors themselves may decide that an area of a novel needs to be fleshed out more. That's their call. If the book's working as is but could use a little more this or that, an editor who decides to take it on will let you know. So a book that looks big now may have started out a whole lot slimmer.

So, yeah. This is why, whenever people ask this question, I tell them it's in their best interest to try to keep it below 100K. No, I can't say whether or not your book is a special debut that can get away with a larger word count. It very well may be. All I can tell you is that large books may not be what they appear, and it's probably a good idea to hedge your bets and write a kickass 90K book rather than a might-be-kickass 130K book that could get rejected out of hand because agents go WHOA THAT'S HIGH. I mean, I figure that if agents are repeatedly telling you to avoid doing something, you should probably avoid it. These people are not clueless. They sell books professionally. Their opinion may be worth heeding. You can always save your bigger books for further down the line after you have a debut under your belt.

At the end of the day, it's always your call. If you feel really strongly that your book is as good as you can make it and that every word counts, then go for it anyway. The worst anyone can say is no.

What are your feelings on the 100K benchmark for debut YA novels?


{ prerna pickett } at: September 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM said...

i used to think that my over 100,000 word ya novel was just fine, but i'm editing (once again) and think i'll get it down to under 90,000 this time around. so to anyone who thinks they are the exception- edit, edit, edit. Then if your novel is still over 100k you can take the risk and send it out to agents.

{ Old Kitty } at: September 19, 2012 at 11:39 AM said...

I say if the standard for YA is to get the novel word count below 100,000 then I'd probably stick to that standard and try my best to get the word count more appealing!

take care

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: September 20, 2012 at 3:06 AM said...

I aim for 80,000 words when I write. I think a lot of unpublished writers really do need to consider the consequences of breaking the rules and be realistic about it.

A bit of advice I once heard (can't for the life of me remember where) was that if you're going to break a rule of writing, there must be a reason for it. Because even the superstar authors break the rules for a reason other than "because I can."

Another thing to keep in mind is that large books can be daunting, especially to younger readers. Sure this isn't quite as much of an issue for ebooks, but when faced with trying out a new author for the first time, and your choice is between the reasonably-sized 80,000 word book clocking in at 300 pages, and the 150,000 word tome sitting next to it, most people are going to take the chance on the shorter book.

{ Emily RS } at: May 6, 2016 at 9:53 PM said...

I realize your post is from a couple of years ago, but hopefully you still might respond... If I am able to get my YA fantasy just under 110K can I get away with saying it is around 100K in my query or do I have to be specific?

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: May 7, 2016 at 4:10 PM said...

Hi Emily - this post is indeed years old now and probably doesn't matter than much in the grand scheme of things anymore. When it comes to word count, I'd always be specific or round to the nearest 5K. Just make sure you've done your edits and made the book as strong as you can make it.

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