It’s writers conference season—and that means once again I’ll find myself sitting in hotel ballrooms with dozens of my fellow and sister agents listening to debut authors pitch their work. And once again I’ll hear my fellow and sister agents ask that most critical of questions: How long is it?

And once again I’ll hear writers answer that most critical question, the one that separates the publishable projects from the unpublishable projects, in a way that nearly guarantees they’ve lost the attention of the agent they’re pitching right there on the spot:

  1. “30,000 words.”
  2. “160,000 words.”
  3. “About 150 pages.”

All of these answers are red flags to agents.

No more red flags

We’re really asking if they can answer this question: How many words in a novel? These three answers are all red flags.

The first answer, because it’s novella length, not novel length (we’re talking adult fiction, not chapter books) and novellas are hard to sell. Why? Because it’s hard to justify the price point for such a short work, and the spine on such a short printed book would be too slim to accommodate the title.

The second answer, because it’s way too long (the word-count equivalent of two novels, not one) and books that are too long are hard to sell in a 140-character world. Not easy to keep the pacing up over such an extended narrative, and the worry is that the author—especially a debut author—is not up to the challenge. Not to mention expensive to produce, especially in printed form.

The third answer, because it’s a page count, not a word count. And only word counts matter. (It’s hard to fudge word count, and easy to fudge page count.)

Worse, all three of these answers reveal a lack of understanding of the marketplace in which writers are trying to sell stories—the same marketplace where we agents are selling stories.

The 90,000 word count sweet spot

How many words in a novel? Right now, when it comes to novel-length word count, it’s all about 90,000 words. Virtually every book I try to shop by a debut author that’s any longer than that—regardless of category—receives the same response from editors. In short, it’s just too long. “No more than 90,000 words” seems to be the editor’s mantra these days.

Given that mantra, I’ve asked several of my clients shorten their stories—and am happy to say that we’ve won contracts when I shopped the shortened versions, often to the same editors who complained about the length of the original stories.

Paula’s how-to-cut formula

How to reach that 90,000-word sweet spot? Here’s a trick I came up with that’s proven useful for my clients and that may work for you as well. It’s a how-to-cut formula—because most debut fiction is too long, rather than too short. (Note: If your story is too short, that’s another blog post. Much harder to add than to cut—and a much rarer problem.)

Here’s how 90,000 words (which is 360 pages at 250 words per page) breaks down by act:

  • Act One: 90 pages (22,500 words)
  • Act Two: 180 pages (45,000 words)
  • Act Three: 90 pages (22,500 words)

With that in mind:

Write out your basic storyline in Major Plot Points only: Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, Denouement.

For more information on plot points, take a look at my book Plot Perfect.

Now, using the word counts by act as a general guideline, cut anything you can cut to the word counts outlined above. Anything that does not get you from plot point to plot point MUST GO. If you’re stumped, start by axing backstory, navel gazing, info dumps, etc.

Pitch the perfect word count

This 90,000-word guideline for how many words in a novel is just that, a guideline. Each genre (and sub-genre) has its own word count range; cozies tend to be shorter than other kinds of crime fiction, for example.

Do check your comparable titles—recent debuts only—to make sure your story falls in that range.

And I’ll see you at the next pitch session!

For more on story length and novel word count, see you on Career Authors’ Facebook page.