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How Long Should Your SFF Novel Be?

Does length matter?


Get your mind out of the gutter, people—I’m talking about word count!


An open book against a black background.
Photo by Mikołaj on Unsplash.

If you are writing solely for your own enjoyment or with the plan to self-publish, your word count doesn't matter so much. Write your novel as long or short as you want. However, if your goal is traditional publishing, length matters.


Why? Simply put, because publishers and literary agents say it does. However, they’re not just making up these rules willy-nilly. Their word count expectations are associated with the risk of publishing a new book. If you’re an established author, you can play around with these expectations much more freely (helloo, 450,000-word epic fantasy by Brandon Sanderson).


Hopefully it's obvious that word count is not as important as the quality of your writing, but it is one of the various factors that literary agents and publishers consider. If your word count is too high, the book will be more expensive to produce—and that isn't just printing costs. Shipping, storing, and time for editing are all factors as well. If your word count is too low, readers might not feel like it’s worth their time. Novellas, though they are gaining in popularity, don’t sell as well as novels.


Word Counts of Recently Published Novels


These word counts will give you an idea of the current publishing landscape for sci-fi and fantasy.


Adult Sci-Fi


  • Flux by Jinwoo Chong (2023) — 86K

  • Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh (2023) — 133K

  • The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei (2023) — 101K

  • The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz (2023) — 118K

  • Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis (2024) — 85K

  • Ocean's Godori by Elaine U. Cho (2024) — 89K

  • Tomorrow's Children by Daniel Polansky (2024) — 85K

  • Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase (2024) — 130K

  • Toxxic by Jane Hennigan (2024) — 99K

  • Escape Velocity by Victor Manibo (2024) — 86K


Young Adult Sci-Fi


  • Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (2021) — 115K

  • All That's Left in the World by Erik J. Brown (2022) — 100K

  • Hell Followed with Us by Andrew Joseph White (2022) — 125K

  • Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta (2023) — 120K

  • Made of Stars by Jenna Voris (2023) — 92K

  • Under This Forgetful Sky by Lauren Yero (2023) — 101K

  • Fate Born by Michelle L. Robison (2024) — 108K

  • The Things We Leave Behind by Clare Furniss (2024) — 75K

  • Hearts Still Beating by Brooke Archer (2024) — 96K

  • Snowglobe by Soyoung Park (2024) — 91K


Middle Grade Sci-Fi


  • Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt (2020) — 59K

  • Eighth Grade vs. the Machines by Joshua S. Levy (2021) — 56K

  • The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera (2021) — 73K

  • The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm (2021) — 44K

  • Ace Takes Flight by Cory McCarthy (2022) — 50K

  • It's the End of the World and I'm in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds (2022) — 51K

  • Into the Sideways World by Ross Welford (2022) — 72K

  • Black Hole Cinema Club (2024) — 44K

  • The First State of Being by Erin Entrada Kelly (2024) — 41K

  • Stitch by Padraig Kenny (2024) — 31K


Adult Fantasy


  • The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty (2023) — 153K

  • A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon (2023) — 300K

  • Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree (2023) — 82K

  • Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett (2023) — 100K

  • Godkiller by Hannah Kaner (2023) — 102K

  • The Sun and the Void by Gabriela Romero LaCruz (2023) — 177K

  • Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs (2023) — 131K

  • The City of Stardust by Georgia Summers (2024) — 100K

  • The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years by Shubnum Khan (2024) — 86K

  • Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan (2024) — 125K


Young Adult Fantasy


  • Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross (2023) — 108K

  • A Door in the Dark by Scott Reintgen (2023) — 98K

  • The Scarlet Alchemist by Kylie Lee Baker (2023) — 120K

  • A Study in Drowning by Ava Reid (2023) — 99K

  • To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose (2023) — 150K

  • Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim (2023) — 122K

  • Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta (2024) —116K

  • The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste (2024) — 122K

  • To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang (2024) — 99K

  • So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole (2024) — 106K


Middle Grade Fantasy


  • Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega (2022) — 76K words

  • Abeni's Song by P. Djèlí Clark (2023) — 106K

  • Alex Wise vs. the End of the World by Terry J. Benton-Walker (2023) — 101K

  • The Horrible Bag of Terrible Things by Rob Renzetti (2023) — 39K

  • Lei and the Fire Goddess by Malia Maunakea (2023) — 78K

  • Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies by Stacey Lee (2023) — 86K

  • The Lumbering Giants of Windy Pines by Mo Netz (2024) — 42K

  • Not Quite a Ghost by Anne Ursu (2024) — 58K

  • Paper Dragons by Siobhan McDermott (2024) — 81K

  • Sona and the Golden Beasts (2024) — 94K


Science fiction and fantasy novels are often longer than other genres, because SFF authors need that wiggle room for worldbuilding. For middle grade, 50K–90K seems to be a safe goal. For young adult and adult, 80K–100K (though if you're writing epic fantasy or space opera, 125K–175K is the sweet spot). Anything above 200K will incur more production costs and may be yellow- or red-flagged by an agent.


As with any writing advice, take these guidelines with a grain of salt. It's not impossible to sell a debut novel that has a higher or lower word count than these examples, but it is difficult, and querying is already difficult. I recommend giving agents and publishers every reason to say yes.


However, don't worry about word count during your first draft, as trying to fit your writing into a box can dampen creativity; consider word count during the editing phase instead.


If Your Novel is Too Long


You might be tempted to cut your novel into two books if the word count is very high. But a 400,000-word story don't necessarily mean you have more than one novel on your hands. After all, your book might not have two beginnings, middles, and ends; it depends on how it's structured. You may be able to pull entire plot threads out and set them aside for another novel, or you may be able to shorten other areas.


Trimming text is one of my favourite parts of editing, and there are a few common things I look for when considering what to cut:


  1. Dialogue that serves no purpose. Small talk, repetition, information the reader already knows, long discussions where characters plan what they're about to do.

  2. Filler words. Just, even, really, suddenly, anything in "The Trimmables" chapter of Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer.

  3. Actions that could be simplified. For example, body parts moving on their own is a common one. E.g. "Her left hand rose to scratch her nose" can be "She scratched her nose."

  4. Unnecessary scenes. What purpose is the scene achieving? Does it move the story forward and develop your characters? Do you really need a five-page dream sequence?

  5. Unnecessary characters. Does each character have a distinct personality? Do they all serve a specific purpose? Could two characters be combined into one?

If Your Novel is Too Short


It's possible you have a novella on your hands. But you could also be an underwriter, like me. I write sparse first drafts that are lacking in description; during the editing phase, I drastically bump up the word count. This doesn't mean adding scenes or extra words for the sake of it; instead, develop the story with essential information.


Here are five things to think about when expanding your novel:


  1. The five senses. In my first drafts, I tend to focus on one sense: sight. But there are four others to take advantage of (assuming your character is not disabled in one of those ways). Consider what your characters see, hear, smell, feel, and taste to immerse your readers in their experience.

  2. Interiority. One of the main differences between novels and movies is that we get to be inside characters' heads. What are they thinking, feeling, or experiencing?

  3. Plot threads. Are there areas you can expand on or threads you forgot to pick up? Does a relationship need expounding, a mystery need more red herrings, or a question need answering?

  4. Reactions. It can be tempting to hammer down action beat after action beat, but let your character respond to the events that have happened to them. Are they frustrated? Angry? Triumphant? Do they have to make a decision on how to proceed? This reaction could be a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire scene, but your characters may need room to breathe.

  5. Tension. Are your characters getting through their challenges too easily? Are there places to add tension and conflict?

 

Trimming your words can be heart-wrenching, but tightening up your prose is a useful skill. Figuring out where to add words can be equally frustrating, but understanding exactly what your novel needs, adjusting the length so the pacing feels right, is also valuable. Word count guidelines may seem arbitrary and be frustrating, but use them to stretch your writing muscles and push your novel to become the best story it can be.


This article initially used word count estimates from howlongtoread.com, but was edited April 8, 2024, with word counts from Rakuten Kobo and more recent novel titles.

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The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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