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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 (estimated by howlongtoread.com) will give you an idea of the current publishing landscape for sci-fi and fantasy.


Adult Sci-Fi

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

Flux

Jinwoo Chong

2023

Yes

100K

Hunt the Stars

Jessie Mihalik

2022

No

125K

Leech

Hiron Ennes

2022

Yes

95K

Lost in Time

A.G. Riddle

2022

No

135K

The Measure

Nikki Erlick

2022

Yes

105K

Nophek Gloss

Essa Hansen

2020

Yes

130K

The Outside

Ada Hoffmann

2019

Yes

120K

Sea of Tranquility

Emily St. John Mandel

2022

No

80K

Self-Portrait with Nothing

Aimee Pokwatka

2022

Yes

90K

The Space Between Worlds

Micaiah Johnson

2020

No

100K

Young Adult Sci-Fi

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

All That’s Left in the World

Erik J. Brown

2022

Yes

100K

Crownchasers

Rebecca Coffindaffer

2020

Yes

110K

The Darkness Outside Us

Eliot Schrefer

2021

No

120K

The Final Six

Alexandra Monir

2018

No

100K

Gearbreakers

Zoe Hana Mikuta

2023

Yes

120K

Girls at the Edge of the World

Laura Brooke Robson

2021

Yes

125K

Hell Followed with Us

Andrew Joseph White

2022

Yes

125K

Iron Widow

Xiran Jay Zhao

2021

Yes

115K

Mindwalker

Kate Dylan

2021

No

95K

The Sound of Stars

Alechia Dow

2020

Yes

120K

Middle Grade Sci-Fi

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

Cleo Porter and the Body Electric

Jake Burt

2020

No

80K

Dragon Pearl

Yoon Ha Lee

2019

No

90K

Eighth Grade vs. the Machines

Joshua S. Levy

2021

No

84K

Into the Sideways World

Ross Welford

2022

No

125K

The Last Cuentista

Donna Barba Higuera

2021

No

95K

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer

Lamar Giles

2019

No

90K

The Lion of Mars

Jennifer L. Holm

2021

No

80K

The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away

Ronald L. Smith

2019

No

80K

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Carlos Hernandez

2019

No

114K

Tin

Padraig Kenny

2018

Yes

105K

Adult Fantasy

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

The Book Eaters

Sunyi Dean

2022

Yes

90K

The Final Strife

Saara El-Arifi

2022

Yes

190K

Gideon the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir

2019

Yes

130K

Kaikeyi

Vaishnavi Patel

2022

Yes

140K

The Library of the Unwritten

A.J. Hackwith

2019

Yes

115K

She Who Became the Sun

Shelley Parker-Chan

2021

Yes

125K

The Stardust Thief

Chelsea Abdullah

2022

Yes

140K

The Sun and the Void

Gabriela Romero LaCruz

2023

Yes

150K

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

Sangu Mandanna

2022

No

95K

When Women Were Dragons

Kelly Barnhill

2022

No

105K

Young Adult Fantasy

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

All the Stars and Teeth

Adalyn Grace

2020

Yes

110K

Cinderella is Dead

Kalynn Bayron

2020

Yes

120K

Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Sue Lynn Tan

2022

Yes

150K

Fable

Adrienne Young

2020

No

105K

​For the Wolf

Hannah Whitten

2021

Yes

130K

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Axie Oh

2022

No

100K

Legendborn

Tracy Deonn

2020

Yes

150K

A Magic Steeped in Poison

Judy I. Lin

​2022

Yes

100K

One for All

Lillie Lainoff

2022

Yes

115K

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath

Moniquill Blackgoose

2023

Yes

150K

Middle Grade Fantasy

Title

Author

Year

Debut?

Words

Amari and the Night Brothers

B.B. Alston

2021

Yes

120K

Anya and the Dragon

Sofiya Pasternack

2019

Yes

115K

The Bookshop of Dust and Dreams

Mindy Thompson

2021

Yes

100K

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

Kaela Rivera

2021

Yes

105K

The Girl and the Ghost

Hanna Alkaf

2020

Yes

80K

Nura and the Immortal Palace

​M.T. Khan

2022

Yes

80K

The Ogress and the Orphans

Kelly Barnhill

2022

​No

115K

The Pennymores and the Curse of the Invisible Quill

Eric Koester

2022

​Yes

110K

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency

L.D. Lapinski

2020

Yes

110K

Witchlings

Claribel A. Ortega

2022

No

100K

Science fiction and fantasy novels are often longer than other genres, because SFF authors need that wiggle room for worldbuilding. 80K–100K is a safe goal (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. Descriptions of body parts moving. "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! 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. You've got this.


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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