Friday, December 27, 2013

The Great Question: What Is An Appropriate Middle Grade Word Count?

Middle Grade is a tricky category for many, many reasons. We haven’t been twelve-year-old kids in a very long time (some longer than others) so being authentic is probably the most realistic concern for new (or old) MG writers.  Nailing the voice. Knowing how kids really think. Knowing what will actually interest a kid of that age. All legitimate concerns.

So I find it ironic that the biggest questions I had when I first started writing middle grade was about word count.

This partially has to do with the fact that publishing has some strict guidelines, break them and you very well may lose out on the possibility of finding a publisher for your book. But the other reason is because the answers I’ve found we’re all over the place.

Writer’s Digest, for example, says 20,000 – 45,000 words, but I’ve seen quite a few middle grade books find success with word counts as high at 70,000 recently. One agent I asked didn’t give a firm answer but mentioned that 40,000 words was on the low side. Agents don’t seem to be worried about a word count closer to 70-80k anymore.

I kind of obsessed about this issue at first. I just wanted to know what to aim for. If I end up with 30,000 words do I need to fight to expand the plot? If I write 80,000 words do I need to split it into two books or just cut a few scenes?

So, I asked around, read lots of blog posts, even asked agents when I had the opportunity. This is the answer I came up with: it’s changing.

The middle grade category is changing, growing, as we speak. The extreme blow up of the Young Adult category has had an effect on many categories around it, including middle grade.  Agent Pam van hylckama vlieg says that YA and MG are "so closely related anymore. MGers are reading The Hunger Games for example”.

Upper MG is the next step down from YA, filling in the gaps between the two categories. So it makes sense for word counts to be doing the same.

So what’s the answer here?

The answer is that it depends. Middle Grade word counts are trending up, yes. But does that mean a light middle grade contemporary should be 60,000 words? No. But I doubt an agent would turn up their nose if it was.

The range for middle grade is very wide right now. Contemporary stories are usually shorter than speculative fiction but in general the sweet spot for a middle grade novel is 40,000-60,000 words. Anything inside that range shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. But even as low as 30,000 or as high as 70,000 is still saleable. 

 It’s never fun to find yourself worrying about how long your book is instead of the characters, voice, plot, concept etc. but it is an issue to think about if you are serious about getting published. In a few years this post very well may be outdated and there will be a clear line for middle grade word count. Until then, or until you have an agent to advise you on how long is too long, keep a look out. Pay attention to the length of books selling to publishers, catching agents, sitting on shelves.

2013                                                             2013
Word count: 47642                                      Word count: 73438

 2012                                                                  2012
Word Count: 98578                                           Word Count:  52395

(This website is great for looking up word counts. Not all books are listed but I’ve found most are.

But most of all, write the best book you can. Write the length that is right for your book and only worry about word count if you end up in one of the extremes, way too long or way too short. There are more important things to stress over!


Mirka Breen said...

Oh, how I know the word-count obsession... Sometimes, when we grapple with weather our writing measures up, it's easier to grab onto the more tangible things, like counts and numbers.
I think the WD range you mentioned is in fact spot-on, but for averages. Our books aren't average, right? MG is one of those shifting and very flexible categories. Twenty to ninety thousand words can be fine, if the book is fine. Actually, make sure it sparkles!

Rachel Hamilton said...

I don't think it matters in terms of submitting to agents/publishers - they are looking for great books, not specific word counts and will be expecting to edit your work - but your editor may request you add/delete words to meet their requirements. For example, I wrote 45K words for my MG novel, 'The Case of the Exploding Loo', but before offering me a book deal, Simon & Schuster asked if I would be prepared to cut it down to 35K so we could include internal illustrations.

Stacey Trombley said...

Agents talk a lot about word count and while yes, you're right, they can always tell you to cut if its too long, there are definitely times that they reject just based on word count. Maybe thats only extreme cases, but where is that line? Agents don't specify and they expect you to know the market and word count is part of that. Many writers worry about it. Whether its a nessesary worry, well, thats another story lol.

Stacey Trombley said...

Agreed. There are definitely more important things to worry about... but that doesn't mean we don't worry! Part of it is about knowing the market which is always good and definitely important.

Mirka Breen said...

Oops, that's "whether," not "weather." More important than counting them, words should be proofread carefully. Palm-face to me.