KidLit Manuscript Lengths

I run and proudly contribute to several writing groups. And one thing that constantly comes up is word count. Am I over my range? Am I under it? I’m in a sweet spot but I need another scene. I can’t cut anything and I’m way over count what do I do?

It’s definitely one of those topics that just drives us all nuts.

So how long should a kidlit book be?

The first rule of thumb is to check the NYT bestsellers list and see if you can find the word count for those novels. Page counts are often listed with these books which doesn’t help aspiring writers, but there are some sites that can help you find them.

Second, don’t do that because you aren’t a New York Times bestselling author. Where people like Victoria Aveyard, Cassandra Claire, and Sabaa Tahir can write 200,000 word fantasy novels–you cannot. That word count comes with success.

Sure, in a great book, every single word you’ve written is vital and carefully chosen. The story has earned every single letter. But the situations where an agent sees your 100,000 word middle grade story and is convinced that it’s amazing are very rare.

From most reported experiences and agents’ manuscript wishlists, the lower your word count, the more they like you.

Keep in mind, most agents have hundreds of queries in their email at any given time (and that’s lowballing it). They also have to read your manuscript as well as the others they’ve requested. Imagine for a moment that every book they get is a couple hundred thousand words long. That is a lot of words for someone to read. Especially if they decide to sign you, in which case they will have to read your book over and over and over again.

Word counts are flexible and dependant on age category and genre.

Genre fiction writers, those coming under the Science Fiction/Fantasy and Paranormal umbrella, struggle with word counts the most. Genre fiction requires a higher word count because of the lavish world-building required of these types of stories. That doesn’t mean that you get to break the rules in your first book, though. Many agents’ blogs and convention panels are filled with horror stories about excessively wordy fantasy manuscripts that are part of a planned series and are compiled of walls of text with little to no paragraph breaks or dialogue.

The truth is, if your book is over 100,000 words, it had better be High YA Fantasy. And if you don’t know what that is, then your book doesn’t need to be that long.

The reason these manuscripts get rejected is that investing in a debut author is risky, and longer books mean more pages and higher production costs. Longer books are heavier and cost more to ship. They also take up more space in warehouses. Debut authors are untested in the marketplace and they are a potentially large profit loss for the publisher.

Editors have to guess how much money their publisher will have to spend to publish your book and how much they will get in return. They have to present all of this to their team before they can make you and your agent an offer.

You make yourself more marketable with a lower word count manuscript than one that ignores these guidelines.

You should always be searching for the ideal length of a kidlit novel.

So, just how long should your book be? Here are some ballpark numbers as of 2021.

  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000-45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Upper Middle Grade and genre fiction — 50,000-65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 50,000-85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 65,000-95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, these are estimates, and these ranges change all the time, which is why it is important for you to be reading and researching your age categories and genre standards. If you go over these ranges by a few words, that’s fine. If you go over by a few thousand words, that’s not fine and you need to go back through your manuscript with an eye for useless words and phrases.

If you are under these ranges, you have some bulking up to do. If your middle grade is barely 20,000 words then it is closer to younger middle grade and chapter books and you haven’t thought about your age category seriously. If your YA fantasy is 50,000 words, you have most likely neglected your world-building and need to go back and explain how a lot of things work.

Kidlit comes with a lot of grey areas. Lower middle grade overlaps with chapter books, upper middle grade overlaps with YA, lower YA overlaps with middle grade, and upper YA overlaps with adult/new adult books. This is all very frustrating and this is why it is important to do your research.

Originally posted on August 16, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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