#NaNoWriMo 2019: 50,000 Is a Lot, Except When It Isn't

I read a lot of other newsletters, including several that share insights into the book publishing industry. Literary agent Kate McKean had a great article yesterday, probing the 50,000-word aspect of National Novel Writing Month. “A standard typed manuscript page,” she writes, “with 12pt font and one-inch margins is about 300 words. A 50,000-word manuscript is about 165 pages. That feels sooooooo short to me, for a novel, but YMMV.”

Now, I’d always grown up thinking 250 words to a page, so 50,000 words would put you at about 200 pages, but Kate’s point still stands: That’s an awfully short novel, as far as adult fiction is concerned. (I am not an expert in YA, although there seems to be a bit more leeway there.) Anything short of 60,000 words is, honestly, and the real sweet spot is probably somewhere between 75,000 and 90,000—a big enough chunk of story to make readers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, but not so big that the material costs of production begin to make publishers nervous about making their money back.

(There is a whole rant I could do on this topic, but for now: Paper costs money; bigger books require more paper, which makes them more expensive to produce; the way you offset higher-than-usual production costs is to raise the price of the book; raising the price of the book makes it harder to sell…)

So, why does everybody spend November writing to 50,000 words, if that makes for a shorter novel than publishers tend to want?

Kate has some thoughts on the subject, which I strongly encourage you to read. I’m going to add a few more points, as long as I’m here.

  • 50,000 words in 30 days, using the more generous estimate of 300 words/page, comes to roughly five and a half manuscript pages each day. Personally, I wouldn’t want to maintain that pace for four weeks, but it’s not impossible. Anything longer than that, though, is much harder to complete within the one-month timeframe. And the goal of NaNoWriMo is, after all, to end the month with a complete manuscript.

  • Not a complete publishable manuscript, mind you. Just a complete manuscript. Right now, you’re just out to prove that you’re capable of telling a novel-length story. Publishability comes later, if it ever comes, and you shouldn’t be thinking about it during the month of writing, anyway. But everything you learn about how to structure a novel by writing one in a month will be useful to you when you’re working on the book you do want to eventually share with the world.

  • Honestly, though, take everything Kate and I have written about 50,000 words being “too short” with a grain of salt. There have been a lot of developments in independent publishing, and digital-first publishing, in the two decades since the first NaNoWriMo, and I think one of the consequences of those developments is that there are more opportunities for shorter novels. I’m not saying a 50,000-word manuscript will make you a literary superstar, or even a bestselling author, but if there’s a compelling story there, and you spend enough refining it afterwards, I suspect you will not be entirely without options.

By the way, if you’re starting today with fewer than 28 manuscript pages (or about 8,400 words), don’t get anxious. Even the official NaNoWriMo guidelines tend to suggest doing fewer pages each weekday, and making up the difference Saturday and Sunday, or whatever days you have off from work (if you have work). And, again, the point isn’t to prove you can maintain a pace that is, frankly, unworkable for most people over the long haul. The point is to prove that you can tell a story.

Hmmm. Wait up, let me clarify: The pace of five to six workable manuscript pages a day is generally unworkable over the long haul, at least for most of us in the real world. I’ve actually heard that benchmark cited for some full-time professional writers, the sort of people who could deliver a novel every year (maybe even two, quite possibly three), and whose publishers—and, perhaps more importantly, readers—eagerly anticipated that annual arrival. But that’s a special set of circumstances, and even then I never heard of anyone doing it all year long. (Not to mention, the people I’ve heard about usually took weekends off.)

At the same time, I do want you to get used to the pace of writing something every day, or at least spending some time every day writing, which is not quite the same thing, if you see what I’m getting at. You’ll have good days, you’ll have bad days, but the important thing is that you’re showing up.

The final outcome is that you prove you can tell a story; the day-to-day outcome is that you prove you’re capable of telling a story.