letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 241
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: women’s fiction

Dear Authors:

A note from the trenches….

Despite the fact that some of the basics can feel repetitive to me, I was encouraged last week to occasionally revisit them either for new entrants to the query wars or even as reminders.

So, wordcount….

This year’s record submission stands at 475,000 words, which would be 1900 pages at the 250 words/page standard. It was the first volume of a series. I think that might be a wee bit on the long side…. This week’s record came in at a mere 215,000 words.

Ideally a person would write the story in however many words it takes to tell the story. But with economic considerations which require the art to fit the business, consider lengths from 80,000-120,000 for single title romance (leaving aside category romance which has very specific wordcounts), women’s fiction, thrillers, suspense, non-cosy mystery, some YA (upper ranges, not middle grade), settling towards the 100,000 mark if at all possible. Cosy mysteries tend to be shorter with some even as tight as 60,000 words. There’s a little room to maneuver here and certainly in science fiction and fantasy lengths may tend to sometimes run longer, but even there 150,000 seems to be the upper range considered comfortable, with indications that 125,000 is really more reasonable, and 100,000 still more ideal. [Special note: more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. YMMV to some degree.]

Now, often when this topic is raised, someone brings up exceptions. But, as they say, the exception proves the rule. (Hey, I read Anathem last summer and plan to read The Historian this summer, so I know they’re out there.) And this will also be something that is unlikely to apply to certain break-out bestsellers or well-established authors that can afford some wiggle room. Evenso, I had a client this year asked to reduce a novel by a significant amount due to the economic necessities of casting off the book (glossary: “casting off” – when the publisher uses arcane equations to determine how many pages the book will be and what cover price they will need to have). Debut authors may find this an even more substantial issue as they have no trackrecord to use as leverage. Longer and longer manuscripts will continue to raise the physical price of the book until price resistance may be too high to attract a sufficient number of buyers. Therefore, in a very competitive market, this could actually come into play in the determination of buying a book.

The other potential issue in a book of great length is the need to keep the attention of your readers and have them return for the next book and the next and the next… It might be suggested that lengths of this sort could indicate the possibility of a narrative that is too padded with scenes that don’t adequately develop the story, or, if that’s not the case and the author can’t find anywhere to tighten the pace up, perhaps something that needs to be split into multiple volumes. (Though in the case of the 475,000 word opus, which would more comfortably be divided into 4 books, one wonders if the sequel is equally hefty and how many books are planned.) Also, consider whether the story begins at the right time — so many submissions that come through have a sort of “warming up” section while the story finds its way. While establishing certain plot, character, or setting details may be necessary, keep in mind when to start telling the story.

If your work is exceptional, of course, none of these rules will apply. As for me, I would still read the query and the first five pages before I respond as the brilliant story may still snare me, and revisions may be possible. But it might still prove a challenge to many…. So, just something to keep in mind as you type “The End.”

21 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Good post.
    I once thought I knew what the typical length of a fantasy novel had to be, but when I checked out a few publishers I found out my numbers were overinflated.
    So now I have a more reasonable amount of words to create and the task doesn’t seem as daunting.

  2. I cannot fathom what you would need 475k to say in one book that could not be said in 100k, but maybe I don’t understand that sort of fantasy novel.

    • Having written something I am now taking a hedge trimmer to — trimming which started with losing Chapter One, as it happened — I know how it works. Some is definitely unnecessary padding. Some had to be written so you’d know how it happened, and then needs to be cut out again because it turns out that it’s good enough for Character A to tell Character B about it after the fact (because B would’ve needed to know anyway, and if you’d left that chapter in, you’d have had both reading it, and reading about someone else being told…). Some is because you have a few more characters than the usual book, which may or may not be a feature depending on the author. (C.J. Cherryh’s Regensis is a hefty, hefty brick with two major characters, one almost-as-major character, and at least one additional sidekick for each, plus several minor characters there so that you know the world is big.) There may be some chapters that, upon further contemplation, one might amalgamate so that instead of Character A talking to Character B in this chapter, and Character C in that one, you have B&C being brought up to speed in the same chapter. Some size may be because the author is trying to explore a relationship that goes from the “I hate you” to “falling into bed together” without starting from hormone-enhanced sexual tension, and wants it to be a realistic learning-to-respect-then-love kind of thing… There may be some sub-plots that are fairly intricate.
      Yeah, I can see how it’d take a chunk of words to tell a story. Especially an intricate one.
      But unless it’s a super-mega-great story… It’s probably not going to find much favor with anyone printing it on dead trees (except the Vanity Scum Press people who get money by the page).
      Which is why I’ve got me a hedge trimmer. And have discovered that I love the word “that” waaaay too much and can lose a small but noticeable chunk of word-count simply by searching on it and determining whether each appearance really needs it or not.

  3. I really appreciate your taking the time to post this; thanks! 🙂

  4. I actually have a hard time getting my word count up. I guess I’m a cheap date. 🙂

  5. This year’s record submission stands at 475,000 words, which would be 1900 pages at the 250 words/page standard. It was the first volume of a series.
    [cough] [choke] [splutter]
    It’s the first four volumes in a series.
    Just because Robert Jordan got away with that, ye gods, do we need to start the Wheel of Time turning again…?

  6. I once received an 1850-page manuscript submission. This was early in my agenting career, and I was still requesting hard copy for fulls, so it arrived in a box that resembled a small child’s coffin, split into two packages inside marked “1 of 2” and “2 of 2,” each wrapped in plastic wrap because–no doubt–no rubber band fit around their mass. I could not lift this box. The guys at my mail place brought it out on a dolly and had to put it in my trunk for me. I had to take it upstairs to my office in parts so that I could recycle the paper.

  7. I’m always fascinated by the reactions of writers who are told their 250K novel is too long. Invariably, I could cut them by 10% just through judicious line editing, and another 10% simply by cutting every long patch of “establishing shot” description.
    Sometimes people whine that a fantasy novel of massive complexity must necessarily be massive. Then I hand them Nine Princes in Amber.

  8. Thank you. I have heard this advice many times before, but for some reason, this time it hit me. Your post made me realize I had started the story a good two months (and 7000 words) before necessary. Cheers.
    Lisa

  9. Interesting. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. 150,000 seems to be the upper range considered comfortable, with indications that 125,000 is really more reasonable
    I’m happy with that. It’s the ‘no book needs to be longer than 90K’ that I cannot fall behind, because some books _do_.
    How do you stand on trilogies?

  11. I admit that mine is a little long for a fantasy, but nowhere near the week or year record. Of course, there is the issue that the 250 per page wordcount method counts whitespace too. So if you do a Robert Asprin and have chapter quotes, even if you’re not using the full line, it’ll be counted as a full line’s worth of words.
    There’s a discussion on AbsoluteWrite about which wordcount agents prefer. All the authors are saying MS Word count. One agent chimed in and said the 250 per page count. No other agents have added to that discussion. What about you? Which do you prefer the writer use?

  12. “As for me, I would still read the query and the first five pages before I respond…”
    That’s one reason why I enjoy visiting your blog: there’s a sense of caring in most or all of your posts.

  13. Yeah, when I first ‘finished’ the first book in my series it was 270,000 words. I attempted a few submission and got back all rejections, so I joined writers market and got some great advice. Now I’ve edited my book down to 108k and plan on revising once again to see if I can get it down a little more. I now understand that the first book should have been cut in two and there was a lot of padding.
    The padding was cut down, and I realized prepositional phrases are the enemy so they’re the next to go. Thanks for posting this, its hard to figure out where a word count should be when you have people telling you a fantasy should be 120,000 but no agent will take over 90,000… guess that comes into play more when your deciding which agents to query…
    I need to buy a hedge trimmer. 🙂
    Justine Hedman

  14. Hmm, I think I may have been one of your recent rejections, ha.

  15. Is the 250/page rule more the industry standard than using the word count out of MS Word?
    Because on my latest YA I get the rather scary number of 103K+ when I use the MS Word count, but when I use the 250 rule I get 93K.
    Which rule do I use?

    • I am not the agent, and am replying very belatedly, but I seem to recall that the 250 rule is based off of 1-inch margins all around, 12-point Courier, and double-spaced. If you’re using a smaller font, or not double-spacing, then that could artificially shrink your 250-per-page estimate.
      I’d use what MS Word says, personally.

  16. The other potential issue in a book of great length is the need to keep the attention of your readers and have them return for the next book and the next and the next…
    This was really brought home to me the other week when I was at a doctor’s visit. The office nurse saw the cover of the modest 300-page sff book I was reading and said, “That looks like a Harry Potter kind of book.” “Well,” I said, “it’s for adults, but yes, it’s a Harry Potter kind of book. It’s good.” “I’ll bet it is,” she said, giving me an apologetic look, “but I look at how long it is and I wonder if I want to take the time to read something that big.” I admit to being a bit gob-smacked.

  17. Ugh… I have been told all my life as a writer that one must cut, cut, cut…And my book is now waaaaay too short, since I’m realizing novellas aren’t real hot right now. Grrrr…

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