Tag Archives: agent

What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

Novice writers often ask what is the ideal word count for a manuscript? Is 100,000 words too many? What about 150,000? It’s best to aim lower—much lower.

Let’s say a writer is pitching a first novel. He has a sure-fire Pulitzer Prize winner on his hands, but the manuscript is a weighty 250,000 words. Does he dare mention the word count in his query letter? Not only should he not mention the word count, but he needs to go back immediately and trim that manuscript. Cut it in half or divide it into two books and pitch it as the first part of a sequel. Why? In addition to the reality that most first-time writers probably over-write, it’s a matter of simple economics. More words mean more paper, and printing and shipping costs. A publisher is simply not going to spend the extra money publishing a tome by a first-time author. Agents know this.

When I finished my first novel, Small Change, it was 126,000 words. I mentioned the word count in my query letter. Meeting with an agent once at a writer’s conference, the agent took one look at the word count and shook her head. Get it down to less than 100,000 words, she said. A word count of 80,000 would be a good target, she advised. I eventually trimmed it to 103,000 words and I self-published Small Change.

The best essay I’ve read on word counts was written by Colleen Lindsay, a former agent. Read the post.

Lindsay noted that beginning writers often see fat science fiction books on the shelves of bookstores and believe they have to write a book of similar heft. “Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers,” Lindsay wrote.

She met with several fiction writers and compiled a comprehensive list of target word counts for each genre.

Here are some of the word counts listed by Lindsay for various genres, based on feedback she received from editors:

  • Middle grade: 25,000 to 40,000 words, with an average of 35,000.
  • Young Adult: 45,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Paranormal romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Category romance: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Cozy mysteries: 65,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Westerns: 80,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Mystery/thriller/crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy: this encompasses a wide range of genre, but generally the word counts fall between 90,000 and 100,000.

As a general rule of thumb for new novels, I believe 80,000 words is the right target, regardless of genre. Of course, there are examples of excellent novels with much shorter word counts. Ian McEwen’s brilliant short novel, On Chesil Beach, comes to mind. The novel is only 40,000 words, but it is exceptionally crafted and packed with meaning.

For another perspective on word counts, check out this article published in Writer’s Digest by agent Chuck Sambuchino.

What are your thoughts on word counts?

 

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Revisions: Are We Having Fun Yet?

While I continue to tweak the novel I thought I finished six months ago, the revision process is on my mind. Most writers would rather write than revise. I suspect many writers would rather visit the dentist than revise their work, but adhering to a well-defined revision process can be the difference between a mediocre and a great novel.

Let me share my process:

First draft: As a minimalist outliner, my first draft functions as a highly detailed outline. The first draft is where the writer gets the basic story onto the page. Don’t labor too long to come up with the perfect phrase or scene. Perfection is not the goal. That will come later.

Step back: Let your work sit for at least four weeks, longer if you have the patience. This time away will give you a better perspective and allow you to look at your work with fresh eyes.

First look: Read your first draft as a reader would. Focus on “big picture” stuff: story, structure, characters, theme. Ask yourself: does the story hold together. There should be a cause-and-effect to the events in your story. If there’s a major development that comes out of the blue, the writer needs to go back and lay the groundwork. Are the characters fully developed, interesting and complex? Take a hard look at the protagonist and the antagonist. Why should the reader care about them? While the main character should have some likeability, the antagonist must also have qualities that are attractive to the reader. Is there a central conflict? Is the main character’s goal clear to the reader? Have you created tension and conflict among the characters that grows organically without feeling forced? Have you identified and developed the theme of the story?

During this first look, make notes but resist the urge to make changes. This can wait until you’ve read the entire draft.

Second draft: This is where the greatest improvements to the story should take place. This is where the writer must address all of the problems identified during the first look. When you finish your second draft, the story should be airtight, the theme should be clear, and your character should be in sharp focus.

Line edit: This is just what it sounds like—a line-by-line editing of the manuscript. It’s the most tedious part of the process. At some point, a writer must read the manuscript carefully, line by line, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I did seven line edits of my first novel, in part, because I kept finding minor errors and in part because I made the decision to self-publish.

When these steps have been completed, a writer should then show the manuscript to others. I’m put off when someone shows me a manuscript riddled with typos and grammatical errors. This shows no respect for the reviewers.

Beta and Alpha Reviews: A beta reader is an astute critic who understands and recognizes quality fiction writing. An alpha reader is a super-astute critic. Why show your work to others? The writer is too close to the work. An outside critic can spot flaws and weaknesses the writer cannot see. Give your critics ample time to review your work and submit their critiques. Remember, they are doing you a huge service.

After these steps, the writer should consider hiring a professional book editor, if resources permit. Some writers hire an editor and a proofreader.

Final Draft: Now the writer is ready for the final draft. At this point the manuscript should be in great shape. The writer is looking for minor flaws that a sharp agent or publisher would spot.

How long should these rounds of revision take? The short answer is, “until your manuscript is ready.” The real answer is it could take anywhere from six months to two years or more, depending on a number of variables.

What is your revision process? Do you enjoy revising your work? 

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