Wednesday, March 21, 2018

198,000 words. Am I dead from the get-go?

Janet, based on your New Leaf page, it looks like my debut novel isn't for you; but I wondered if you might nonetheless consider my query question. It concerns #4 on your query checklist
I've been at work on my novel for 15 years. I've rewritten it from the ground up three times. The fourth draft alone has been in progress for nearly nine years, has benefited from the editorial feedback of numerous (many luminous) literary friends, and while I certainly expect to make more cuts and continue refining it between now and galleys, the novel is narratively swift and boiled down. It is cooked.

It is also 198,000 words.

I realize that's, just barely, within your parameters. But it has been drummed into me that the publishing industry will not consider a debut novel of more than 80,000 words. So in crafting my queries, I'm torn between a belief in transparency and in following directions, and the fear that agents will make a bee-line from my word count to the trash can icon in their email application. If I leave it out, and my query is otherwise compelling and complete, I might snag a follow-up from an agent who will agree with me that the work's merits compensate for its unorthodox length.

What would you do in my shoes?

yeesh. That's one helluva book.
I'd leave out the word count and include the most tightly written first 3-5 pages in the history of publishing.


Length is a production problem of course. It costs more to print a book of that length; a book that size takes up more shelf space than a novel half its size. That means it has to be priced higher than other books, and you don't need to be an econ major to remember that lower prices increase demand.


However.
If you need 198K, that's what you need.
I'm always willing to take a look (other agents aren't however, so be prepared for auto-rejects) if a book intrigues me.

Where big-ass books get the boot is most often when I read flabby first pages. If I read something that's 198K and I can see a way to take out 100 words in the first three pages, I'm going to conclude your word count is due to flab, not plot.

How can you make sure you've got plot bulk, not flab?  A good editor with a fist full of red pens is a good start.

A consultation at a writing conference might be in order. If you met me at a pitch session, brought your pages and told me it was 198K and did I think this ms was trim enough, I'd take a look and show you what I thought could be chopped.

A taut well-told 198K book can find an audience. It's got a much higher hurdle to overcome than a book that's half that size, but it can be done.

Good luck!

46 comments:

Kathy Joyce said...

OP, hats off to you! I might be able to write a book that long, but I could never edit it. Good luck!

Kitty said...

OP, dittos on what Kathy said. Btw, what genre is it?

Writer Geek Esq said...

My question: Can the book be split into two, and would that help?

Timothy Lowe said...

Check out pages on The Nix, Nathan Hill's debut. 188,000 words and he spent 10 years writing it. The opening is taut and gripping. Loved it, even if I thought some of it could have been pared down. Not because of flab, as Janet suggests, but because it is pretty damn sprawling in scope.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I just wrote a well-over 100 word reply regarding the gestational life-time of OP's book. I nixed it. Too know-it-all.
Anyway, the word count, I got nothin'. The time devoted to the WIP I thought astounding.
But really, is it?
My WIP pipeline is filled with teenagers. One, not quite a middle-ager, is as old as my publishing career.
I wish you luck OP and hope that the time you have devoted brings you great success.

Megan V said...

I'd leave out the word count and include the most tightly written first 3-5 pages in the history of publishing.

While I can understand the QOTKU's point here, the trouble is that just as some agents will pass based on word count alone, there are those who will also pass for the failure to include word count.

So I'll keep my fingers crossed that you find an agent willing to snap up a great manuscript, even though it is one helluva book. Also, I'll note that the hurdle you face here will also be partly dependent on what genre your MS is. A 198k epic fantasy is probably more doable than 198k romance.

nightsmusic said...

I read an author for a long time who's first book alone was over 200K word count. Almost every word in that book though was needed to tell the story. As time went on, the books increased in word count to almost double, not because all of those words were necessary but because the author started down rabbit trails until only one third or so of the stories still centered on the original characters/storyline. I set the author aside and quit reading.

I'm saying this because it's important to remember one thing: if you can't move the story forward with every word in your novel, if you digress even the smallest bit anywhere in that count, your story isn't where it needs to be. If every word needs to be on the page for the story's sake, then good luck to you. That likely means you've tightened it as much as you're able before the editor gets to it. There are authors who have excelled with high word counts, but it's not common. :)

Amy Johnson said...

Congratulations, OP, for sticking with your project for so long, for getting good eyes on it, and for all that editing. And congrats for having many luminous, literary friends! Best wishes for success with your book.

This post was an especially challenging and fun one for playing "What Will Janet Say?" And it turned out to be an answer with a "However." Thanks for the helpful info, Janet.

JEN Garrett said...

I agree with Writer Geek. Maybe you wrote one great book, or maybe... you just wrote a great trilogy-in-one?
Perhaps it's different in the adult publishing world, but if I'd written a children's book of those proportions, I'd query with the first 1/3 or so and mention it "has series potential". That way agents won't be scared off by the word count at the query stages, but if they love it enough as a whole once they've read it, in the end it can be sold it as such.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Timothy,

I also loved The Nix and agree that it could have been pared down. But I didn't mind actually, it was a fun and quirky read.

Another book that could have been pared down? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at 285,000 words. It was a brutal read in terms of theme and length. You can tell that the editor just let go on some sections.

InkStainedWench said...

As a reporter, if I was assigned 10 inches and wrote 12, the last two inches would be hacked off. I got good at writing a lean 10, then adding a non-essential extra inch at the end in case they needed it ("Mayor Wisniewski wore a bright green necktie to commemorate St. Patrick's Day."). To this day, I struggle to reach novel-length wordiness. I have to add lots of neckties.

198k? Wow.

Alina Sergachov said...

I agree with Kitty and Writer Geek Esq. First of all, what genre is it? I mean, there’s a huge difference between MG and fantasy. Second of all, if it’s extremely expensive to print (and ship) such a long book it might be more marketable as a two-volume work or a trilogy. Could it be split for publication? Here, the Lord of the Rings comes to mind.

julieweathers said...

OP, congratulations on sticking with your dream. If the story is really amazing someone will pick it up. I have a friend whose story was longer than that and queried two agents. Both offered. That being said, her story and writing is on a whole different level.

It's going to be a tough sell, but you already know that.

I pitched an agent at the Surrey conference and he said he'd like to see my Civil War historical when it's done. Then he added, "You know with the current political climate it's going to be a tough sell and at 140,000 words, it will be tougher. Try to get that down as much as you can."

I'm at 149,000 now and just heading into the last battle. Plus early readers want more of the male POV character. He's primarily shown through letters and small scenes. Maybe so, but I'm like a headshy horse now and all I worry about is word count instead of writing the best story I can.

I know on revisions I can cut and tighten a lot, but enough to hit that magic word count? I'm not sure.

I took my first pages to Surrey for a blue pencil session with Diana Gabaldon. The good thing about her is she is brutally honest. She's good, but very blunt. I figured that's what I needed. Do these first pages work or have I missed the mark?

She added a "that" and a semicolon and told me to quit messing around with them. They do everything first pages are supposed to do.

I may have 550 other pages that need to be fiddled to a fare thee well, but I sort of stopped worrying about the first pages.

If you can find a conference, auction, editor special etc to take a look at at least the first 20-50, you might be able to see where things might be tightened.

Janet has donated to an auction that is coming up and there are also several other agents, editors, authors who are offering packages for writers that might be of interest.

LynnRodz said...

OP, I'm hopping on the Writer Geek and Jen Garrett train. If you find that agents are not biting because of the word count, then what choice do you have than to break it down into two books or self-publish? I somehow don't think you want to consider the second option after all the time you've spent on this story and btw, congratulations on the work you've put into this.

As Nightmusic said, is everything moving your story forward? Just this past week I mentioned I was having trouble getting through All The Light We Cannot See when Cecilia and Claire mentioned, yes crickets in the first part, but commented I should keep reading. I was 300 pages in and not much was happening, but boy those last 230 pages were beautiful. It made up for the first part, but were all those first pages really necessary? Could some of it have been eliminated without losing any of the story? I think so, but those are questions you could ask yourself.

Good luck to you, OP. I hope to find your book(s) in print one day soon.

Mister Furkles said...

Readers' Digest Books used to sell condensed version of popular books. So it is obvious that cuts without loss of a compelling story are possible. This suggests a book doctor could help to reduce the bulk to something more publishable. But where do you get such a book doctor?

Mister Furkles said...

Also, one of the editors who switched to agent mentioned that the cost of large books was not in paper, shipping, or returns, but was in editing. Editors are paid. One of the biggest cost in hardbound books is returns. But that doesn't apply to paperbacks as they are usually returned by sending back the front cover. At least that's the was it was.

Of course, to an agent it is also reading. If an agent can't decide whether to take on a book until the entire thing is read/reviewed, then a larger volume cost the agent more time.

It detracts from time spent with kitties and puppies.

Nate Wilson said...

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell clocked in at over 300,000 words, so we know an epic debut is possible, but it's quite the outlier. I'd take the advice of Janet and the others, and first determine if your novel's size is bulk or flab.

But either way, tighten your pages as much as possible. Cut cut cut until you can't conceivably cut any more.

Then, cut some more.

Sam Mills said...

*sigh* Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrrell has been on my TBR pile a looong time. I just keep glancing past its bulk and grabbing something else.

As a reader, too, the reviews have to be stellar and the style in the first pages on point to keep me going. And I'm a fantasy reader! Land of the grand tome!

MB Owen said...

Hats off to you. Your dedication to this one story is both commendable and inspirational. I think the 2 books idea is intriguing if your story has a natural break.

Colin Smith said...

This is why the housekeeping should be at the end of your query. Especially if you're not a big fan of the title, or you're a little iffy about the category, OR if the word count is potentially unpalatable. You want the agent hooked so that she gets to the end of your query and says, "Eek... 198,000 words! But... But... I've GOT to read this!!"

That means making your query one heckuvah pitch.

All the best to you, Opie!! ☺

Ashes said...

A writer in my crit group solved the problem of a beefy first manuscript by splitting it into two books. The subplots were a bit of a mess, and she had to clue some things up sooner and introduce some new things in the now-second book. There were substantial edits involved.

But she had enough plot that it made sense to do it this way, and one book became two.

Kathy Joyce said...

I think there's more than one "two-book idea." It could be a series of related stories. Could it also just be two volumes? I know that's done more in non-fiction, but could it work in fiction? Is it done in fiction?

Colin Smith said...

I wonder how easy it is to sell a debut that has to be multi volume? By that I mean, it's one thing if you've written the series intending it to be 2 or 3 books-long--you can craft the first volume so it can be stand alone. But if you've written the story as a single volume, splitting it up like this can be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Then you have to sell the agent/editor on three books, not one.

Claire Bobrow said...

As Timothy and Cecilia said, maybe The Nix could have been edited down, but I loved that book. I learned about it from one of those year-end lists of great books the critics may have overlooked. Perhaps it was overlooked because of its length? Nate mentioned Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I got part-way though, set it aside, and then...forgot about it. Not sure why, as I recall enjoying it; however, length could have been a factor.

OP: I agree with the advice (and your instinct) to refine as much as you can, then go for it. Good luck!

Steve Stubbs said...

Your question comes in at 226 words. In less than five minutes I was able to pare it down 2/3 to 71, thus:

"My debut novel ... benefited from the editorial feedback of numerous literary friends. ... It is also 198,000 words. ..."

"The publishing industry will not consider a debut novel of more than 80,000 words. So ... [I] fear that agents will make a bee﷓line from my word count to the trash can icon. If I leave it out, ... I might snag a follow﷓up from an agent who agrees that the work's merits compensate for its length."

"What would you do?"

I would pare ruthlessly.

julieweathers said...
"the male POV character ... primarily shown through letters"

Good luck. Epistolary novels are a nineteenth century form.

"he added, 'You know with the current political climate it's going to be a tough sell.'"

I have thought that for some time. That current political climate has been around since at least the sixties. Millions of people are still fighting it on both sides. No matter what you say, you are going to have torchlight parades of people who don't like it.

Why not write about Leonidas at Thermopylae or Hannibal at Carthage? Stalingrad is a HELLUVA story, but right wingers will have the same problem with that as the Civil War.

John Davis Frain said...

OP,
I keep trying to come up with something sage to offer, but you sound like you have good advisors and a wealth of experience on your own. So, good luck to you. I'm pulling for you because you've put the work in, and that means a lot.

MB Owen said...

Colin - really good points made regarding "housekeeping" placement in the query.

Amy Johnson said...

"...fiddled to a fare thee well..." Oh, that Miss Julie turn of phrase! Julie, again I implore you: please, please, please finish that book of yours so I can read it! :)

The Sleepy One said...

My friend's book contract--for a trilogy--requires each book to be between 175k to 200k words. Your book could have an appropriate word count for the genre you're writing in. I like Colin's idea of putting your housekeeping at the end. Catch the agent with a stellar query and make sure your opening pages are as tightly written as possible.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

OP, best of luck to you!

You're not alone on this one! I'm currently querying my debut novel at 110K words.
I believe it's a little long but doable. And I feel that it can't be cut any more, because I have cut it sooooo much. When I had finished my first draft and not known much (if anything!!) about publishing, it stood at a holy 269K. Ouch!

I then cut it down to 178K. Still far too long.
Since my story is based on true events, I struggled to get rid of things, but I really tried to view it through more objective eyes and realized there were a lot of things unnecessary for the plot.

I cut it further. 128K. Then 118K. Better, but still. Somebody once said to me "You've got to cut your 'darlings' out."
I recently cut my "last darling" out, it hurt, but I kept it. I may use it in a future book (this helps to dry the tears ;) ).

My story can't be cut in half. I've had to make it shorter, but now I won't any more. You sound as if you've already had good advice on your WIP, so I'm not sure what I could add for you.
Only that I was surprised after my fourth draft, how it's possible to shorten things without losing them in my fifth draft!

I really, really like it this way now (I did anyway ;) ).

As suggested by Colin, I also have my word count toward the end of the query. Right before the bio.

Good luck to you and keep us posted!

Oh yes, I'd also love to know what genre it is.

And "oh" again, I've also been working on my WIP for a long time. Not quite 15 years, but three and a half!

Megan V said...

Steve Stubbs: I can give you three reasons why Julie won’t need luck. 1. She’s a BRILLIANT writer. I could read her comments all day long and I am certain I am not alone in that regard. 2. Epistolary is still a popular format. Heck, in the Adult category alone there are several books published in the last 10 years that I’d highly recommend. These include Bats of the Republic by Zachary Dodson, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parma, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and The Martian by Andy Weir. (And this is only a tiny sample!) 3. Several agents have mentioned on their Twitter accounts that they are actively seeking epistolary novels.

Claire Bobrow said...

Megan: I finished Dear Committee Members a couple of weeks ago. It was one of the funniest books I've read in ages - so good, in fact, that I proposed it to my book club and it's now on our official TBR list for this year. If you're in need of a laugh, I'd highly recommend it!

Anonymous said...

Whoa. That's 800 pages. You're going to have a hurdle not just with agents and publishers, but also with readers. I'm currently reading a romance that's 450-ish pages [not all that long ago, 400 pages (100K words) was standard in the genre] because it has at least that number of reviews and almost all of them are 5-star, and I wanted to see how the writer pulled off a story that long. It's pretty good, not great, and I can see lots of room for trimming. It's also taking forever to read (ie, not particularly compelling). Still, educational.

Then again, there are writers who can and do manage to write really long and leave you wishing the story didn't have to end. I'll bet Julie Weathers is one of them. Mariana Zapata is another-- her book THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME is 672 pages and the only reason I gave it a try is because it's in KU (free) and the reviews were convincing. It's one of the best romances I've ever read and now I'm hooked on her stories even though, yeah, they could maybe use some tightening.

If you have a compelling voice and interesting characters and a well-told story, you can do this. Good luck with it.

Colin Smith said...

Steve: Ditto to what Megan said, and I'll just add, when you throw out comments like this:

Why not write about Leonidas at Thermopylae or Hannibal at Carthage? Stalingrad is a HELLUVA story, but right wingers will have the same problem with that as the Civil War.

We try to avoid politically-tinged comments. You've made your politics quite clear over the past months/years. Please don't assume everyone shares them. That way, we all get along without too many unnecessary ruffled feathers. Just a thought. :)

Elissa M said...

I am not the OP, but I could have written Opie's question.

I tried splitting my novel, but there is no logical splitting point that leaves readers with any sense of resolution. I looked at cutting out huge chunks, but that weakened the story and made the novel very bland. Plus, beta readers all said, "You can't cut that! It's my favorite part!"--regardless of which parts I was cutting.

I finally decided it is what it is. If the only thing "wrong" with my novel is the length, I can live with that. Meanwhile, I'll be working on a completely different, much shorter novel to query next. The first novel I query does not have to be the first novel published, and rejections now do not necessarily mean it will never be published.

Beth Carpenter said...

Off-topic: Kari Lynn Dell is a RITA finalist, and since I first learned about her here, I had to share!

On-topic: OP I'd go through sentence by sentence the way we do on the flash contests, then go with it. Best of luck.

Steve Stubbs said...

Hi Colin,

Stalingrad would make probably the best war novel ever written, and agents might wonder how it would play in today's world for several reasons (set in Russia, etc.)

My views have nothing to do with it. The question is how the market would react. I would read it for sure, even though we all know the ending.

Thermopylae would also make a great story and it is totally neutral so far as I know, at least outside Persia. It might be more difficult to write since the events were so long ago. Still, 300 men fighting for their homes against 2,000,000 Persians is without a doubt the most splendid feat of arms in history. Since they all fought to the death, the end of the story would be shocking. Of course the author could append a brief postscript explaining that the mission was accomplished (the Persian advance was slowed) and the Greeks won the war.

I would read that, too.

nightsmusic said...

Hi, Steve

Just tossing out that Thermopylae was done as a great graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley based on Herodotus's Histories although as a graphic novel, they took creative liberties. It's titled 300 and still available as well as the Zack Snyder movie of the same name which followed the novel and was very stylistic. And superb. But that's just my opinion.

Megan V said...

Claire Exactly my thoughts. Such a fun read! And if you haven't done so, I'd recommend you check out the book Attachments. :)

nightsmusic I love the graphic novel and the movie 300. I don't know what that says about me, but they are on my favorites list.

Dena Pawling said...


Count me as a reader who has to think twice before starting to read any book more than 400 pages or 8 audio CDs. It has to have a really exciting description for me to even check it out of the library, and then it has to grab me right away or I won't finish it. My TBR pile is too tall for me to take that much time to read a really long book that isn't amazing.

nightsmusic said...

Megan V I still revisit both. Loved them and they are both groundbreakers in their own way. I think I'm in good company here though, like you, not sure what that says about us ;)

Julie Weathers said...

Steve
julieweathers said...
"the male POV character ... primarily shown through letters"

Good luck. Epistolary novels are a nineteenth century form.

Oddly enough, in a recent class, one of the letters used for an exercise had people commenting how much they loved the character and the letter, including the instructor who thought it was one of the best things she'd read.

"he added, 'You know with the current political climate it's going to be a tough sell.'"

I have thought that for some time. That current political climate has been around since at least the sixties. Millions of people are still fighting it on both sides. No matter what you say, you are going to have torchlight parades of people who don't like it.

Why not write about Leonidas at Thermopylae or Hannibal at Carthage? Stalingrad is a HELLUVA story, but right wingers will have the same problem with that as the Civil War.

You'll be happy to know your unwavering faith in my failure is one of the things that keeps me going on those days when I don't feel like writing. Your name is right up there next to my ex's. You're always happy to tell me why I will fail and what I should be writing while getting in a political jab at every opportunity even though you've been asked on several occasions to stop.

How about you focus on your best seller and leave my writing to me? When I want your advice on how and what to write I will ask for it.

And when I get discouraged I just listen to Toby.

Megan Thank you.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

For Julie Weathers when she gets discouraged and feels down:

"Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low-selfesteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes." - Sigmund Freud.

I do this now, too :).

Paul Festa said...

Thank you Janet and everyone else for your input! I'm so happy I stumbled on this supportive and thoughtful corner of the literary world.

You will all be pleased to learn that since submitting my question, I have pared the novel down to 197,000 words. The manuscript is wasting away.

Someone wrote that 198k = 800 pages. As it happens, the book (a literary novel called The Inversions) is almost precisely the same length as The Corrections (to which it is manifestly indebted). My paperback edition of that one is 650 pages. I've never thought of The Corrections as particularly long. It's the industry standard for debut fiction I'm up against, not an artistic consideration (though I'm always thrilled when I find something to cut).

As for chopping it up, none of the novel's four parts feels sufficiently self-sufficient. Part I ends with the antihero hurtling from a disintegrating motor scooter toward the vacant air over San Francisco Bay, and while I like the idea of a cliffhanger, it doesn't seem quite sporting to make someone shell out another 20 bucks to find out how he lands.

Last point: I'm having a lot of luck getting agents to read. Three have turned it down so far. None of them, nor any of my draft readers—even those who were ruthless with their criticism—said it was too long. So far, the only people who have told me it's too long are people who haven't read it.

Very many thanks again to everyone who chimed in!

Paul Festa
Berlin

Beth Carpenter said...

Good luck, Paul!