Friday, January 11, 2019

Can I finish my five book series before querying?

Dear Shark,

I’m working on a four book SciFi series. After four years and extensive alpha reader feedback, book 1 is ready (at 180K words) to send out to beta readers.  Book 2 is about half-done at 100K words, and books 3 and 4 are outlined.  Book 5 is just an idea.

I’m not in a hurry, I have a good day job, so I’m contemplating finishing the series (circa 2025) before querying. My thinking is that, assuming my writing is worth anything, a ready-to-go series makes me a more attractive investment, and I won’t have to write it in a hurry and risk compromising the quality.

Is this just plain stupid of me? 

Not at all.
One of the most horrifying things debut authors face is the looming deadline for Book #2.

Authors who've toiled for years perfecting Book #1 have to deliver Book #2 about a year after turning in Book #1. It's not as bad as it sounds. It's worse.

However.
The question you didn't ask but that I'm still going to answer is: is my first book too long?
And yes it is.
180K is an absolute non-starter for debut novels these days. 

And it's not just cause agents and editors are lazy slugs who can't be bothered to read more than five pages before airily offering their assessment.

It's the cost of publishing the book. 180,000 words is a big ass book that costs more to print and ship than a 100,000 word book.

Which means the COST of that debut novel is higher than the shorter book.

Which means the novel will sell fewer copies (and here you thought you'd never use what you were taught in Econ 201)

Which is NOT a good thing.
Not for you.
Not for me.
Not for the publisher.

We like to avoid things that are bad for you, me, and them.
Thus we avoid 180,000 word debut novels.

Use that information as needed.

24 comments:

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

My first thought was "180k is a big damn book!"

Though as a writer, not a reader, I tend not to break 100k on a single work. I also tend to write until I think a particular work is done; Run With the Hunted is something like 32k, and I've had "short stories" get away from me and turn into novellas, so maybe don't listen to me ;)


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I had the same thought about the 180K book - wow, long for a debut. I am worried about my now 116K word book which was scraping in at 114K until last beta and agent feedback from a workshop.

I need to do another read through and see if I can drag out a few more words as I got killed by word count for the last book I queried. I don't want agents refusing to read on account of word count (and they will refuse to read for this reason only) so my thought is to make it trim.

A well-known Reider sold her fantasy and reported that after the sale, she was made to add words. I thought, need to get through query trenches, secure agent, and then let an editor dictate if word count is too light for an epic fantasy while still reeling in agent/book deal. It's a fine, fine line.

I too have a series with words written in at least four more books and outlines for an additional seven. I do dread the second book. I am told the second, not the first, is your career. I have seen at least two agents I plan on querying allude to this on twitter.

I imagine it is true. It makes sense. Debut might get lucky and do well, but if book two bombs? Then as an author, I imagine that is a very difficult place to be. So I am trying to churn out as much of book two prior to getting an agent as I can so I am on solid ground when the clock goes from glacial to lightning strikes.

K White said...

Even as a voracious SF&F reader, my eyes crossed at the sight of 180,000 words. It reminded me that I recently asked B&N to hold a fantasy novel for me. When I saw how large and thick the book was I told them to put it back. I just didn't have the willpower for such an undertaking.

Now, back to cutting words from my own kinda out of control word count. World building is like consuming too many calories. Makes ya fat.

Mister Furkles said...

The most significant cost is editing. Reasonably well paid literary experts must go through the entire book and consider every one of those 180 thousand words. You've doubled the high paid professional labor costs.

The publisher will be happy to send out a tome for the second novel if the first makes the NYT Best Seller list. Check out the Harry Potter series. The first was 200+ pages or under 100 thousand words. After that, they got bigger and bigger.

Colin Smith said...

I imagine there are those who will read this and say, "Yes, but what about...X?" X could be CITY ON FIRE by Garth Risk Hallberg which, according to the internet, clocks in around 280K words. It's 944 pages, so that's a believable word count. And I'm sure there are other big debuts you can think of that could be lethal if thrown.

The thing to remember here is that while there are no rules to this, there are best practices. Cases like Hallberg's are not the rule. There's probably a story behind how he managed to convince and agent and publisher to take on his epic work. A story that is rarely repeated. Janet is presenting what she knows based on years of experience as an agent with her fin on the pulse of the industry.

Fantasy novels tend to need a bit more word count for world-building, but there is a point where even fantasy readers have to be invested in either the author or the series before they'll take on a huge book. This is why GRRM can continue to pump out 700-900 page novels in his Game of Thrones series (I know that's not what the series is called, but it's what I call it). People like his writing and are invested in the characters (those that are left, anyway). A debut novelist has yet to climb that hill.

Since there are no rules, I'd say if you really can't cut another word from your 180K tome, go ahead. Query it. But you have been warned. :)

Luanne G. Smith said...

I queried a couple of fantasy novels that came in over 100K. Neither one flew. One comment I got consistently from agents about the longer ones concerned pacing. Too long and slow in the middle. So...the last fantasy novel I wrote I deliberately aimed for 80K. Now that one is light, tight, and ready to fly as my debut. Doesn't mean a longer book can't be fast-paced and awesome, but the odds get tougher for an unknown author trying to break through with their first novel.

Craig F said...

Even if you cut the book in half you might still have a problem.

Nascent writers are shit canned for implying that they are writing a series. First books need to be stand alone. That is hard to do when your long range shot is about killing a series.

When you just keep pumping in a straight line, you lose sight of where things come apart and go back together. Book 2 also needs to stand alone. It can not just pick up the chain of thought and move on.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Hi everyone,
I'd like to point out that Rita Skeeter's unauthorized biography of Dumbledore was 900 pages long and she wrote it over a summer.

Alina Sergachov said...

What happens if a writer fails to deliver the second book on time?

Colin Smith said...

Alina: I'm not Janet (obviously--I'm not a shark), and I'm not an agent, but here's my understanding. Communication is key. If you know you aren't going to meet the deadline, you let your agent know ASAP--as far ahead of the date as possible. Your agent can then negotiate a new deadline with the publisher. Obviously you wouldn't want to do this more than a few times, and without good reason (at least after the first time).

Also, on Craig's point about the first couple of books being stand-alone, the traditional wisdom here is that publishers are less likely to invest in a series from a debut author. It's hard enough to project sales for one book, but for three, four, or five? That's why a publisher may be more interested in a stand-alone at first as opposed to committing to a series. I'm not sure if that traditional wisdom still stands, but that's my understanding.

Melanie Savransky said...

As a reader, 500 pages is when I start to dither on investing in a debut. James S.A. Corey's "Leviathan Wakes," Fonda Lee's "Jade City," and S.A. Chakraborty's "City of Brass" are all recent doorstoppers I loved, but they also knew when to interrupt the court politics with judicious punching.

They also (and I'm simplifying, here) have a similar structure:

Intro action --> Set up major players --> Big Action Scene! --> Rearrange players --> Big Finale!

If that's how your book is structured, too, you might want to try squishing the set up and rearrange players sections to their bare minimum to help your word count woes. (And keep in mind I write short MG, so please take this advice with the requisite amount of salt.) Best of luck!

Colin Smith said...

Ooo... good point, Melanie! If you can keep up a good pace over 180K so it doesn't feel like 180K, you may be onto a winner. This is a good reason not to mention the word count up-front in a query. If the agent sees that first, she might reject without reading your blurb. But if she's sold on the blurb, she might request anyway despite any misgivings over the word count. So put the word count at the end with the housekeeping.

Tammy Pigott said...

After reading this morning's post, I'm freaking out over the manuscript that I’m hoping to query in February.

Based on Janet's post from October 14, 2014 - The definitive, absolute, no more question about it post on Word Count, she lists appropriate word counts for each genre (I'm aware these are ballpark numbers, and outliers occur). When I read this about a year ago I panicked at my, then, 180K novel. I’ve pared it down to 160K . . . aware that IF I’m lucky enough to obtain an agent and/or publisher, it may get cut further.

I’ve written something along the lines of magical realism (with a great deal of historical components) and the setting requires a vast amount of world building. So, I guess my question is: Do I need to try and cut more? Or is that number not a deal breaker in my genre?

Writer Geek Esq said...

Thanks for the feedback. I have been thinking about the 180K count: I like where the story ends at that point, it's definitely a stand alone book stopping there, with major goals of the MC accomplished (reuniting with the woman who raised her, and reconciling with the woman who created her, mind-wiped her, and was intending to mind-wipe her again) but new goals acquired. And book 2 starts at a good point there, where it's only natural for one of the characters to recap the important points so that you can read book 2 without reading book 1.

I could accomplish those two MC goals and save around 30K by taking the series antagonist (SA) out of book 1. The MC doesn't encounter SA until a chance encounter at 156K words entwines their destinies. Before then, the SA is on her own path, about 30K words worth. But SA adds a lot of interest to the climax, and my alpha readers really like the parts about her-- I had to tell one of them that no, she can't be the MC, I'm not interested in writing a high-functioning sociopath as MC. But I'd hate to make people wait until book 2 to meet her.

Well, I'll talk to my trusted alpha readers, see if they have any ideas how to break book 1 up. But worst case, I'll just jump into the trenches with it at the length it is, and hope I can write a megalodon of a query letter that will convince an agent to at least start reading it.

Of course I've got other challenge. I'm old, my influences are old, so if my "comp" reads "fans of Cordwainer Smith will like this book," will anyone even know what I mean?

BrendaLynn said...

Interesting. I thought sci-fi and fantasy writers had a little more leeway on a debut.

Writer Geek Esq said...

Looking at the October 2014 word count post on this blog, referenced by another comment-er, prompts me to ask: if "Sweeping, epic fantasy: 150K at a minimum. You can't do it right in less," why is 180K absolutely too much for all sci-fi?

K White said...

From E.M. Goldsmith's comment:

"I do dread the second book. I am told the second, not the first, is your career. I have seen at least two agents I plan on querying allude to this on twitter."

This has itched my brain all morning.

Janet, you asked for topics. Is this one you could address? If it's true, my question is what can authors do to help improve book two (the dreaded sophomore novel)?

Premee said...

Re: series, I would love to see thoughts on that!

I queried a novel as a standalone, my agent pitched it as a trilogy, and the publisher ended up purchasing TWO books which is... NEITHER of those things. (So, the first book, and an 'unnamed sequel.')

I hadn't planned to write a series so now Everything Is Terrible and I'm Dying. A bunch of neatly tied-up loose ends will have to be unpicked for the second book; and then after I write the second book, I have no idea whether there will be a third, so I will have to end the second in such a way as to ensure that it could both end there, AND keep going.

I wish I had thought of a series beforehand, but alas, it was a definite gap in my querying research.

Lennon Faris said...

Writer Geek Esq, I also read that post. While it is the QOTKU's words, that post is also a few years old and I think things are trending smaller now as a whole. Picture books are recommended under 5000 words and nothing more than 1000 (listed as under 2000 there).

I don't think there's any black and white answer. Longer books = more money put in + bigger risk of falling flat = less likely to be picked up. Less likely doesn't mean squat if you find that one agent and publisher who love your story.

No matter what you decide to do, good luck!

Lennon Faris said...

Um, under 500 words for those pb's. If it's 5000 words those kiddos would be sound asleep by the end.

Hey, I just got a great marketing idea...

John Davis Frain said...

Dear Author,

By the time you draft Book 5, you'll have so much experience editing that your Book 1 debut will be a svelte 102,000 words. And each of those words will sing, so it will have more story than your original 180,000 words.

You have a great plan. But don't leave editing (and more editing) out of the execution. You should do waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy more editing than writing and outlining and planning combined. Especially on that Book 1.

Enjoy it. Good luck, and Happy New Year 2025!

Julie Weathers said...

I'm late bailing in because I've had a friendly plumber here all morning. Which is nice, except you know, $60 an hour. Can we visit after you finish?

Anyway. I have new gas lines. Yay! I've been thinking a lot about this in the interim.

Far Rider, my high fantasy was around 160,000 when I finished. I got it down to 135,000 with a lot of cutting and bloodletting. The agent who finally gave me some in depth feedback said, among other things, "You've got ten pounds of story in a five pound bag." I had cut a lot of arcs and story, but still had a bunch. I needed to cut more, expand on the magic system, flesh out some characters, and end it about a third of the way sooner. With luck, I'd hit in around the 100,000. mark. He also said, "You know you've got a YA high fantasy here, don't you?"

No, I didn't. I thought I just had a high fantasy.

The Rain Crow, my historical that I started working on while I was querying, is done and clocked in at 169,000 words. I know I need to get it down to at least 135,000 if not lower. I'm at 155,000 now. I'm making one last pass and handing it off to beta readers to let them see what else can be cut.

This will be my third venture into the query trenches. Yes, some debut authors sell that big ass novel and do very well. Most of us are not that talented, I'm sorry to say. Also, times are different than when some of them sold. It's a different market now. It's harder. More people are querying.


When RC goes out in the trenches, I'm going to make sure it's the best it can be. I'm not going to burn any bridges I don't have to.

Writer Geek Please, please listen to the advice here. It's possible you do have the next Outlander or Game of Thrones or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but chances are you don't. I'm not being insulting.

I was a sports journalist for 25 years. Even if a trainer KNEW, absolutely KNEW they had the best horse in a race, they did everything they could to give him the best shot to win. Give your book the best shot to win, also.

Best of luck to you.

Julie Weathers said...

"Authors who've toiled for years perfecting Book #1 have to deliver Book #2 about a year after turning in Book #1. It's not as bad as it sounds. It's worse."

Yeah, I doubt book two will be done in one year, research being a cruel and sadistic mistress.

Writer Geek Esq said...

Thanks for all the input, I will keep it all in mind.
And rest assured, even at 180K words, tens of thousands of words have already been ripped out and put away for possible recycling.

But ... Janet's "Rules for Writers" start with "Be Brave" and "Be Bold." And if no one ever tries to sell a 180K debut SciFi novel, no one ever will.

More importantly, as Cordwainer Smith wrote in his prologue to Stardreamer (1971), "These stories are ... for me who wrote them, because I love them." Like beloved children, I won't turn my stories into something I don't want them to be just so some accountant will call them "successful." They already are, because I love them.