Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The opportunity cost of a long-ass novel

I receive queries for novels across category and genre that can be described as long ass.
It's a technical term as you no doubt inferred.

Long ass novels start at 200K and go up from there.

More than one unhappy writer has told me that they need every single word.
That's almost always not the case.

How do I evaluate? If can pare 10 words out of your 250 word query, I know I'll find too many words in your novel.

And while I'm cognizant of the lovely moment in Amadeus when the Emperor tells Mozart there are too many notes, you aren't Mozart, and I'm not (as yet) the Ruler of All I Survey.

So if you want me to consider a long-ass novel your query better be as taut as a blood bank dwelling mosquito.

The other thing you need to consider: if your novel is twice as long as most trade novels
(ie 170K/2 = 85K)
you're asking me to take you on instead of two other not-long-ass novels.

Instead of signing two novels of 85K each, I'm signing one.

Which means I think about whether I can get enough money for your book to make up for the lost income of the one I'm NOT going to sign.

Opportunity cost is what it costs to NOT do something.
And it's measured in dollars and cents.

A long ass book means you're asking for a lot of reading time, and editing time.
It's also asking me to take a bigger risk than normal.

That's one of the reasons word count can be a deal breaker.

I'm not saying don't write a long book. I'm saying understand why you're going to be scrutinized much more closely for taut writing than other books. And why word count is a deal breaker for most agents.


Kitty said...

EMPEROR: Cut a few and it will be perfect.
MOZART: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

I wondered if any of those unhappy writers had ever tried writing flash fiction? If nothing else, Janet's FF contests force one to weigh ev-er-y sin-gle syl-la-ble's worth to the story.

Timothy Lowe said...

I started watching "Amadeus" for the umpteenth time lately on Netflix. Got a few hours in before I realized it was the director's cut, which included a lot of unnecessary scenes. Boy, did it drag.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

After a second helping of turkey, gravy and all the trimmings bloat takes over.
After a six pack-plus or hitting on a second bottle of wine say-what abides.
I could go on and on and on and on but then again I would not be making my point succinctly.

After a lifetime of writing to some pretty compact column guidelines take it from me (cliché alert) less is more.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I have yet to (for real*) write a longass book, so I'll file this away for later! Writing too long has not typically my problem. However, I've found that even my short stories have gotten longer lately. I used to frequently end up at like, 1800-2500 words and lately my stories are 5k and up. I'm not sure I could've written my cyberpunk novellas(s) five years ago, despite having also written novels. (I say novellas because I released Run With the Hunted 2: Ctrl Alt Delete yesterday/today [the Amazon process is. something.])

*my first novel was 1000 hand written notebook pages of epic fantasy, some college ruled some not, that I kept in a multitude of binders and worked on all through high school with pretty much no plot and no end in sight. I, uh, do not still possess those pages because wowwwwww

Mister Furkles said...

Those of you who might watch the movie Amadeus should be aware that is rated R not for sex nor for profanity but because of excessive violins.

Colin Smith said...

[Typos to fix for posterity: Delete this comment when done]
* The YouTube embed doesn't appear for me, only the html tag.
* "your asking me to take you on and instead of two other...
* "instead of signing 2 novels if 85K each...

Colin Smith said...

For those who may think Janet's being unreasonable, remember: she's talking about that first novel. The one that gets you an agent and establishes your reputation as a writer who ought to be read.



Once you've got your writing credentials with your agent and publisher, then you can start writing long-posterior novels. :)

This is a general rule, of course. Exceptions apply. Just don't assume you're one. ;)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This was a hard-lesson learned for me. My last book I queried was 150K words which I had pared down from 225K. Enter Le Sharque and flash fiction. I learned that I was over-writing everything.

I also took on much more reading of those gigantic type novels - so many examples in fantasy. Rarely debut novels. Usually well-established, million-selling, easily earning out all they write sort of folks. That is not us in-agented as of yet to debut a novel types. Yes, there are exceptions but those are long-odds.

This debut thing takes time, but this time spent getting a compact book for the trenches will pay dividends when it comes to books 2-x. And I won't have to fight the word-count gods.

My book tops out at a comfortable 95K that has no resemblance to the book/books I had thought I had written a few years back. It is a fast, fun, rock-rolling read due to years of trial and revision and revision. Word count is one hurdle I won't have to fight in the query trenches. And why make that battle harder? It is already going to be a bumpy ride no matter how good you are.

Timothy Lowe said...

Furkles, there's some pretty gratuitous nudity in the director's cut. Like I said, it's a snore fest.

Mister Furkles said...

Timothy: yes some nudity but consider the excess of violins. Why so few violas?

JulieWeathers said...

The Rain Crow is at 139,000 now. It was 165,000 words. I see a lot of agents saying they don't want anything over 120,000 words even for historical or epic fantasy. RC will not be cut to 120,000 words and I'm not even going to try.

If it lives and dies by this word count kill zone, so be it. I'm not whoring the story.

Timothy Lowe said...

Furkles, maybe violins are sexier?

Colin Smith said...

Mister Furkles: Excessive violins. Love it. ;)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Julie I think you'll be good at 139,000 for RC. I do think that you will be one of those exceptions. And you have agents who are aware of your work.

You have been working on your tale for years and years. You have put in endless research and gone through all the revision and beta-reading to make your book sing. And if it sings at 139,000 words, then so be it.

That is a different scenario than the eager-beaver, role-playing game addict turned fantasy writer who over-writes and turns in an early draft as a finished product. I bet agents get tons and tons from these type writers in their inbox which raises the high-word count flag (along with the obvious extra cost to producing a longer book). I think you are an exception to this rule because you know and understand the rule. These other writers are not even aware of the word-count guideline.

For myself, I am not exceptional. Yet. However, I was able to do all my beautiful world-building in the 95,000 range. I do have some longer books in the arsenal but will wait until I establish myself. Hopefully, as one of those million-selling, always earning out authors that make debut writers think,

hey, my 275,000 word book is fine. Just fine. Look at Brandon Sanderson.

And I should not be commenting before I have finished my morning coffee. Pardon me, all. So sleep deprived.

Megan V said...


If 170/2 = 2 not long-ass novels of 85k then clearly a 40k novel equals at least 3 other 40k magnificent novels (if we stick to the 170k mark) that you can totally take on and sell for gazillions right? ;)

Great news for those of us who are perpetual underwriters!

Happy Hump Day!

Kitty said...

Mister Furkles and Colin... And then there's Susan Sarandon playing the cello for Jack Nicholson in WITCHES OF EASTWICK.

Fearless Reider said...

Speaking of word count, I'm eating crow for breakfast, and the maple syrup isn't helping it go down easier. I recommended Janet's blog to my writing group yesterday for obvious reasons, including the talented commentariat, and I shared how the flash fiction contests have helped me cultivate conciseness (in fiction, if not in blog comments). We got to talking about word count and I confidently informed them that word processing programs calculate your word count by tracking the total number of characters (including spaces) and dividing the total by five to get an average because, I swear to God(iva), they used to, back when they were hewn from granite and powered by gerbils and I was a budding typist. I tested my claim last night and found I'm dead wrong. And here I've been stingier than Hemingway with my characters because I thought any five of them counted as a word. From now on, all of my flash fiction entries are gonna feature supercalifragilisticexpialidocious antidisestablishmentarianists who reside in Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu and suffer disconsolately from pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

So this newfound knowledge got me to wondering: do agents and editors assess length by word count alone, or do they also look at the overall page count? Seems like 50,000 words by Faulkner will take up more space (and maybe reading/editing time) than 50,000 words by Hemingway. Does word length matter? Should I refrain from naming my MG protagonist Petronellajosephinamagdalenadonatellafelixiana Buttonwheezer?

Fearless Reider said...

And E. M. Goldsmith, I beg to differ that you are not exceptional, too. I hope things are going well in the query trenches.

Karl Henwood said...

I was particularly excited to see today’s topic, since I most writers I’ve met never even consider thinking about their writing in economic terms. Point was spot on too. On that theme, I do actually have something relevant to add!

In high school my AP Econ semester project was on the marginal utility of donuts. I fed donuts of all types, from maple bars to apple fritters, to high school students and asked how much they enjoyed each one. The results clearly demonstrated that the utility of additional donuts declined exponentially with each one… except crullers(1). After a dozen tests the conclusion was inescapable; the light, airy nature of the cruller differentiates it from a donut so greatly that it can be thoroughly appreciated even after a trio of maple bars(2).

Now all that remains is to apply my conclusion to writing. With that in mind, I’ve outline a new novel called WIZARDS OF BONE AND MEET. It’s set in the far future after a technological apocalypse, with two interweaving plots.

The first is about a merciless tribe of cannibals lead by an order of war-priests called the Wizards of Bone. These wizards use forbidden technology to carve the flesh from captured warriors, transforming them into terrifying battle skeletons robbed of the ability to so much as scream, let alone disobey. It’ll be as bleak and hardcore as the rage-baby of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and the album ‘Epicus Doomicus Metallicus.’

The second plot will be about a cripplingly shy village matchmaker in the tribe, able to bring any other couple together but unable to even speak to his one true love. Until, that is, she’s chosen to judge a craft fair where entrants have to make art using the flesh left over from battle skeleton creation. You’ll be on the edge of your seat to see if this Wizard of Meet(3) can express himself though man-jerky sculpture! It’ll be so light, romantic, and generally fluffy you won’t even notice that the entire novel clocks in at just over 500k.

(1) By assuming all donuts were created equal I also proved I sucked at designing experiments.

(2) And if I understand tax law, you can go test this yourself then take the expense off your taxes because now eating donuts relates back to editing somehow!

(3) I regret nothing. NOTHING!

Lennon Faris said...

Working on getting that long-ass novel down. From 111K to 107K so far, baby!!

It's like cleaning/ purging your home. You have to compartmentalize the emotional attachment you have with your own writing, enough to be able to say, "I don't need that any more."

So much easier to do with other people's writing.

Mister Furkles, 'excessive violins' - what classical humor you have.

Linda Shantz said...

I also wrote the long-ass novel at 185K, and was convinced I needed every word. Then I went back to school and got a BSc and my writing got a lot more economic - took another stab at the WIP and got it down to 126K. Sharing it with an author whose work I respect convinced me to hack at it some more - took it to 103K. She was convinced I could trim yet more fat - and so I did, and it now stands at 83K. One more edit and I bet I won't have anything left to worry about publishing! Seriously can be done. I think I enjoy ruthless editing better than writing now!

Craig F said...

Curious. I thought the only object of a query was to entice the want for more. To me they are still a different beast than the novel itself.

I start heading towards the words THE END at about 100k on my first drafts. Sometimes the second draft gets longer, sometimes shorter, as I gain more depth at writing that particular piece.

I never think about the query until I am on the third draft. Sometimes the fourth draft is modified because of the query.

Current novel collecting form rejections(actually just one, right now) is 97k

Brenda said...

I don’t know if I want to be known as the author of a short-ass novel. What a quandary.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I think we authors make the mistake of saying "it's all necessary!" because all of the plot elements feel necessary (even if they're not). But that doesn't mean every single word is necessary. You can get away with keeping scenes if you cut unnecessary words within those scenes.

The flash fiction contests have definitely helped with my writing, though! I didn't expect to learn so much. :)

Gypmar said...


Your leftover flesh craft fair made me lol.

John Davis Frain said...

Once again missing the point of the overall post, I'm struck by this visual:

"So if you want me to consider a long-ass novel your query better be as taut as a blood bank dwelling mosquito."

Let's say I'm a blood bank dwelling mosquito. Many people have said it before now. Wouldn't I be bloated?

It reminds me of a Rolling Stone article on John Mellencamp. A band member interpreted a line from "Ain't That America" and had a completely different definition that Mellencamp. The line was "I remember when you could stop a clock."

The band member thought the person was so ugly they broke a clock. Mellencamp said, No, this person is so beautiful, they make time stand still.

So, yeah, word count and violins on TV should both be pared. But not paired.

KDJames said...

Fearless-- back in the Pleistocene when mss were submitted on paper, writers talked about page count, not word count. There was a strict format where one page counted as 250 words, and 400 pages was a 100K novel. Back when a 100K novel was standard. A page of sharp witty dialog with a ton of white space "counted" the same as a page dense with description. They took up the same amount of space in a printed book. I don't know how many *actual* words were in a 100K novel, but perhaps it was closer to the 85-90K that is more acceptable today?

I don't recall anyone ever mentioning an average of 5 characters per word, but I can imagine your chagrin. Perhaps similar to mine when I discovered everyone else was typing double-spaced pages and mine were single. *sigh* It did wonders for my sense of productivity, though, to suddenly have twice the output I thought I'd had.

Oh! One place word length matters, and might be averaged, is in newspaper, where columns are strictly measured by size. Carolynn can attest to this, I'm sure. My editor told me my limit for a 200-word column was 180, because I tended to use longer words.

JasonTudor said...

Wonderful column. I love how you presented this in the framing of opportunity cost and that the relationship is two ways. So well done.

Joseph S. said...

I just finished J. Michael Straczynski's autobiography, Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood. In a brief segment, high school student Stracynski took short stories to a showcase for promising high school artists (mainly painters and musicians). A man (who Straczynski later learned was Rod Serling) sat in a lawn chair and read two short stories.

Rod Serling commented after reading them: "You have a substantial talent for someone your age. Let me give you two pieces of advice. First, cut every third adjective. Second, never let them stop you from telling the story you want to tell."

P.S. My Goodreads review of the book begins

"Every writer, wannabe writer, or writer tempted to give it up MUST read J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography, “BECOMING SUPERMAN: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood. Everyone else SHOULD read his book.""

Fearless Reider said...

I remember the Pleistocene fondly, KDJames, and I'm old enough to remember laying out our college newspaper in this newfangled software called Aldus Pagemaker (2.0, baby!) in MS-DOS. But we still had to carve out the columns with X-acto knives, run them through the wax roller, hunch over the light table with line tape and paste up the galleys. My editor is now a serious Washington Post journalist with a Pulitzer Prize, but to me he'll always be the sweet goofball in duck shoes who consoled me when I missed a mortally embarrassing mistake in a headline.

I've decided I got the five-character thing from the typing speed tests I had to take when I was applying for clerical jobs -- that's how word count was standardized for those tests (and maybe still is?). Can't wait to break out the ten-dollar words!

AJ Blythe said...

I never considered that a long novel by one would two with shorter ones. Fascinating insight. Glad I write at the 75k end :)

Elissa M said...

My current WiP is too long. If word count truly is the only thing amiss, I will celebrate finishing the story I wanted to tell. Then I'll happily gather bouquets of rejections while working on a more concise novel.

Dena Pawling said...

My clothes fit as tight as if I was a blood-bank-dwelling mosquito..........

So glad I write MG. I have no problem with a 35-50k word count =)

NLiu said...

My WIP's first draft was 189k. Second draft 150k. Third draft 120k and I thought I couldn't cut any more.

It's currently 93k.

There were so many words I didn't need.

LynnRodz said...

I had the opposite problem than most writers here. I thought my novel was finished when it topped off at 57,000 words. I had said all I needed to say. I mean, Love Story (yes, I'm going back that far) was only 187 pages. The Bridges of Madison County was 171, and the Notebook was 207 pages. Those stories, like mine, were more than a love story, they were tragedies.

When I sent my manuscript to my beta readers, they told me I needed more detail, more description,...the story takes place in Paris, after all. They were right and now it's finished at 70,000 words. Sometimes less is not more.

LynnRodz said...

Btw, I loved Amadeus! I just might watch it this weekend if I find the time.

Alex said...

"The other thing you need to consider: if your novel is twice as long as most trade novels
(ie 170K/2 = 85K)
you're asking me to take you on instead of two other not-long-ass novels.

Instead of signing two novels of 85K each, I'm signing one."

Is this because an agent's work is proportional to the word count? I can understand that a longer book requires more reading, maybe edits before going to a publisher, but surely not double. Otherwise picture books would be the business to be in. Instead of one 85k book, why not 100 picture books?