Thursday, May 25, 2017

Word count, cause why drop a topic after only a gazillion posts?

 Dear Almighty Queen of the Reef,

I recently read a blog post by Veronica Roth from 2011 (no depths of the internet are safe when I have a strong case of writer's block). She states Divergent was initially 56k, then 85k after agent revisions, then 105k after more edits with the publisher.

I'm guessing a famous, successful author is an exception. Especially considering she states in bold in the very same blog post: "don't compare yourself to other people." But it's too late to heed that advice, and my curiosity's taken over.

How much/often does a book's word count typically change? (1) Would it be better to submit a cleanly edited 60k to an agent and have to add scenes rather than 100k where I might have added the wrong scenes?(2) Or what about "BOOK TITLE is 80k, with another 20k ready to be added"? (3)

That last idea is really dumb, isn't it? (4) It really depends on the agent/manuscript, doesn't it?(5) I should just stop thinking about word count and get back to writing, shouldn't I?(6)

I'll just swim back into my hole now.

Please don't eat me,

But, but, you're so tasty! 

Ok, here's the short version:
(1)  How much/often does a book's word count typically change? 
There's no way to put a number on this. Books are too varied. It's not apples and oranges; it's people and Klingons. With dragons. 

(2) Would it be better to submit a cleanly edited 60k to an agent and have to add scenes rather than 100k where I might have added the wrong scenes?


what about "BOOK TITLE is 80k, with another 20k ready to be added"? 
You know the answer to this question.

(4 and 5 and 6)  
That last idea is really dumb, isn't it? 
It really depends on the agent/manuscript, doesn't it?
I should just stop thinking about word count and get back to writing, shouldn't I?


Ok, now let's talk about WHY those are the answers.

I didn't read the V.Roth article but I was around when that whole thing was happening.  Veronica's initial manuscript was amazing of course but with a set of fresh eyes on it, her agent Joanna Volpe was able to point out some places that needed development.

This happens a LOT with manuscripts. You're so familiar with your world and your characters that you sometimes miss things a reader UNfamiliar with the story wants to know.

That happens again at the editorial stage with the publisher.

The point though is this: when Veronica sent that ms to Joanna she thought it was finished and publishable. It was the very best she could make it.  She didn't try to hit some kind of word count; she wrote the best book she could.

With fresh eyes and new questions there were characters and scenes to add. That might not have been the case. It's entirely possible characters and scenes might need to be removed.

There's one bench mark here, and it's not word count. The benchmark is: is this the best book you can write? 

That's why it's so important, crucial actually, to let your manuscript sit for at least a month before you start querying. Until you're only moving one word a page, and debating yourself blue in the face about commas, keep working.

Your takeaway here is exactly what you think it is: don't compare yourself to other people. 


DLM said...

I can't help but wonder what the word count will be on this post once the Reiders have gotten our grubby little paws on it.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I got nothin'.
Well actually...

I live and die by word count.
Thank God, I prepare, cook and serve smidgens, not the whole banquet. My little-bits must be just as palatable, and as easy to consume, as your ten courses. Point being...

Write the best you can, cut the crap and add salt.

kathy joyce said...

Wow! 56k seems short for querying. Joanna Volpe saw the potential when only half the book was there. It would be interesting to know about beta readers in this case. Did they not see the missing parts? Or did the agent and editor simply envision something different than the manuscripts they received?

I like the advice to not compare yourself to others, especially in this case. Divergent seems like "one in a million," in terms of how it played out.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Money is never a dumb idea.


Mary said...

Both my books are 65K and 75K thereabouts, respectively. So kind of short in the scheme of things. But I found publishers and not one told me to lengthen. It's all about the story. Anything I added would have been obvious filler.

Sam Hawke said...

I obsessed over word count for so long before querying my book. SO MANY places on the interwebz will feed this paranoia, but what you really have to do is just take the QOTKU's advice and just make the book the best it can be. I was told (snidely) a number of times that my book was too long, by people who hadn't read it. But guess what? First my agent, then my editor, wanted it bigger, so it's grown, not shrunk. If I could just go back in time and yell at Past Sam to stop worrying so much about whether everyone was going to reject the book based on wordcount without even looking at it...

Stephen G Parks said...

My current WiP was almost 130k when I sent it to Betas (over a year ago?!). It's crept up to 143k from their feedback and I still worry that there are spots where I've made assumptions that new readers might not follow -- but I don't know that I can see them! Will probably need fresh Betas for round 2 (or maybe a mix fresh and repeat).

kathy joyce said...

Sam and Mary, thank you. One of my WIPs will fall short of 80k. (Internet info on word count cites 80k minimum as eternal truth). I've agonized about what/where to add. I'll stop now.

Donnaeve said...

Ah, the lovely word count THING.

V Roth's word count, perhaps in those days of her early writing for YA was right according Writer's Digest which stated, "those books can now be anywhere from 55,000 – 79,999." (Writer's Digest, 2012)

And "Chuck believes that word counts in the YA genre are very flexible. He says: For starters, 55,000 – 69,999 is a great range." (bookbaby blog, 2015)

As a rule follower ad nauseum, I tended to stick to expected word counts for the genre I write in - 90,000 to 100,000. There IS flexibility in these numbers but not in coming in short. If I submit a MS that's 89,000, I feel strongly agent/editor will say, "it feels a bit short." If I submit a MS that's 102,000, no problem.

Mark Anthony Songer said...

A rather serendipitous post as I have recently wondered if my WiP will be long enough to climb out of the novella stage and into a small novel. Of course I closed out my first work at a page over 68k and on revision have found at least 15k more to be added to it.

All of which I find ironic because I have always been the type of writer to never use one word when four will do.

AJ Blythe said...

Recovering from my coughing fit thanks to the Queen making me laugh out loud with her post header.

My draft word count and my final word count are never close, so I just write and deal with the resulting word count in edits (I love editing so better for me to worry about word counts here then when drafting).

Theresa said...

It was really nice to read such validating advice this morning. I've always focused on making the story the best it can possibly be. Though I do keep in the back of my mind that for me, having something cut is easier to handle than having to add.

Amy Johnson said...

"Please don't eat me,"

"But, but, you're so tasty!"

Ha! A good laugh, some good advice, and now back to work. Thanks, Janet.

Susan Bonifant said...

On fresh-eyes editing:Having just killed several darlings, I am amazed by a) the place and space that is available for better writing and b)how much better new writing is.

I just hope I don't wind up painting all the rooms AGAIN.

Gigi said...

I'm with Theresa. This was so nice to read.

I keep getting told by other writers that my word count is too low (based on the query - not based on seeing the book itself), but it feels finished. It feels good. I'm happy - more than happy! - to add scenes. But I don't want to just add something for the sake of adding something. I think more agents and even other authors need to take this stance: write the best book you can. I'd rather nail my plot than the suggested word count range.

Mark Thurber said...

My word count started at 115k, dropped to <80k, and went back up to 103k. Now the manuscript is undergoing mitosis that will leave cell #1 with--who knows--80k? So I appreciated this post. Maybe I'll even get around to querying one of these days!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My initial draft was between 250k-275k on my WIP. Latest draft is 175k. It's fantasy and I am working with editor to cut this down to 125-150K. I tend to err on the other side of this equation. But then none of my favorite books are under 100k words. Some of my favorites exceed 200k. So I struggle with opposite problem and I have noticed some agents have limits on word count so probably easier to be under than over. OP, you are on more solid ground than I am. Keep writing and good luck.

Claire Bobrow said...

Interesting to hear this word count debate. Over here in picture book land, shorter, shorter, shorter seems to be the mantra. 500 words? Possibly too long. 200 words? Better. Wordless? Fantastic! (if you can illustrate).

OP: your gut was telling you all along. #6 is the key. I think I'll take the same advice.

Good luck and happy writing!

Julie Weathers said...

I'm not awake yet, so why am I trying to be coherent? I don't know? I like to inflict pain and suffering on people?

"Please don't eat me,"

"But, but, you're so tasty!"

This made me laugh. I've probably told the story about my youngest and SEAL team 6, but I'm old and will tell it again.

They had a base at one of his bases. The civilian armorer contractor the govt hired was kind of an idiot and took forever, so people started bringing their weapons to Will to fix because they needed them fixed right and right now. Then the SEAL team did also.

He had one weapon finished and returned it to the SEAL base, which was on their's but separate. A guy said, "Yeah, let me go get him. Wait right here. Don't you f***ing move."

"No, sir. I won't move."

Another one came by. "What are you doing?"

"Delivering this weapon."

"It's too f***ing hot to stand out here baking, come inside."

"But I was told to wait right here."

"F*** that. Stay in this room and don't look at anything."

"No, sir. I won't look at anything."

First guy sees him. "I thought I told you not to move."

"Someone else told me to wait in here while he went to get ____. Please don't kill me."

Anyway, back to word count. Someone at B&W has an epic fantasy they pitched at a conference. The agent told her, send it in, but our agency doesn't take anything over 100,000 words. You'll have to cut it down.

This drives me bat crap insane to put these artificial limits on books regardless of genre. Epic or high fantasy and historicals often take longer because there's a lot of world building going on.

The Rain Crow is sitting at 140,000 words right now and I'm not nearly finished. I'm well on my way, but a long way from done. I'm not concerned because it was all chunk writing and as the story filled in I realized the first volume would end a lot sooner than I anticipated. A lot of the stuff written now happens beyond the first Battle of Manassass, which is where it ends. I think.

There are also assassinations, murders, and plots within plots, that I hadn't planned on. I guess that happens when you let the characters tell you their story instead of you cramming them in a box. They just break out and try to strangle me in my sleep when I do that anyway.

I've worried about word count on B&W and a lot of more talented writers than I will ever be have given the same advice, "Just write the best story you can. Worry about word count later."

I worried about Far Rider being too long and one agent wants more world building and more character development on some characters. That won't come with fewer words.

Anyway, far over my word limit. I apologize. Jack Whyte gave me some sage advice while we were holed up drinking and yakking about everything under the ancient sun. Maybe it applies here. "Write the damned story!"

Karen McCoy said...

Oh, thank you! This sufficiently answers that age-old question of "done" versus "ready" and is extremely helpful for us perfectionist folk.

Stephanie said...

I write YA. My first finished draft was 115k words. I had agents come back and tell me it was great writing, but it was way too long for a debut. It needed to be between 60 and 75,000 words and that I should revise. I was able to get it down to 89k when I landed my agent who still wanted to cut 15,000 words from it. So I definitely think at least in the category of young adult, there are clear boundaries. However, fantasy or dystopian novels allow higher word count for world building. I don't know if that's true for adult books.

BJ Muntain said...

I've always said, don't sweat the word count. A book will be as long as it needs to be.


Manuscripts with a very high word count (for its genre) are most likely overwritten and in need of editing. A lot of beginning writers follow the 'a book will be as long as it needs to be' to justify writing a 300K word novel. If you try to explain that it needs editing, that it could be shortened, they bring up this justification in a huff. These writers often refuse to edit, because those 300K words are all perfect.

Very, very few 300K word debut novels ever get published. Especially today. And it's hard enough in the publishing marathon today without shooting yourself in the foot by writing too long.

Wordcounts that are too short, as noted in this post, tend to be missing important bits.

But don't worry about the word count in your first draft. After that draft, if it's beyond the normal word count either way, you can use that as a clue that something may needs fixing. Is it much shorter than most novels in your genre? Are you missing something? Is it much longer? Can you cut things? Do you have too much unnecessary verbiage, too many navel-gazing scenes, too much repetition?

The 'wow' thing about the Veronica Roth story is that Ms. Volpe even read the work, after seeing that word count. Many agents wouldn't. Many won't take on novels that require that amount of work. I had one agent see my Canadian spellings and say, "Oh, this is going to take too much editing" and passed. There must have been something in that query letter that really intrigued her.

In conclusion: Yes, story is more important than word count. BUT 'divergent' word counts can show a problem in the writing. For this reason, many agents and editors won't look at debut novels outside a certain range.

BJ Muntain said...

I draft short. I concentrate on the ending, and try to get to the ending as quickly as possible. As I do so, I learn more about the characters, the situation, the subplots, etc. I have no problems adding to lengthen a novella-length draft into a novel-length manuscript because a novella-length novel is pretty shallow. I love adding depth.

Kathy-of-the-best-last-name: Somehow, I don't think Ms. Roth had beta readers. At least, not beta readers who knew how to express what was missing. But I think it helped (now that I've read the rest of the comments) that the novel was YA. YA does tend to be shorter than adult fiction.

(No, I haven't read Divergent or seen the movies. I am woefully behind in popular culture, and by the time I catch up, it will have changed again. It has changed about ten times in the decade since I gave up my television habits, and it's hard to keep up without television.)

Lennon Faris said...

I read the first book of the Divergent series, there was one scene where the m.c. essentially zip-lined across the abandoned city skyline with her new friends. It was a super creative idea and fun scene, but even reading the book I thought, what did that have to do with the plot? It seemed like something an editor would tell an author to cut, maybe incorporate elsewhere.

Then (a few years ago) I read this article, and Veronica Roth said that was one that she added!

Craig F said...

My thrillers all ended up just shy of 100k. grew comfortable with that and have my sights in that area for the sci-fi thingie. t was running long and when I looked at it, I saw that there two books mashed up in it. I separated that and now it feels comfortable again.

I'm glad I don't have superstitions to dump on top of that.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Like BJ, I draft short. So my next draft needs lots of pertinent incidents and character building to give some flesh and skin to my story.

I do worry about keeping within a 10,000 word limit, aiming as Donnaeve wrote in her post, between 90,000-100,000.

But I had never stopped to think that agents are another set of fresh (expert) eyes as are publishers. So a revise and submit would be par for the course with debut writers.

OP: Thank you for running the hamster wheel so that all of us benefit from Janet's wisdom.

Robert Ceres said...

Some YA word counts:
Fault In Our Stars 92K
If I Stay 50K
It’s Kind of a Funny Story 143K
Pride and Prejudice (YA in the sense that it is a coming of age novel) 121K

In my critiques of all of my CP’s I found lots of extra words. In my writing I found lots of back-story, then lots of extra words. I went from 115K to 88K.

Here is a really really good trick. Go to one of the many word counting sites and cut and paste large sections of your writing into the word counter. When I did this I was horrified. Many, many many’s and very very many very’s (is that how you pluralize these words? And who knew pluralize was even a word?) Also, a lot of just’s, and that’s. And then an extraordinary number of ly words. It was relatively painless to find and replace (search and destroy) and it definitely improved things. Then I went after dialog tags. To quote a Jane Austin letter to her sister Cassandra on P&P, “there are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’”

kathy joyce said...

Robert Ceres, Here's my list of search and destroy words: just, really, very, ask, some, start, then, but, pretty, now, every (in all variations, like everyone, everybody, everytime), some (in all variations), and "ly" words. Some suggest "shrug" is often overused. My characters don't shrug, but they have way too much bile (rising, churning, burning), waaaay too much bile.

I remove the words after I think the draft is complete. In an 80k manuscript, this can delete several thousand words. Yikes!

John Davis Frain said...

Ha! Kathy, you made me check.

Bile: 3 times. And one of those was automobile. Whew! I'm feelin' good. Now, about those "ly" adverbs...

Joseph Snoe said...

I’ve tried to adhere to word count guidelines on “Escape from Brazil.” Before I learned there were word-count “rules” my manuscript was over 60,000 words and it was about 40% complete in my mind. I did a hard edit and removed 20,000 words, and decided to exclude two future story arcs.

The completed manuscript came in at 84,000 words.

Now in the revision stage I’m adding “accessories.” The revised version is 75% or so complete and I’m at 85,000 words. That 100,000 word wall for thrillers looms. I convinced myself 102,000 words will be fine, but I don’t want to risk 110,000 words.

Steve Stubbs said...

From what I have seen and heard from numerous people, first drafts very often come in at 50K or so. You don't have to be Veronica Roth to have that experience.

50K does not a novel make. It is a novella, but if your publisher wants a novel, you may have to write some more. That is why they call 50K a first draft.

Time for a second draft.

There seem to be two rules: (1) don't pad to get > 50K. Readers can spot padding when they see it, and (2) > 100K is Too Much, unless your name is Steven King. The reason is, over long means it will be too expensive to manufacture.

Nobody ever said this was easy.

Kate Larkindale said...

My drafts tend to be around 70K, but I always end up finishing closer to 90K. Which is long for YA. I'm always looking for things to cut. But there comes a point where you can't cut anything more without losing something important.

Ardenwolfe said...

Awesome advice as always.

The Sleepy One said...

My YA thriller that came out earlier this year was about 52k words when I sold it and about 50k when it was published. YA (which includes Divergent) can have a shorter word count. In Roth's case, I can see why her agent and later editor had her bump up the word count of her novel due to the setting/story.

Claire AB. said...

In my experience, not all agents are as open-minded about word count as our Queen. Many agents at conferences and online say they don't want manuscripts outside of a particular range which varies from genre to genre. I happen to believe some of them break their own rules if they stumble upon a great manuscript (e.g. Divergent), but they're clear about what they're looking for. So I would add that maybe, if you feel you have the best book possible and the word count is iffy, leave the number out of your query as Janet has suggested in previous posts. And also query the agents who aren't vocal on the subject.

Sam Hawke said...

"(2) > 100K is Too Much, unless your name is Steven King. The reason is, over long means it will be too expensive to manufacture."

Noooo. See, this is the problem. 'Rules' like that are what give writers anxiety attacks. If nothing else, they're incredibly genre specific. Quick, name me some successful modern epic fantasy that's under 100K? Even 'rules' which are supposed to apply to fantasy often try to cap it out at 120K for debuts, which just isn't reflected in the actual books being published.

I queried at 155K, I think. It's now in its final stages of pre-pub edits and it's just short of 175. This is not a crazy outlier, it's totally normal in fantasy. Neither my agent nor my publisher are concerned about word count. If it was waffley, it would be a problem. But if it was waffley, that would be a problem at 90K, too.

I'm not saying there aren't some agents who are going to pass on your book if it's on the long side. But if you wrote a book that's that length because that's the length it needs to be, and someone passes on it because they have a hard rule about wordcount, then they weren't the agent for you. Don't sweat it.

Colin Smith said...

*whew*!! Things have been busy at work... but I think I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Either that or I'm dead.

Whichever, the more I read about word length and queries and titles and so on, the more convinced I am that we all just need to be amazing writers and write amazing books. That way, no-one will care that you've just submitted a tome because it's so good, it can't not be published. That's the theory I'm running with anyway. If I get an agent and get published, maybe it'll prove to have merit. :)

kathy joyce said...

Can't wait to read everyone's books, no matter how long or short! :)

Megan V said...

I tend to be a lean, mean, writing machine myself. I write lean books, that mean a lot to me, and some days writing is my only function. It helps that I write YA and MG. Shorter books go over a little bit better with that crowd than the adult epic fantasy people.

I try(try, mind you) to not think about word counts. It's hard. But, OP, if there is one thing I've learned in the last couple of years, it's this:

Word counts are designed to turn writers into hamsters. Take one sip of that potion and you'll spend your days on a wheel of what ifs, instead of using your magic to part the waters of a slushy, shark-filled ocean.

Annay Dawson said...

When I finish with the first draft I always say that there are about 20,000 words hiding in between the lines somewhere trying desperately to find their way onto the page.