Monday, April 26, 2010

If it works, it works

I’ve been writing all my life. At the start, my cousin and I filled yellow legal pad after yellow legal pad with a rambling Dungeons and Dragons type Sword and Sorcery story; it went on and on and on. I hesitate to call it a novel, at this point, since it had no real over-arching plot, but hey… at least we were dedicated to it.

What I’m saying is: Writing has always been something that I do. It’s been natural and flowing and carefree, but ever since the four or so years ago when I decided to get serious about my favorite pastime and try to turn it into a career, the idea of a “suggested” word count length has hung over my head like a guillotine ready to drop. In fact, if I had to choose, the “suggested” word count would be the one thing I really worry about.

Everywhere you turn, the numbers shake out about the same:

90,000 to 100,000ish for a first time novel.

120,000 to 130,000ish, maybe, if it’s a genre book.

And what was my final draft before this last batch of edits?



But here’s the problem: I’m just telling the story. Sure, I have since gone back and cut extra words and a few scenes that never really did what they were supposed and a few moments that repeat themselves, yadda, yadda, yadda, but still, even being generous, in the end, let’s guess that I’ll end up cutting about 25,000 words, give or take. That’s a ton, true, but once all of the dust and the hoop-la settles?

Final word count: 152,823

That’s still in the stratosphere as far as the commonly held belief goes. But what options do I have? I consider myself very open to suggestions, critiques, and edits, at least… I try to be. My end goal here is to put out the best product I can, and I recognize that you need outside eyes to accomplish this, but I’ll be honest with you…

After this initial 25,000 is gone, I do not believe there will be a significant number of words left to still cut out. And another 20,000? No way. Not without cutting the story too deep and sacrificing in a “bad” way, in my opinion. At that point, I think I’d be risking the book’s soul, doing more harm than good. It’s a fine line, I know, between being cautious and being obstinate, but really, I’m honestly trying to walk on the side of angels here and I don’t see how it can be done.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it can’t be done. Can Not.

Ballsy? Yes, but that’s me, baby.

Anyway, I’m paranoid enough about this, this goddamn word count thing (and don’t people say it so snooty to? Like it’s fucking gospel? “Oh, it has to be 100,000 words or no one will even look at it, blah, blah-blah…” Ass.) …anyway, I’m so conscious of it that it is consistently the one thing I do not do, despite the fact that the majority of agents request that the word count be included in queries, but fuck that. No way am I just showing my ass like that.

Why would I?

Agents and publishers are very busy, they’re swamped with requests from people who look, walk, talk, and act just like me, and they will straight out admit that the first round of cuts is based off of arbitrary first impressions and what is more arbitrary that the “preferred word count”? So yeah, no way am I going to just hand them a free “Denied” card like that. If they ask, I’ll tell them, but otherwise… Mum’s the word.

Besides, like all how to get published “rules” go, there’s a big old BUT attached at the end and that is, in a nutshell: “If it works, it works.”

And that gives me hope.

Case in point: Joe Abercrombie.

Joe writes fantasy books, dark, bloody and brutal, they are epic tales of well drawn “real” characters in a fantastic world of magic and murder and massive armies. 100% good time. Loved ‘em. I devoured them. And here’s the kicker:

The Blade Itself? 190,000 words.
Before They Are Hanged? 195,000 words.
The Last Argument of Kings? 230,000.
Best Served Cold? 225,000.

Now sure, the later books will usually give an author more leeway word count-wise because they have established themselves, but still… Look at that! First book, 190,000 words, but it reads like a house on fire! Blistering, baby.

But how did that happen? How did that monster manuscript land on someone’s desk (and probably break it due to the weight) and then actually get read despite its size? Short answer? I don’t know. Right day, right time, right person, luck and magic (shrug). The point is, it did get read and it got published.

So here’s hoping…


Mark T said...

Nice post. Also, Go D&D! One of my fav pastimes years ago. I understand Laurel K. Hamilton credits D&D as where she started honing her craft as a writer.

Douglas Hulick said...

If it makes you feel better, AMONG THIEVES clocked in at ~ 142,000 words when it was picked up by my agent, and then by Roc. I managed to trim it back to 137,500 or so after edits. But I also included the word count in the initial submission. Why? Courtesy and professionalism.

If the agent or editor wants the word count*, then who am I to say boo? I want to come across as a professional, and to do that I need to follow their guidelines. Looking like you can't follow instructions (and may therefore be difficult to work with) can get you bounced as easily (or more so) than having a higher-than-average word count.

Trust in your story. And, at the same time, be ruthless with it. Not everyone is Joe Abercrombie or Patrick Rothfuss: there may be more to cut. Or there may not be. In the end, you have to make that call. But I'd argue that you stand behind it when you do. Be up-front about what you are handing the people you want to work with. Remember, it's not just about selling your first book -- it's about selling your second through Nth books, too. You want to be the kind of writer that your agent and editor can trust. If the book is something they really want, I expect they'll find a way to work with you on it.

*(Caveat: When I say follow instructions, I mean it. If, in a query, the don't want word count, you could opt to leave it out, I usappose. However, if they specify it, or want a partial, then I would definitely include it.)

Jon said...

I’m all for following the rules. I check and double check and then send in everything they ask for, I just “forget” to mention the word count (although I DO put it on my synopsis… even though no one really seems to ask for a synopsis anymore… after all that work…). I don’t think the omission is intrusive and really, in today’s market, I just can’t see any outcome to including a large word count in my query other than a negative one.

To me, selling yourself isn’t just about trumpeting your “strengths”; it’s also about downplaying your “weaknesses”.

It’s one of the first things they see. It goes: My name, their name, BOOM! BIG ASS WORD COUNT! What else could they be thinking at that moment other than “Wow, something that large is a hard sell.” And what follows a few sentences later? “Oh, first time author too?” Now, I don’t believe that this would automatically disqualify me in all situations, not necessarily, but it certainly doesn’t help.

After much consideration, on the chart of acceptable risks, I am more willing to chance that some Agent/Editor is going to look at my query, after scanning it close and careful, and announce: “No word count! Into the garbage with you!” more than I am willing to showcase from jump street that my book could be considered… a bit large-ish or perhaps… unwieldy.

I figure, if they request the full thing, they’ll feel the heft and can decide then. I’d just rather, if at all possible, to have my thingy rejected due to content or ability, not possible future issues with size dependent upon current market trends, you know?

But that’s me.

I am glad to hear your book made it though, nice work. It does make me feel better. Congratulations.

P.S. Also, I'm totally for more cuts, if someone can find them and presents a reasonable case, I just don't see them any more.

Jon said...

P.P.S. Also, this opinion might change depending on how this final final edit of mine turns out, word count-wise.