Public Service Notice About Pages vs. Word Count

July 7, 2016

I’ll keep this short and sweet. No one gives a good hot raspberry about how many pages your manuscript contains. We need the word count. This is industry wide. You can find your word count at the bottom of your Word document. Use it.

You’re welcome.


Battling the Bulge

April 12, 2012

No, no, I’m not talking about that spare tire or extra saddlebag. I’m talking word count. I see the angst over word count in nearly every writer site I visit and conference I attend.

What is the perfect sweet spot? It depends on the genre. Some genres, like Fantasy or Science Fiction, allow for higher word counts. Others, like mainstream fiction, adhere to a pretty strict diet. For many publishers’ purposes, the sweet spot is between 50,000 – 90,000 words. My eyes will bug right out of my head if I see a query letter boasting 245,000 words. Instant. Sudden. Death. Rejection. Why? Because no one in their right mind submits a manuscript that weighs as much as the beagle.

So how do you go about putting your manuscript on a diet?

Wordiness

Sometimes you look at your manuscript and can’t see anything that can possibly be trimmed. Yet I will look at it and spot the trouble straight away:  Wordiness.

I think of my brother and his love of words…often to great efficacy…yet I tease him about his lack of brevity. “Gee, why say it in one sentence when you can say it in five paragraphs?” He’s a lawyer, so I rest my case.

It’s scary how easy it is to fall prey to this little diet-breaker. In our desire to set a scene or express an emotion through show, we end up using more words. Sometimes a TON. I read a book that took…and I kid you not…THREE PAGES to describe the moon rising. And these three pages were the FIRST three pages. By the time I finished tossing the book about the room, I needed new windows and a paint job.

There are times for wordiness and times when it’s really OK to have a character simply cross the room. You don’t need to go into lengthy detail about how the character’s shoes are too tight and how it forces him to shuffle across the room like the beagle after a weekend bender. It isn’t necessary to detail the pattern of the carpet he’s shuffling across, or how the room smells a bit musty and the curtains really should be drawn because it’s too bright…blah, blah, blah. Cross the damn room already.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be so stark that your writing has the feel of a monk in tattered bedsheets. It’s about balance. There are times when that detail is delicious. So if you’re fighting the battle of the bulge, check to see if you’re too wordy and maybe the moon can simply hang in the sky, and your character can simply cross a room. You might be amazed at how your weight will drop. And everyone loves to be in shape, right?

Backstory

Anyone who has ever heard my seminar on Backstory knows that I adore it because it adds flavor and dimension to the main characters. But Backstory is one of those tools that, in the hands of the unwary, can turn a story into a bloated codfish.

The most common abuse I see is the Three Chapter What-Do-I-Do? Authors write their first three chapters – setting up the scene, intro the characters, intro the plot – and then they say, “Now what? Ah HAH! Hello, backstory.” Knowing how and where to put backstory is the difference between that bloated codfish and a well-rounded story. Most important is how much backstory to use.

I’ve read more than my fair share of manuscripts that play the Chapter Four Backstory and rejected them because they go on for so long and so often that I forget the main gist of the story. Again, Backstory is about balance. If your manuscript needs a Pritikin Intervention, then try looking at your backstory as a likely suspect for extra calories. If you can take any of your backstory out and not miss it, then you know it didn’t belong there in the first place.

Too Many Subplots

Subplots are very cool because they add dimension to our stories.

As defined:  A subplot is a secondary plot strand that is a supporting side story that may connect to main plot.

Let’s use an example:  The main plot of my story is my publisher-character who specializes in romance with her stable of five seasoned citizens (which includes a famous children’s writer – think Dr. Seuss) and  a John Grisham-type author who’s working through writer’s block and a blown deadline. In promising to maintain their anonymity, she encounters a newspaper book reviewer who is hell-bent on saving his review column by sniffing out the John Grisham-type character’s identity and blowing the doors off.

One subplot focuses on the relationship between the main character and the John Grisham character’s battle wounds regarding love and trust.

Another subplot focuses on the book reviewer and his steady decline from respect to a industry joke due to his acerbic reviews and penchant for the drink. He knows his review column is on its last legs and takes a giant stab at redeeming himself by exposing one of the biggest legal thriller authors as a bodice-rippy pantser.

I’ve kept it simple because I don’t want to add too many ingredients to the cake and, thereby, making it too high in calories. It keeps the story tight. Now, I could have added other subplots that involve more in-depth development with the five seasoned citizens, but it would take things too far off course.

And this is what I see with many overweight stories. Authors get so involved with all their characters that they feel the need to flesh out every one of them in great detail by adding a ton of subplots. The result is that it becomes a confusing mish mash that dilutes the main plot.

If you’re overweight, is it possible that you have too many subplots? If you let some of them go, does your story lose its sheen, or do you never even miss it?

Two Books?

If you weigh in 250,000 words, is it possible that you have two books sitting in there? This happened to me with my first novel. It was a doorstop, yet I felt the story really had legs. But the word count told me to break it up. And lo and behold, there actually was a natural breaking point where I could easily split them up. Suddenly what was an unwieldy mass of blub became a respectable word count that wouldn’t blind readers.

If you’re fighting the bulge, is it possible that you have two stories in there that have equal servings of meat and potatoes? Each would have to be a stand alone, but this is where multi-book deals can happen. If your agent can sell your first book and the editor knows you have another one in the wings, then it may blossom into something more exciting.

Objectivity

Knowing that your manuscript is overweight and finding out the culprit requires heaping doses of objectivity. This can be tough because it requires standing outside your artist’s head and regarding your writing as if someone else had written it. No wonder we’re schizoid. But this is a state of grace where you can define where your word count is causing problems.

If your manuscript is sitting pretty at 140,000 or 240,000 words and you insist that you’ve cut down to the bone, then I’d say you need to look at whether you are/have:

  • Too wordy
  • Too much backstory
  • Two books instead of one
  • Too many subplots

Writing is a tough business because there are so many things that can defeat us. Word count is a huge problem with many writers. Hopefully some of these ideas will help in battling the bulge.


Cutting your babies

October 14, 2009

The setting: Overworked and Underpaid Editor sits in her office, sucking down one of the beagle’s fresh margaritas. She stirs the frothy drink with the end of her evil red pen. Laying on a couch across from her is an overwrought manuscript, bulging and bloated. Loud sniffles and cries of angst fill the small office. OwUp Editor orders the beagle to make three pitchers and have them waiting in the wings; it was going to be a long, painful session.

Bloated Manuscript: Another rejection! I’ve lost track of how many that makes [loudly blowing its little nose]. What is wrong with me? Do I suck?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: It’s hard to tell if you suck because you, my portly little friend, are overweight. Just how much do you weigh?

Bloated Manuscript: [recoiling in disgust] That’s none of your beeswax! Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to ask how much something weighs?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Ach, my mother told me lots of things. One was to always wear clean Victoria Secrets in case I was in an accident. I mean really. If I’m bleeding in fifty different places and have an emergency brake sticking out of my eye socket, does anyone believe the emergency room is going to stop and admire my lacy underlilies? But I digress. [uncorking evil red pen and donning designer spectacles] Ah, I can see on your title page that you weigh 196,000 words. You, my little pork chop, need to go on a diet.

Bloated Manuscript: Gah! No! The only way I can lose weight is to rip out pages. If I rip out pages, that means only one thing; I HAVE TO CUT MY BABIES! NOOOOOO! I love my words, every single one of them. There isn’t a single verb, noun, or dangling participle that can be removed, let alone full chapters.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Just because those words are sitting on your pages doesn’t mean they belong there. I can’t believe that it took you 196,000 words to belt out your story, when I think you could say it better in 84,000 words. And more to the point, I’m suspicious you’ve gorged yourself on Twinkie Fluff – that lovely, sweet dessert that fills up a page faster than I can drink one of the beagle’s chocolate martinis. Twinkie Fluff are empty calories; they may taste great, but if you overload yourself with them, your pretty pages become bloated codfishies that scare the bejabbers out of editors. In fact, if I see a word count that high, I won’t even bother reading it.

Bloated Manuscript: But why?? [wailing miserably] Just because we’ve put on a little weight doesn’t mean we aren’t lovable, readable manuscripts.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Yah, that may be true, but I have to work too hard to find it. A manuscript that is as overweight as you are make me wonder if you are a new kid on the block and not experienced enough to know how to write a story with the proper balance of brevity, plot, and development.

Bloated Manuscript: Wahhhh, I don’t even know where to begin.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Knowing when and what to cut takes writing experience. After you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll learn what is integral to the plot and what is wasted space; what backstory is essential and engaging, and what goes.

Organization is key to any new manuscript – experienced or not. You should have a clear vision of your characters and how they move your story along. Your characters are going through some sort of conflict or dilemma – be it finding out who murdered their favorite dust bunnies or chucking the rat race behind and moving to the Bermuda Triangle to open up a factory that manufactures chocolate-covered mosquitoes.

From there, you need to organize your thoughts on how to propel the plot. You need to be mindful that every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to have a reason for being on the page. They have one duty; to propel your plot. Now, of course, a little backstory helps round out the character development, as does a wee bit of Twinkie Fluff.

Having a chapter outline can be helpful in keeping fat manuscripts on their diet plan. You always have to ask yourself what is it you want/need to say in each chapter. [Overworked and Underpaid Editor flips through the pages] Now see here, this entire chapter has zippo to do with your plot, so why is it here?

Bloated Manuscript: Because it’s so well written!

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: But it doesn’t have anything to do with the story. It’s all backstory that doesn’t impart anything relevant to the character’s current dilemma. If you are so in love with that backstory, then think about writing that book. But really, it has no place in this book.

Bloated Manuscript: Are-are you saying I should stick myself in a drawer and start all over again with something new?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: I’m suggesting regular visits to the literary gym, where you will work out every day to get lean and mean. It may be that you are so overweight that you require some time in the isolation unit while you learn the technique of proper weight reduction. And yes, you should consider that you need to start over with something new. Regardless of where you’re headed, get yourself some good literary coaches. Eat healthy verbs and nouns, and ease up on the adverbs, backstory, and exclamation points – they’re empty calories. Losing weight doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient.

Bloated Manuscript: [sighing heavily] Ok, I’ll try. Now, can we talk about my red-pen phobia?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Oh good grief. Beagle, another round of margaritas. This is going to take longer than I thought.


Word Count Boogie

September 20, 2009

This comment came to me this morning via our old blog. It was posted under my post Word Count – Ya Want 150,000 or 70,000 – You Pick – which laments authors who offer to change their word count for me. My other point in that post was that the sweet spot for word counts is between 50,000 – 100,000. The commenter brought up a point that I hear quite a lot, and I wanted to give this attention I feel it’s due.

Well, Ms. Price, I think any reader who loves to read likes a good lengthy book, as those novels usually have well fleshed characters that aren’t one-dimensional and bland. I purposefully make an effort to go out of my way to find thick books when purchasing my month load (yes, I buy in bulk lol).

However, when there is appx. 150,000 books published in the US each year, and only 10% of those earn back their advances, and then when you cut that in half (7,500) to find out which ones actually become reputable titles featured or reviewed by mainstream media, that means that only 150 books a week are able to keep their ink above water. So one can hardly blame an agent if he wants to pass on a book that has a gambler’s chance at succeeding if it’s going to be costly.

Let’s just put it this way; it’s easier for an agent/agency to pick at reasons to decline the majority of queries they receive than to become enthused over something that will, according to studies, most likely flop and cost more money to publish than it earned.

I don’t like the publishing world today, but that’s the truth.

Like you, I love a big fat book as well. But studies show that the majority of readers don’t. Sales suffered with the larger word count books of yesteryear, so publishers couldn’t justify their production. That isn’t to say the large count book is dead – it’s just that publishers have to be careful about their choices.

I don’t agree with your assumption that larger word counts equate to fully developed characters. If it takes 220,000 words to flesh out a character, I wager there is something seriously wrong with the writing.

A large word count in books published by trade publishers means it’s a very big plot – like political thrillers, fantasy, SF – and a belief they will sell well.

On the flip side, it’s true that we’re all cost conscious. Large word count books equal larger production costs, which equal larger retail price. We have to weight a big word count against the probability that a debut author will sell enough books to make it worth the higher costs. But if a story is big enough, we’ll fight for it. Where most of us draw the line is when the query letter boasts a 185,000 or 240,000 words. This is gynormous and will earn an instant rejection for the reason that there are few plots that require that large of a word count. Experience tells us that newer authors tend to write giant word count books, and that’s why they are weeded out very quickly. Does this mean some good works are lost in the rejection pile? Possibly.

The publishing world is far from perfect, and there are as many people who berate the industry for its faults. But I think we do a pretty good job of  weighing the massive amounts of submissions we receive against our understanding of the marketplace. As I’ve said before; we can never be mistaken for the Great Benevolent Society, and, like it or not, massive word counts are a strike against the writer.

Those who rail about word counts go one of two ways; they learn the business, or find homes with PODs or vanity presses – companies for whom the marketplace isn’t their source of income.


Word Count – ya want 150,000 or 79,000 words? You pick

October 28, 2008

I have a literary fiction of approximately 120,000 words. Should you like the story and find it salable, but are leery due to length, I can reduce the page content, or this manuscript could easily be converted to two books of approximately 320 pages each with a few revisions if you were agreeable; or remain one book of approximately 540 pages. I understand that the publishing world would prefer books in the 300 or so page range for economical reasons. If absolutely necessary, for publication purposes, this manuscript could be pared to a book of approximately 350 pages. As the author, of course, I would prefer not, but it could be done and I am willing to do so…

It’s really very nice the author is so willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Editors love anyone who says, “What can I do to help?”

However.

There are certain elements I don’t want to be bothered me during a simple query, and word count is one of them. I DON’T WANT TO CHOOSE. That’s your job.Remember, you haven’t sold me yet, so offering to butcher up your manuscript strikes me as premature.

See, this author is hoping that his willingness to make changes will make me all happy-like and mitigate the fact that he knows darn good and well that his word count is too high. If he already knows this, then why try to sneak it in under the radar? He’s blown his chance with me. And probably with anyone else he queried.

I know many agents and editors who literally stop reading the minute they see the word count. High word counts equal higher production costs and higher retail costs. The marketplace, in general, doesn’t like big fat books, and this is why we’re such bovines about word count.

If your novel has a high word count – 100,000 on up or 50,000 and lower – then you have some decisions to make. In the case of the biggie, break it up into two novels, or get out a sharp scalpel. With the lower word count, consider developing the story further. But don’t send a query filled with caveats such as, “read this, but don’t worry about the word count, cos I can fix that.” Hello, if you can fix it, then do it before sending it out. Obviously this author knew better, and now, so do you!


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