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The Danger of Writing Far Outside Word Count Guidelines

Books and genres have target word counts. It’s the way it’s always been and I suspect it will always be that way. Long ago word counts were decided both because of genre expectations, but also cost. Too short and the cost of the book exceeded it’s worth, too long and the cost became too high to make a profit.

Even in the days of ebooks I think readers have an expectation of how long a book should be, and the time they’re willing to commit to a book. Yes, yes, I know George RR Martin has written some long books, but what did you say your name was? I’m pretty sure you didn’t say George RR Martin.

I talked to an author recently who acknowledged that her book was way too long. I think it was running somewhere around 150,000 words for a YA. Way, way too long. She knew it, she’d been told by agents and authors that it was too long, and yet she refused to cut. She was convinced that cutting would ruin her absolutely perfect climactic moment. She was however willing able to divide the book in two, but only if a professional said she had to. No one wants that.

If the book is too long it needs to be cut. Done. Another reason word count is so great is that it gives you perimeters for editing. If almost everyone else in the writing world can fit into those guidelines, including most of the top names in your genre, can’t you? If you honestly think the book can be split in half (I wonder where that amazing climactic moment will go) split it in half. Don’t wait for an editor or agent to tell you it needs to be done. If you already thought it, it needs to be done.

Although I’m not a fan of simply splitting books in half. I don’t think it works all that well.

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10 comments

  1. It’s difficult for me to cut a story that, in my mind, is complete with everything I’ve added, but I’ve learned over the years that in almost every case, my editor has been right when she’s asked me to shorten a manuscript.

    As an author, I see the story as a whole and it makes sense to me, but only with all those tiny little parts that create the complete picture. Those parts are often my own baggage, something I am just as guilty taking into the books I read as the ones I write.

    An editor also sees the story as a whole, but she’s trained to see the central story, one that often doesn’t require all those extras I’ve been compelled to add. A good example is a recent short category length novel I wrote for St. Martin’s Press. I was asked to remove two characters and their entire plot thread. It took me a while to see what my editor saw, but she nailed exactly what was dragging the pacing of the book into the slow lane. I had actually come in on the right word count, but by taking that secondary story and those characters out of the whole, I had room to tighten and at the same time better delve into the main part of the story.

    I’ve had to learn (not easy–I’m pretty impatient!) to read the editor’s suggestions and sit back to let them percolate. After a night (or more) to think over the comments, I’m usually able to see what the editor wants me to see. One thing that I’ve learned helps me remove large sections of a WIP is to cut and paste those sections I’m deleting into a file, noting the place where I’ve removed them. Just knowing they’re still there makes it easier to move on without them. Once I’m done, I can go ahead and delete them without as much angst as not saving them might have caused.

    What can I say? I’m a bit on the neurotic side. I think it comes with the territory!

  2. I’m thinking that if a writer really truly can’t cut their book down, they should write another book. The longer book might be more viable once the author is established. (Everyone knows how the Harry Potter books got way longer.)

    I confess my own WiP is long. Not overlong for the genre, but long for a debut. If I can get it to the point where the only thing wrong is the length, I’ll have accomplished my goal. I’ll query it, but I’ll be working on something shorter for the next round. No sense in putting all my hopes into one project.

  3. On this subject, here’s a question.

    I queried a novel as a two volume story and kept getting rejections. In the meantime, I had submitted it to a respectful (at least to me–Pacific Northwest Writers Association) contest. One of the reviewers commented that, as a debut author, I should rethink trying to sell such a lengthy story, stating agents and publishers are reluctant to take on an unproven author with a two book deal.

    That made sense, so I am in the process of rewriting it with the originally planned book two ending . In the process, not only has the story morphed but I also see the title needs to be changed. So, (drum roll please as I promised a question) though none of the rejecting agents requested a resubmit, nor commented on the length (“prune it to a standalone and re-query”), is it inappropriate to resubmit since, except for the basic premise, this is a new story?

    1. Go ahead and resubmit. As a completely new story since that’s what it is. I wouldn’t even bother going into detail about the fact that it was once old.

  4. As I’ve said before, I’m no fan of series with the same h/h, and splitting the book would make it a mini series, but I confess to having done that with my first book too. Word count and story structure were the reasons. I had beginning – middle/build-up – climax twice, so it made sense to split. But I usually prefer keeping one h/h pair in one book, not two or more.
    On the other hand, I fail to understand why some authors are so averse to adjustment, edits, etc. Maybe it’s okay like me either -I’m easily influenced by my critique group – but I wonder, if you can’t listen to your critique group, editor or agent, how are you ever going to be able to listen to and “feel” your readers? Just saying… We’re in the entertainment business, we work for people.

  5. When I started my rewrite, the second one after I realised I was still trying to follow the old story, I set myself a word count target.
    I’m aiming at 60-70k it feels right for YA, but I’m not sure why.
    I’ve also changed all but my heroine’s name and background.
    I’ve made so many changes now, anything an agent/editor or anyone else suggests can’t make as big an impact.

  6. I’ve always accepted there’s a general consensus for how long a genre of book should be – after all, I have that expectation as a reader! I try and write to about that length, but I wouldn’t mind if I had to lengthen or shorten… after all, I want my book to be the best it can be and if that’s what it needs than that’s what you do.

    I’ll be interested to read the genre lengths when you do them, Jessica (keeping my fingers crossed I’m on the mark).

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