Back to Basics, part V: Writing to a Certain Length

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Baseball season has begun, and, as always happens this time of year, I am reminded of my favorite baseball movies, of which there are many.  At or near the top of my list is the somewhat raunchy but hilariously funny Bull Durham.  At one point, as the Durham Bulls are in the midst of prolonged slump, their manager gives one of the great speeches in the history of baseball movies.  It comes right after he calls his players “lollygaggers.”  (“You lollygag the ball around the infield, you lollygag your way down to first, you lollygag inand out of the dugout!  You know what that makes you? . . . Lollygaggers!”)  He says, “This is a simple game.  You throw the ball.  You hit the ball.  You catch the ball.”

What I love about this is that anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that the simplicity of the game belies the complexity of mastering anyone of these tasks.  Throwing the ball — there are only a few dozen people of the face of the earth good enough to pitch at the major league level.  Hitting the ball — hitting a round ball traveling at ninety miles per hour, with a rounded bat no more than two and three-quarters inches, is one of the hardest things to do in any sport.  Yes, baseball is a simple game, but it is not an easy game

I bring this up, because as I continue the Back to Basics series I want to make it clear that while the many things I discuss in this series may be basic, I never mean to imply that they’re easy, or that mastering them doesn’t require practice, concentration, and time.  Today’s post is a case in point.  We often mention the importance, particularly in today’s market, of writing our books to a certain length.  But this is far more easily said than done.  I know this, and don’t mean to imply otherwise.  It’s taken me years to master it.  Basic?  Yes.  Easy?  No.

Let’s start with some word-count guidelines.  And please keep in mind that these numbers are fairly fluid. When I started out in the business, a first-time author could sell an epic fantasy of 200,000 words or more.  That was only fifteen years ago, but it might as well have been a century.  Today, with very, very few exceptions (George Martin, J.K. Rowling, and a few others) no author is selling books of that length to US publishers.  If you have an epic fantasy that seems destined to come it at 200,000 to 250,000 words, you’ll want to split it into two books.  Why the change?  Mostly because the bricks-and-mortar book chains wanted shorter books.  They wanted to fit more books in their existing shelf space, and they wanted to keep price points down.  Shorter books allowed them to shelve more books and charge less for them (especially in hardcover — it was decided that $25.95 was the pricing sweet spot; too far above that and sales fell off).  Now it bears mentioning here that as e-books come to drive the market more, this may cease to be a consideration.  Market book lengths might be about to go through another change.  As I said, these numbers are fluid.  But right now, short is still “in.”  The other thing to keep in mind is that these are guidelines only; you don’t need to hit them dead on.  If your book is five or seven thousand words off you’re going to be fine.

So . . .   For epic fantasy, which is probably the most forgiving subgenre in terms of word count, you should aim for something between 110,000 and 120,000.  If you can come in closer to 100,000 that’s great.  But as I say, epic is a little more forgiving.  For urban fantasy, there is a harder cap right around 100,000 words.  A more experienced writer might get away with 110,000 — if the next book in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock series comes in at 110k, Roc is probably going to be okay with it.  But for an author without a track record, 100k is the limit.  Horror, hard SF, mystery, steampunk, etc. — all of these are also right around 100,000.  Someone can correct me, but I believe that romance might be a little shorter now — closer to 90,000 words.  My information puts the Young Adult (YA) target somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 words.  Middle reader books are closer to 40,000-60,000 — a broader range because middle reader books tend to cover a broader range of reading ability.  If your middle reader book is pitched to the lower end of the 8-12 year-old demographic, keep to the lower end.  If you’re going for the “tween” crowd, you can go a bit higher.  (A.J., care to chime in here?  Is that your understanding?)

Well fine, you say.  Those are the limits.  But how are we supposed to meet them, short of writing a book and then cutting it accordingly after the fact?  Well, editing down to a word count is definitely one way to get there.  In many ways it’s the easiest and most effective.  That approach allows you to write the book as you feel you need to write it, without imposing artificial constraints on your creativity.  It has the added benefit of forcing you after the fact to revise and tighten your work.  If you write an urban fantasy that comes in at 120,000 words, you’ll need to cut some 15,000 to 20,000 from that first draft.  You’ll have to make your prose leaner.  You’ll need to streamline your plotting, perhaps even eliminate a secondary thread that isn’t essential to the overall narrative.  All of these things could improve your novel.

The problem comes when your urban fantasy comes in not at a manageable 120k, but rather at a staggering 150,000 words.  Now we’re no longer talking about tightening prose and narrative.  We’re talking about eviscerating your book.  This is where some planning can come in handy.  I’ve covered some of this in previous posts, but I think it bears going over again.  First of all, for you dedicated seat-of-the-pantsers out there, I am not suggesting that you outline your book.  (That said, I think that A.J. recently made a very strong case for giving up your pantser ways and being more systematic in your approach to planning books.)  If you’re determined to keep on pantsing, you can do that, even as you plan for book length a bit more.  Some simple math:  Twenty pages of double-spaced prose (one inch margins, 10 or 12 pitch font) comes to about 5,000 words.  Twenty 5,000 word chapters is 100,000 words.  With somewhat shorter opening and closing chapters (maybe 2,500 words each) you have a novel of 105,000 words, or about 400 manuscript pages.  A bit of editing and tightening and you’re easily at a good length.  You prefer shorter chapters and more of them?  Fine.  Twelve manuscript pages is 3,000 words.  Thirty-three chapters of this length gets you to our goal of 100,000 words.  Clearly, if you’re writing in another subgenre or for a different aged audience, you can make the necessary adjustments.  My point is this:  trying to write a novel to a specific length without any planning is nearly impossible.  A project of 100,000 words feels intimidating and unwieldy, because it is.  But writing a chapter to a specific length is far easier — 4,000 words to get Buffy and Frodo from the boathouse to the tarpits?  Sure, I can do that.  I might have to cut the encounter with Robby-the-Robot, but that was never going to work that well anyway. . . .

Writing to a certain length means imposing discipline on yourself as you write, regardless of whether or not you work from some sort of outline.  You have to be willing to say “I have twelve pages instead of fifteen to make this chapter work.”  And you need to be able to tell yourself as your novel progresses that despite your grand plans for this subplot or that one, you will finish the novel in thirty-three chapters.  Again, the numbers can vary according to your tastes with regard to chapter length, and if one chapter comes in at 15 pages and another at 10 pages, you’re still fine.  I’m not suggesting that every chapter be exactly the same length.  But you have to impose some limits on yourself.  One of the things I’ve had to teach myself as I have moved from writing 200,000 word chihuahua killers to books of 100k or 110k, is to keep my chapters more directed.  I don’t meander nearly as much as I used to.  The first Thieftaker book came in at almost exactly 110,000 — it’s historical urban fantasy, and so that might be a little long, but my publisher didn’t blink and I think the book is about as tight as I could get it — and it took a lot of work to get it there.  I had to break some bad old habits.  But the result is a narrative that’s as directed as any I’ve ever written.

What about if your manuscript is too short instead of too long?  Well, first of all, the word counts I listed above are the upper limits.  If your epic fantasy comes in at 110,000 instead of 120,000, or if your urban fantasy comes in at 92,000 instead of 100,000, you’re probably going to be fine.  As I mentioned, short is in right now.  It’s the new black.  But if your urban fantasy seems destined to come in at 80,000 words, you might have a bit of problem.  How do you lengthen it?  I wrote about just this pretty recently, so I’ll refer you back to that post.  But the short answer is this:  we seek to do certain things with our novels.  Thieftaker, for instance, has a magical element, a mystery element, emotion-laden subplots, and it has a historical angle.  As I mention in this recent post, when the second Thieftaker book came in a little short, I realized that I had given short shrift to the historical stuff.  So, that is what I enhanced to raise my word count.  I didn’t “pad” the novel.  I didn’t make it wordier or bring in superfluous plot points or scenes.  I figured out what the book lacked and improved it, while simultaneously bringing its length more in line with that of the first book.

Ultimately, we don’t want to make decisions about the content of our novels based solely on word count.  We don’t want to cut for the sake of cutting or add new scenes simply to lengthen the book.  Word count — book length — is just one consideration that needs to be blended with other, more artistically important concerns, like character, narrative, setting, etc.  If your urban fantasy HAS to be 120,000 words long, then so be it.  Just make certain that your plotting is as tight as it can be; that your prose is as lean as possible.  Chances are you’ll find that you can cut more than you think; even a few thousand words can help.  I’ve never written a draft that couldn’t be improved by a few well considered cuts.  And in today’s market, that can make the difference between a rejection and a contract.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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25 comments to Back to Basics, part V: Writing to a Certain Length

  • Great post, David. I agree that while there’s some wiggle room in some categories (esp. for established writers) failing to meet established norms in word count can realy hamstring your chances of a sale. Among other things, editors are wary of working with unflexible authors, and an overlong manuscript can imply a reluctance to trim or cut anything. We’ve all worked wth those writers, the ones who think that everything is crucial and unchangeable. They get tiresome fast. As to the middle grade word count, I think there’s a real range depending on the kind of book and the tone. Mine is very much MG in terms of charater age, but it’s a fairly mature read (they’re pitching it at 9 and up). The contracts for the 2nd and 3rd books say 75-80,000 words, but the first came in at 87,000. I trimmed it in the editing, but also had to put new stuff in, so the length didn’t alter much, and Razorbill were OK with that. The 2nd is about the same (I await edit notes as I write this).

  • Interesting post, David. I never gave this much thought beyond writing chapters that I would be willing to read.

    I’m not sure how, but my heroic fantasy SHADOWSLAYER ended up 105K first draft and 99K after revisions, and my new book SONG OF FURY was a 116K first draft. I think it could use some pruning, but also some filling out. Maybe I can get it down to 110K.

    I wonder how much of this chapter length I picked up from reading books with similar chaptering. Can this be learned without knowing?

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • A. R. Gideon

    Great post David, this will definately help me ediet those chapters that seem a little unwieldy. I was wondering what those bad habits were that you had to break to keep your books shorter.

  • I thought I was the only one who knew about Buffy being the original team up with Frodo. As I understand it, Tolkien realized early on that Buffy would just get tired of Frodo, so she’d simply have Willow magically protect her long enough to swipe the ring and toss it in the lava. Thus, Sam replaced Buffy. I had not heard about the lost Robby-the-Robot section though.

  • A.J., thanks for the comment and for the information about your word counts. Those are higher counts than I would have expected for a middle reader book; more in keeping with what I know about YA word counts, which suggests that there is more fluidity in the guidelines than I indicated in my post. That said, I think that the essential point remains. As you say, editors want to see that authors can trim their own work; they also want to see some evidence of market awareness in aspiring writers. Approaching a publisher with a 200,000 word novel in today’s market will not impress them.

    NGD, it sounds like you’re right where you should be with respect to the length of your books. It also sounds like you are good at self-editing, which is a terrific skill to have. And yeah, like just about anything else, you can learn this by reading and getting a feel for what works, without even knowing that you’re “learning” it.

    A.R., thank you. One of the worst habits I had to overcome was a tendency to let my characters dictate the pacing of my books. I am a big believer in giving my characters room to express themselves and exert influence over the direction of my narrative. I often say that when I write, I don’t make my characters do things, so much as listen to them and allow them to take some control over the narrative. That’s fine as far as it goes, but at some point, I need to take control. For a long time, I didn’t do this, at least not enough. And because I also wasn’t thinking my chapters through carefully enough, I would treat chapters as this journey of discovery. “I know that these two characters are here doing X, and they’ll eventually tell me what the chapter is about.” And yeah, they did. But sometimes it took them a while to do this, and in the meantime the chapters dragged, going on for too long without direction. I do a better job now of making certain each chapter has a point, and that I get to that point quickly, efficiently. I’m also more willing now to cut those sections of a chapter that meander. That way, I can still make writing a chapter an exercise in discovery. I just don’t inflict the process of discovery on my readers.

    Stuart, the Buffy-Frodo nexus was a difficult time for Tolkien, as it forced him to face up to the fact that attractive women didn’t really enjoy sitting around feeding birds and deer and crocheting while the men-folk fought off trolls and orcs and vamps. It was a true blow to his Victorian sensibilities. Women who “kicked butt” were not part of his lexicon. His attempt to add in Robby-the-Robot, was, in fact, a desperate attempt on his part to impose order on a gender-based sensibility that was mired in the past. By embracing (or trying to embrace) technology in this way, he was actually denying his own ambivalence for strong women, or, as he called them “Chicks with Cajones.” Unfortunately, in choosing Robby rather than the Borg, he made a fateful error. Robby’s own gender identity had long been a source of internal turmoil for the robot, and years later, after his “procedure” he appeared on the Jetsons as Rosie, the robot housekeeper, undermining the entire premise of the “Robby” saga.

  • It’s so clear to me now. Actually, not too clear because I’m laughing so hard, I can’t quite read the screen. 😀

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this post. You very clearly outline all the good reasons behind learning a good sense of book length AND give us ways to learn to keep things in line. That being said, as a reader I often find myself frustrated with this current trend of shorter books. I feel like I get the most enjoyment from books that come in around 400-450 pages. I can think of several books I’ve really enjoyed that are 300 pages, but even with those I often wish the story was a little more fleshed out or didn’t charge through the plot quite so relentlessly. As a reader, I do like a little bit of discovery time. This then makes it hard to muster the will to impose a 300 page length constraint on my WIP. I KNOW there are wandery bits that probably really could/should be cut or tightened, but I’ve still got this stupid idea stuck in my head that the stories *I* like are longer…
    Sorry, that’s more of a whine than a comment. What do you think would have been different/better/worse about your early high fantasies if you’d written them with tighter length control?

  • Stuart, Robby/Rosie’s gender confusion might seem funny now, but can you imagine its pain, the trouble it had relating to other sentient techno-forms. I mean sure, today the metrosexuality of Apple products make that kind of ambiguity stylish, but RobSie didn’t have those kinds of positive role models back then. Your insensitivity to its pain is, well, frankly, disappointing.

    Hep, thanks for the comment. I happen to agree with you. I prefer to read books that draw me in and keep me there for a while. To a certain degree, I think that this issue is subgenre related. Epic fantasy does not dominate the market the way it used to. I love epic fantasy, and I wrote nothing but epic for the first twelve years of my career. Today the market is driven more by urban fantasy, and UFs tend to be shorter, more directed — to have fewer POV characters, and, as a result, fewer plot threads. Now as it happens, I also like urban fantasy, and I have been having a blast writing it. So I’m torn. Had I written my LonTobyn books with lower word counts in mind, I probably would have ended up with books of better quality. I still take pride in the LonTobyn books. I think that there’s a lot there to like. But I think that they are loosely written. Some fans like that. But I see it as a flaw. Same with the Forelands books, though less so — they’re tighter. That said, I think that all my earlier work would have suffered if I had been forced to cut them to 120,000 words each. That would have meant severe cuts to all of them. I would have been forced to remove what I feel were essential subplots and details. The result would have been series that weren’t as rich or as entertaining — and I think that’s probably your point. Either that, or the LonTobyn trilogy would have been 5 books long, and the Forelands quintet would have been an octet….

  • I just wanted to second Hepseba’s comment. When what you like to read is longer, more leisurely epic fantasies, the arbitrary limits set by someone in a marketing or accounting department aren’t very attractive (this from a guy with an MBA in Marketing and Strategy, and I could go on about that). Tightening prose isn’t bad, of course, but forcing a square peg into a round hole has a severe potential of losing some of what makes that square peg so beautifully square (i.e. corners).

  • I just finished the beta draft of my current WIP (adult contemporary fantasy), and it came out short, at 62,250 words. It was longer than that at one point, but as I was going through the first (and second and third) set of self-edits, I cut a lot of unnecessary language, and I even wrote-out an unnecessary character. (I’m very happy with the edits, so the cuts were worthwhile.) I’m sending it off to my beta readers, so we’ll see what they say, and I’m sure there will be some areas that I can flesh out some more, but I don’t see it ever reaching 90,000, like I’d originally hoped.

    Is that pretty much the kiss of death? I’m considering marketing it as a novella instead of a novel, depending on the feedback…what are the guidelines for shorter works?

  • Stephen, I agree with you. To the extent that artistic decisions are taken out of the artists hands for business reason, I believe that art suffers. On the other hand, I’ve read a lot of big fantasies, and I’m written a bunch more, and I believe all of them could benefit from editing and tightening. I think there is a happy balance to be found. Cutting for the sake of meeting a market expectation is a bad idea. Writing long because we can, and because the genre expects it, isn’t the best idea either.

    Megan, 62,000 words is short. Getting it to 85,000 or 90,000 would, I think, vastly improve your chances of selling it. Adult contemporary is probably one of those subgenres with an upper limit of 100,000, so a bit longer and you’re in the ballpark.

  • I used to be a pantser, and Chihuahua killer is exactly what we called the rough draft of my first novel, which I finished at a whopping 156,000 words. Take into account that it’s the first book in a trilogy? Blarg. George R. R. Martin I am not. I managed to kick out 20,000 words on the first revision, but at that juncture I was still too immature as a writer to understand what parts of the narrative were and weren’t necessary. I still managed to get a full manuscript request from an agent, but in the end she rejected the story. I was lucky enough to get a hand-written note: “The writing is nice, but the story is too long and slow”.

    I cut the story to 98,000 words, and learned what was no longer relevant to the plot, but the story was an epic fantasy. I had gone too far with the revision, and cut out a lot of what made the story rich and unique. That’s when Raven told me to rewrite it, which I did, clocking in at 125,000. I’m rewriting the beginning again, and hope to achieve a clean 120,000 before sending it off again.

    In contrast, I outlined the most recent story I did using one note card for each scene, and ended up finishing the rough draft at 106,000 words. The story morphed as I wrote it, and serious rewrites are necessary, but I think the overall story benefited from a tighter outline. Also as a contemporary/supernatural fantasy, I was able to use cleaner, more modern language, which cut down on wordiness.

    Still mastering this, though. Short stories kill me–I can’t write them.

  • I’d have to agree, there’s a happy medium between being too wordy because you can and being to word-miserly because an accountant says so. Finding the balance that’s artistically appropriate is something that clearly would take some skill and maturity.

  • I tend to write short. I also write by chapter, with a goal of 2500 words for a chapter. Most of mine ended up a little long, but that was okay, because I didn’t have 40 of ’em. 🙂 I found sometimes that 2500 words was too much, or that it wasn’t enough and what I thought was one chapter was really two, or in one case, I realized that the whole ending couldn’t be one chapter.

    With my co-author we did the notecard thing (which is all her, she loves the notecards) and it worked really well. We knew the story, plotted it out via notecards. Shuffled them into order, and dealt them out to each other. We wrote about 90,000 words in about 14 days, I think. We had a lot of revision, and actually ended up writing it all again, but we’d already talked out most of what was going to happen. I have to say though, we got to places in the writing where characters took off in their own direction, plot problems became apparent, scenes became irrelevant, got moved up, got moved back, etc… so even with a lot of planning, there was a lot that happened in the writing. 🙂

    I prefer adding rather than cutting, and I need to work on that, I think. I mean, I’ve cut a lot (and sometimes it hurts) but if I could pick a way to write, I’d rather write tight prose and have to add, then write prose that needed a good pruning.

  • Good for you for being willing to work it and rework it, Lauren. It sounds as though you’re getting it to a place where you’ll be able to sell it. I’m finding with my latest WIP that the extended outline I’ve come up with is helping me keep the chapters lean and directed — just as you found with your contemporary fantasy. I do have to admit, though, that in outlining I have let out some of the energy that I usually draw upon when writing, and I’m struggling a bit day to day. (I liken a new story idea to a bottle of coke: the more I open it — to talk about it or to outline — the more of the fizz I let out. If I let out too much, the story goes flat and I lose the energy I need to write it.) As with other things there is a balance to be found. I just haven’t located it yet. And I used to feel the same way about short fiction, until I started approaching it not as a shorter version of a book, but rather as something utterly different. As soon as I did that, I started writing some short pieces of which I’m actually quite proud.

  • I wish I had known a bit more about writing to a word count before I started the original draft of my YA WIP. I knew what I wanted to have happen in the book, but I let the main character take over. So the original is 100K, and I felt like I didn’t spend nearly enough time/space describing things or addressing issues.

    So after feedback from my original beta readers, I decided to split it into three. I don’t regret this, but the rewrite has been harder because I had to reframe the story to fit three cohesive arcs, and I have to come up with more material to make it 3 books of 70-80K.

    The good side to this is that I have more time to address the issues from the first book, and right now, hovering near the edge, it looks like it’ll end up being about 70-75K after edits. But I wish I’d known all the same. Thanks for this.

  • One more reason to do a little basic outlining…

    On an unrelated note, I am now desperately hoping you’ll write the full “Adventures of Robby.” Pretty please?

  • Tom G

    This is one of those, “What a coincidence” moments. My last novel, BLACK HEART, was my first UF, and was a 165K first draft. I’ve edited it down to 107K. When I first started writing BH, I didn’t know about the UF genre, and it’s word count restrictions. My new WIP is UF, so this past week as I plot it out/outline, I’ve been doing it with the thought of 40 chapters or 10 pages each, one scene per chapter. Usually my chapters or 20 to 35 pages, with multiple scenes changes, so this will be a challenge for me. I’m doing it in part just for the challenge of restricting myself to 10 page chapters (give or take a page or two). But writing to length has been in the forefront of my thoughts. I appreciate you writing about this subject today.

  • Sorry to have missed so many comments. Storms here have been knocking out our internet service all evening.

    Stephen, thanks for the reply. Finding that balance can be hard. And for the record, no one has ever accused me of being mature….

    Emily, that’s interesting: I much prefer to cut than add. But that’s just me. And 90,000 words in 14 days??!! Wow! That would be impressive if there were six of you, much less just two.

    Laura, I think you’ve probably found a good solution to your issue. Selling three YA books of 70,000 words will be easier than selling one of 120,000. Glad you found the post helpful.

    Edmund, yes — outlining can help with these issues. I’ll think about the Robby thing. Those little notes in the comments were fun to write….

    Tom, glad my timing was good! I used to write long chapters, too, and have moved to shorter ones. I prefer it, actually. I find that a good chapter ending can actually propel a story forward, and so, in my opinion, shorter, tighter chapters give a narrative added momentum.

    More storms moving in. Better post this. Night all.

  • Hi David. I *did* try to get to this before I left for the river this morning. I really did. I think I even felt guilty while I was paddling about not getting to it. In fact, I’m pretty sure of that that.
    LOL

    But you didn’t need a single comment from me, and the post was wonderful. I can offer a reply to this, however, >> if the next book in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock series comes in at 110k, Roc is probably going to be okay with it.>>

    I write *extremly dense prose*. I can squeeze 120,000+ words into the same number of pages used by most writers with books 105,000. I had to fight for it, but I’ve been able to prove this to my editor. We now go for books at a specific mscpt page length rather than a specific word count. Would I suggest this to unpublished writers? No. Battling for word count won me no friends. So why test the relationship? Meet the word count they ask for. Don’t think of it as a request. Think of it as a requirement. It’s just easier that way.

  • Faith, as long as you felt guilty, that’s all that matters (says the Jew…) That’s fascinating that you write to page length instead of word count. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of that. But as you say, that’s not something a new author making a first sale can expect. Still, wow. I want in on a deal like that….

  • David, all I did was (sweetly) ask my first editor at ROC, “Why the word length?” Which I already knew but it was my opening. After the explanation, I siad, “Ooooh! It’s a page length thing! I understand! So, if I keep it under a certain length of pages, I can could (technically) go over a bit?”

    “Ummm. Yes.”

    “Perfect! Would you give me a final number of manuscript pages and I *will not* go over them! And no cheating on margins or font, I promise!”

    And the next day she came back with a number. I work to keep it under that number. But that editor had to go her boss for permission. It won me no brownie points.

  • Just as a follow-on, after reading the exchange between Faith and David, it got me thinking (specifically re: Epic Fantasy, which I realize Faith’s books are Urban Fantasy instead)… I know this seems mostly only to apply to the big names in the industry, but the big names almost always go way over these limits. And that’s including the new big names, such as both Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (Rothfuss’s second book was nearly 400K words, and his first book wasn’t much smaller, I don’t believe, though I can’t find an accurate statement of its length at the moment). For the rest of us, it seems, these rules hold, and flexibility, it seems, comes only grudgingly. But the rules would happily be bent and even broken, under the right conditions.

    I guess most of us don’t have the cachet to warrant the bending or breaking of those rules. But then, once upon a time, neither did Brandon or Patrick. I guess it’s just food-for-thought. It’s never a good idea to base your expectations on the results achieved by an outlier, but the fact that these outliers exist do illustrate that word-count rules are potentially a lot more flexible, under the right circumstances, whatever those circumstances may be.

  • Interesting, Faith. Thanks, and well done!

    Stephen, yes, of course there are exceptions to the rule. This is one of the reasons we like to say that there is no right way to do any of this. You can find examples of people who broke all sorts of rules on the way to success. People who managed to become hugely successful after self-publishing (Christopher Paolini), people who sold huge books despite the lower word counts expected by publishers (Patrick Rothfuss), people who sold their first books on a few chapters and an outline rather than on a complete manuscript (yours truly), people who made their first sale from the slush pile (Faith). But these are individual exceptions to rules that are, in these days of very tight markets, pretty iron clad. We are not saying “DON’T DO THIS!” We are merely saying “Here’s where the market is. This is the path that offers you the greatest chance of success.” Obviously all MW readers are free to do with that information whatever they wish, and that includes ignoring it completely. There is no single right way to do any of this.

  • David: that’s true, I’m just thinking outloud here – in part because, with the changing marketspace, I’m not so sure any rules are all that ironclad anymore. I do think there’s a conservative retraction within big publishing currently, in response to some of these market changes, but the market continues to evolve so fast, many of us (who are not even ready to submit/query yet) will be looking at a very different market in a year, two years, five years or whenever we’re ready to break in, and the rules will most likely have evolved by then as well. That said, of course I put a lot of stock in the experience and advice of those who have gone before. I’m just trying to think around the issue – and again as one of those who likes longer fiction, I’m not convinced this particular rule will remain a closed issue… but it is likely to at least guide my hand to a certain degree as I write.