Before You Hit Send
(Originally posted on Blogger 7/8/2013)
While I’ve been dwindling with ideas for my Steampunk posts, I thought about a new post series.
I’ve been very busy the last month with the extraordinary opportunity to serve as an Agency Intern for the Corvisiero Literary Agency. Right now this means primarily looking over queries and filing them. But I see so many common mistakes and thought I would share those sorts of things so you guys in the trenches (and trust me as a querying author, I’m right there in the trenches with you) can make your query stand out.
Today’s topic is Word Count.
There are dozens upon hundreds of websites that post appropriate word counts for every genre. I suggest, no I highly recommend, you do this research to find out what is acceptable word count. You’d be surprised how many queries I see where the count is too high or even too low for specific genres.
The reason you should know your targeted word count is because for instance, hypothetically, if you are querying a 150k YA contemporary, well that’s probably too long. This tells the agent, or in my case the Intern, right off the bat that there might be a problem. It could be overwritten pages or unnecessary scenes. It means your MS may have the first draft problem called Walk the Dog, an amateur author syndrome where you have written every action down, getting the character from point A to point B to point C and D. Ultimately it boils down to querying too soon before you’ve revised your manuscript.
It can mean, that while you have lovely descriptive details, you may have two or three sentences describing everything when just two or three words fit better. It means that instead of setting the scene, you’ve spent an entire page or two describing everything in so much detail that it isn’t believable that the character would waste all this valuable time and space on the page to reflect on the description when they should be gearing up for action or reacting to something or someone.
It can also mean that, unfortunately, you may ramble, scenes may drag and the overall pace is slow. The key to remember is that every word, every scene, every chapter must serve a specific plot centric purpose. Most of all, it must hook the reader to keep them turning pages.
On the other hand, I come across queries with too low a word count. A suspense thriller clocking 40,000 words…I’m shaking my head. Low word count indicates to me, Intern, that the story isn’t as developed as it should be. It could mean that maybe it’s all action without those slower scenes of reflection a character will have before diving head first into their next reactive action or goal. It can mean that subplots weren’t introduced or fully intertwined or nicely wrapped up. It can mean that maybe not all the characters, especially the villain, has been fleshed out to the best potential. Or you haven’t given your hero or main character enough room to grow emotionally, because as readers we want to see a character grow through their experiences.
Also find a lot of queries where the word-count is completely omitted. To be honest, nine times out of ten I just think you haven’t done your homework in how to write a good query, but that one percent I think “Are you hiding something? Is your wordcount so ridiculously high or low that you don’t mention it?” If that’s the case see above and start revising before you hit send.
I’m curious to know what you feel is an acceptable word count for a high fantasy manuscript. It would be nice to know if mine fits around that acceptable or expected range.
Well, to answer your questions. First, there are tons of online resources for word counts in each genre. And with that there are always exceptions. Debut authors really have to keep a low word count. So while any book in the Game of Thrones series is well over 100k, George RR Martin was an already established author and screenwriter. He had street cred so to say. For adult fiction, the lengths may be a bit longer and be accepted by agents and publishers. For children’s fiction, the lower the count the better. There’s a two-fold reason. First, every page printed is prime real estate, meaning is costs money and publishers want to be sure their investment will see a good return. Second is the target market – kids – and from personal experience, the longer the book, the more likely a child will balk at reading it. Even in the Harry Potter series, the first books are much shorter than those at the end of the series. But by that point JK Rowling had hooked her readers and they didn’t care so much about the number of pages. They were vested.
To answer your question about prologues. I’m not a fan when I am reading through queries and first pages. The reason is so many times for first time authors the prologue is unnecessary. As for books in print, again George RR Martin was established, his prologue for his fantasy series had to set things that just couldn’t be woven into the story because of the way his series is set up, bouncing between an entire cast of characters. Sometimes, the prologue must establish a series of events in the past that can only be illustrated by showing that scene in the prologue. One of my favorite Regency Romance series had to do that because central to the series was the murder of the parents of the central characters. Each book revolved around a new character and the beginning opened with showing the same evening of the murder from the main character’s perspective as child.
So to be ambiguous, if the prologue is absolutely necessary then have one. If not, cut it.