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Monday
May172010

How Short is Too Short?

Question of the day: I'm an unpublished novelist finishing up my first book. I'm thrilled to say that after all these years, revisions, and the incorporation of feedback from several people who read my first book, I'm happy with the results. But, there might be one problem: the length. As I compiled agent information to start querying, I came across a blog entry from an agent who said that women's fiction should be between 80k-100k words. My book is 70k. My question is: how strict are agents and publishers regarding book lengths? If they fall in love with a book, will they care that it's 10k fewer words? Should I go back and revisit my book to see where I can add stuff or should I start querying? I'm concerned that I might be padding it and not adding useful scenes and/or dialogue. Help! What do you think?

This is a very good question, especially given the fact that just a few weeks ago, I was saying that bigger isn't always better and advising people to use a very firm hand with their editing. That said, I do think there are certain constraints that people have an expectation of, and you need to be within the ball park of those constraints when submitting. Yours is tricky: you're not so off the mark that it's glaring, but at the same time, it's a shorter book but might eke by. I don't know. I definitely DON'T think you should bloat your manuscript, but I might advise you to really take a look at it and be 100% sure that you have added in as much conflict as possible. Is there some angle that you're missing with your character, one place where her life can fall apart in one more way? If so, thread that plot throughout the book, and I think you'd be set. When I write a manuscript, I have a very clear idea of where I am in my word count so I can set different story arcs in motion accordingly. This was something I had to learn as I went, but, for example, I start the final act around 65k. By thinking of your book in parts and with word count as your target for the onset of these parts, you can come close to that 80-100k cushion more easily. 

Again, I think your instinct not to write just for the sake of writing is the right one, but I also think that these parameters are in place for a reason: 70k, for example, is a thin book, and publishers may not want to bid (and publish) on a small book when, if you're looking for hardcover (again, for example), they'd be hard-pressed to ask people to pay $24 for 220 pages. Or maybe you do query it, and if an agent loves it enough, he or she will help you bulk it up. If you really don't want to add to it and fear you're doing it more harm than good by doing so, then don't. Stick with your gut. But I also wouldn't mention word count in your query letter. You don't need to, and it might get more doors closed without the first page being read.

I'm torn on this and would love to hear from others. What say you? Bulk it up or leave it be?

Tuesday
Jan262010

Can You See My Spilled Guts?

Question of the day: I know you really struggled with the writing process for much of your third book, then the last 20K words flew out of you. Looking back, do you see any difference in the quality of writing between the hard-fought and the easy pages? I think a lot of us think we need to be inspired to write, and to have it flow cleanly, so I'd be curious to see if you noticed a difference. 

This is an excellent question, and I'm not sure if I can answer it, but I'll give it a try. It was actually probably more like the last 30k words of my manuscript that I just banged out over two or three weeks or so. It was like I was possessed. One of the downsides, I've realized, of writing without any plan or outline in mind, is that when you're writing a particularly tricky manuscript - The One That I Want is almost a thriller in which all the pieces come together in the end - it's REALLY beneficial to your writing (and your mental health), to KNOW the end before you get there. Er, which I didn't. What I mean by that is that, in retrospect, I think I struggled so much on the first half of the book because I was throwing puzzle pieces in the manuscript but didn't know where or how they fit together. And just like an actual puzzle, once you see the general framework, filling in the rest is a lot easier.

So, to that end, do I see a difference in the writing? Hmmm, no, I don't think the writing is any different on the pages I shed blood for and on the pages that felt effortless. At least not in the final product - in the initial drafts, yes: because that last chunk was easier, the writing read, well, easier - it flowed better because I knew what the hell I was doing, so naturally, that led to more confident writing. But that's why I had as many drafts as necessary to get the first two-thirds right. My first draft might have been miserable, but hopefully, my sixth one was not...and if I did my job well, readers will be none the wiser that first draft sucked. :)

That said, I'll be very curious to hear what readers have to say. That's the interesting part of what happens in this process: it's very difficult - as you know - to be objective about your own work...sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Who knows if I'm being too hard on myself (probably) or if readers will indeed sense the difference between those initial chapters and the last? I'd like to think that a decent writer can mask his or her own struggle because that's sort of part of our job, no? I mean, I can share this publicly because you guys are writers and we commiserate together, but 99% of my readers won't know that this book was hard for me to write, and I'm interested to hear their take. Maybe some will indeed sense that struggle, but again, I hope - for my sake AND theirs - that with the rounds of edits I poured into it, that the finished product speaks for itself. God knows, and I think a lot of writers feel this way, that if anyone read my early drafts, I'd be forced to resign my professional author badge on the spot!

I'm also interested in hear your experience too: readers - have you ever struggled with sections of your book or entire books? If so, could anyone tell the difference? I'm truly intrigued by this question.