Word Count Conundrum

I hate those words. Word count.

It’s something I don’t like to think about when writing, yet something we have to think about. when writing our query letters the word count is placed front and center, practically the first thing an agent sees. And that number can make them pass on you without a second look. When I first finished my current manuscript it weighed in at 127k. I think that evened out to about 350 pages.

At that point the manuscript was freshly finished and unedited, so yeah, a lot of that was crap that had to be culled. I started to research ‘appropriate’ word counts. Turns out that (according to some) a YA Epic Fantasy is ideally between 80k -120k, the last really being at the end of the acceptable limit.

Ouch.

I managed to hack it back to 120k and around then I started querying.

Too long, go back and make it shorter.

I finally cut it back  to around 110k but then I took a look at what was left. It seemed that in struggling to follow this rule I had lost my story. The last reply to a query letter I received was personalized, the agent took the time to tell me what she thought. She complemented my work and gave me a few ideas on what it needed, ideas I agreed with, it was great! Except for that one line where she added that she felt that it was really too long for a first novel.

Let me state now, I understand the reticence to take on a long first manuscript from an unpublished writer. They have to pitch this fat sucker to publishers, who don’t want to waste the money on the printing of something so big if it’s not going to sell.

But here is what I really want to talk about.

I like big books. (Come on, I know you sang the rest of that in your head!) As a kid I remember reading the first Harry Potter book in a single day, since then my books have only gotten bigger. If I’m going to spend money on a book, I want something that is going to last me longer than a few hours. A 250-300 page book really doesn’t cut it.

One of the agents I researched had written that she didn’t believe any book (I assume she meant in YA?) should be over 100k. Do you realize how short that is??

I want to write the sort of books I want to read, it goes against my nature to write a short book, so where does that leave me?

Well, after that email from the agent I sat back and took a long look at that book. Sure I could cut it down even more but it would no longer be the story I want to tell.

I threw caution to the wind and began rewriting it with no regard for word count. There was so much that I wanted to expand and add, back stories I wanted to tell, places I wanted to go, but a word count under 120k hardly allowed for any of it. Now, as I rewrite, the word count is creeping up and up. But that’s ok, I’ve never been more confidant in my own writing and in the story I’m telling. I’m going to let it grow as it needs to, to become what I know it can be.

I don’t expect to publish it right now, I don’t have grandiose plans of being the exception to the rule. My plan is to keep working on my second manuscript. This one will easily fall into the correct word count category, plus I feel it will also appeal to the current fancies of readers. (ah, but will the public taste change before I query?) Let’s just be optimistic for a minute and assume that that book catches a publisher. Then, with a book under my belt, I can put forth my epic fantasy. (by the way, am I the only annoyed by that term? The word ‘epic’ is epically overused.)

The word count is currently reaching past 120k once more and it will probably grow some more. I have a feeling it will probably settle back where I started, around 127k-130k. Depending on how high it gets, I may quietly send a few queries out to a few agents who specialize in epic fantasy, just to see how it goes. I’d like to think that if the book is good enough the word count won’t matter but we know that’s just me being wishful!

Agent's face when the see my word count.

Agents’ faces when they see my word count.

In the mean time I should get to work on the shorter book, but it’s currently languishing as I lavish all my attention on it’s bigger sibling. Sigh, I guess we just can’t help having favorites.

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3 thoughts on “Word Count Conundrum

  1. Jessica M says:

    I think you’ve the right attitude. I balk at this <100k word count "rule," as I thoroughly enjoy long novels as well. Continuing a new story and letting the "epic" wait for it's day of glory is the way to go. I look at Sanderson's career — his first novel was still exceptionally long, considering it was his first (Elantris). Unless he had prior smaller publications, such as short stories, before he published Elantris? So sometimes I wonder if this word count "rule" really is a "rule."
    I wish you all the best!

    • dancingseamstress says:

      Exactly! I’ve recently read a whole spate of fantasy novels that were on the heavy side of the word count only to read the back and discover they were first novels. I suppose that gives us all a little hope! Thank you, and you as well! Happy New Year!

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