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On Word Count and Querying

September 6, 2010

Attempt One:

Before I started on my manuscript, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to write enough words for a full length novel. I tried writing a novel when I was 15, and it ended up being 3,000 words. I did a little better on a fan fiction that ended up in 74,000 words (16 chapters), which I think is quite amazing. It’s packed with adverbs and other no-no’s, but it’s a good story with a good plot and sub plots. I was 26 at the time. Today I find that the more I write, the longer the word count. It is a challenge for me to keep it low enough, because there’s just so much to write about. The first attempt at full manuscript ended in 125,000 words. I queried it as such, and got an auto-rejection. It may have been because of the word count, or because the query letter was horrible, or because the writing was terrible and packed with no-no’s. Probably all of the above.

Attempt Two:

At the time, I had no idea there was such a thing as “appropriate word count” for young adult fiction (or any other age group, for that matter), I just thought that more words equaled better writer. I compared my manuscript length with Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, by doing formulaic count of words I was taught while learning to type. I remember the day I learned about appropriate word counts. I sat in the black chair in my office, curtains pulled closed to shield the tiny room from light, desk cluttered with books, print-outs and stationary. The silly little text on my screen said 110,000 max for YA novels. I felt like giving up. How could I possibly cut a single word out of my novel? Every single word was important. But after a lot of research, a reading of a book on how to write, and a second look at the manuscript, I realized that there was quite a bit I could cut out. The revised 125,000 worded manuscript became 111,000 words. Much better, or so I thought.

At WriteOnCon, I discovered that 111,000 is way too much. There was an agent who went over queries live. She began by plucking out all the manuscripts over 90,000 words and tossing them into the bin. She said that the manuscripts with higher word count have to be truly exceptional. She said that 90,000 words +/- 5,000 is max in YA (apparently opinion on this differs, possibly because my novel is Fantasy, which means a little more leeway with some agents). That means I’ll have to cut it down to at least 95,000 to avoid such auto-rejections from agents. Before the WriteOnCon, I had submitted queries to a lot of agents. I also received quite a number of rejections. The reason could be because of the word count, or because the revised query letter was terrible, or because the revised writing wasn’t quite up to snuff yet. Probably all of the above.

Attempt Three:

I learned from this that you should only query a few agents at a time, because of the learning curve. If I had submitted to all the agents I’ve now submitted to with my horrible first query – all of them would reject it. If I would submit to all the agents I have yet to query with my terrible second query – all of them would reject it.

In other words, to avoid auto-rejections based on word count, I have to slice my manuscript even further. I’m doing that with the aid of critique partners – something I never had before – something I should have had before. I have also tried to be honest with myself, and cut out pieces that I knew, deep down, were not supposed to be in the story. With the first 6 chapters rewritten/revised, plus a whole chapter later in the manuscript removed, the word count is already down to 104,000 words. After WriteOnCon, I have a formula for a fantastic query, along with amazing critiques from Elana and Casey that I won at the conference, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to produce a kick-ass query before I continue my agent querying next year. I also realized, during WriteOnCon, that I have to take a second look at adverbs, and other tics that are frowned upon. The reason I’m not querying until January next year is not only because agents are generally less likely to sign new authors late in the year, but also because I’m taking Creative Writing at university, and I’m learning heaps.

We’re reading Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. Chapter two is so inspirational that I had to put down the book and jolt down ideas. He talks about the importance of the first line and first paragraphs in a book. He gives fantastic examples (real examples are so rare in those educational books on how to write!), and I now know that I have to change the beginning of Book of Black. In fact, I’ve been inspired to change the whole first chapter with a whole new concept to dive the kids into the other world faster. He helped me see how my first chapter is a bit distracting. It’s a good chapter, but there’s a misleading story that doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the book. I see now that this first chapter is material for a different story.

So, with all these new discoveries, and with the aid of the amazing WriteOnCon, that was a revelation to me, I hope that when I start querying again, I won’t get auto-rejected because of word count, I will have a catchy query letter, and that I will get a contract because of my new and shiny writing skills.


From → Finding an Agent

  1. Stein on Writing is a wonderful book! And this is a great post, Tessa, one that is full of writing experience and wisdom and a spirit that will see you through. I have no doubt (none, zip) that you will find the right agent, who will fight the right publisher. You make me glad to be a fellow writer!

    I might have to check out WriteOnCon next year. Everyone is raving about it!

    ~ Lisa

  2. Thanks, Lisa 🙂

    As for WriteOnCon, if you want to read/watch the lectures now, you can go to their page, click “about” and then “schedule”, and there you’ll find all the juicy, eye-opening stuff. I think you can also register in the forums to see/take part in the critiquing. People are still going strong there.

  3. Sounds like a great learning process. I wish you success in future attempts.

  4. Thanks, Cassandra. Likewise 😀

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