Last week, dear readers, we introduced the painful concept of the editor and the resultant slashing that will more than likely begin forthwith on your beloved manuscript. Granted, all manuscripts benefit from a nice haircut and concentrated grooming, as it is impossible for the writer to catch every mistake. However, “how much is too much?” you might be asking. How long should your manuscript ideally be?
That, darlings, is a rather tricky question. Some of it of course depends on genre, but if we are referring to adult fiction, it is generally believed that the word count should be anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 words to land in the “safe” zone, particularly if you are a debut author. Some genres, such as science fiction, however, are allowed to stretch the upper limits due to the necessary increased word usage needed to world-build.
Sadly, I began my first novel, Love’s Labor Found, without the benefit of any of this apparently common knowledge. I toiled away, typing and typing and typing, until I finished, clocking in at a mere 224,000 words. Having spent most of my life reading Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, and the occasional Catherine Cookson saga, generously mixed up in recent years with the likes of Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell, and Paullina Simons, my effort did not seem gargantuan at all, but rather, somewhat average.
It was only when I began submitting it to agents did the hard, cold truth of the current publishing landscape hit me. Notice I didn’t say contemporary or modern as those adages represent too broad a time period to accommodate the fickle trends that come and go in the time it takes to watch a Vine clip. I was going to say something like . . . in the time it takes for the wind to blow something in, but that actually requires a bit of time for at least a cold front to move in. We’re talking lightning speed here!
Okay, so all joking aside. No one, obviously, was even willing to read my first novel, so into the garbage it went. I started over and created a new novel, one of my sources of pride surrounding it being the fact that it was only 94,000 words! Beat that! I thought smugly. To my horror, however, that is exactly what they publisher/editor combo wanted to do. Beat it by about 10,000 words to make it a slim, trim 84,000 words.
“Buy why?” I almost cried. “Have you even read it?” I asked for what seemed the hundredth time. “All the way through? It’s been on a diet since the moment of its conception. I don’t think there’s any fat to trim!”
“Listen,” was the reply. “Novels are trending down. Even 70,000 isn’t unheard of.”
“70,000? But that’s like a novella. A longish short story, even.”
“It’s not up to us. We’re just trying to follow the market. People’s attention spans just aren’t there. No one wants to read big books anymore.”
“But what about Outlander? That’s pretty big.”
“She’s an established author.”
“So . . . people can control their attention spans for established authors but not unknowns?”
“Look, if the books are long, we have a harder time getting them into bookstores. There’s only so much shelf space. Bookstores can’t devote that much of their limited shelf space to gargantuan novels.”
“Have you been in a bookstore lately? There’s not exactly a whole row of hardcover Pillars of the Earth hogging up a whole shelf. There’s usually one copy of any given book. No matter how popular it is. Maybe they have more in a box in the back. Is that what you mean? There’s not enough storage space in the back? And aren’t most books sold on the internet or on kindle, anyway?”
Irritated sigh. “Look, can we slash your book or not?”
And here, darlings, is your moment of truth. If you are with a hybrid publisher, you are lucky in that you even get to be part of the above discussion. If you are with a traditional publisher, your opinion, as the author, doesn’t count for much. Your baby is whisked away into the operating room, and all you can do is sit in the waiting room, biting your fingernails, and hope for the best. As a self-published author, you are definitely more in the driver’s seat, which is delightfully freeing, but can be dangerous as well, for all the obvious reasons.
You should always, dear readers, submit your work to a quality editor, but to what end? To tighten, cut out the unnecessary, smooth the flow—all of the above, by all means. All manuscripts need to be adequately groomed. But be true to the story, not to the direction the market seems to be, dare I say, blowing? After all, one never knows which way it might go next, though the obvious answer is that the pendulum can only go one other way. It’s a simple back-and-forth mechanism. It’s really more a question of when.
And speaking of going back the other way, yours truly has personally heard the conversations of various baby boomers who deplore the skinniness of the new novels these days, saying that “there’s hardly anything to them, and yet they charge the same price! We want our money’s worth!”
And there’s something to be said about this, darlings. Aren’t they, after all, the ones with all the extra time and expendable income, not to mention the attention spans that were at least capable of winning a World War? If we’re going to cater to anyone, perhaps it should be to them. Something to think about.
*News Flash! I’ve just been informed that since I wrote this a few hours ago, the new and improved target word count for novels is now 70-100,000 words. I stand corrected. Or do I?