feedback on word counts

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Michael Clutton
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feedback on word counts

Post by Michael Clutton » September 13th, 2010, 2:23 pm

Searching these forums for threads related to manuscript word count. If anyone can help, please post links. If not, I'll start one with some specific questions for which I've been trying to get clear answers.

Thanks for the assist!

Margo
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Margo » September 13th, 2010, 3:05 pm

viewtopic.php?f=2&t=2128

This is the most recent thread. There is at least one more that I can recall, probably more.
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cheekychook
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by cheekychook » September 13th, 2010, 3:15 pm

There have been several threads about word count---is there a specific count-related question that you have or are you just looking for general info?
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Michael Clutton » September 13th, 2010, 4:00 pm

I need to know more about the stigma attached to the idea that a manuscript over a certain word count will be "auto rejected" by agents.

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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Margo » September 13th, 2010, 11:30 pm

Michael Clutton wrote:I need to know more about the stigma attached to the idea that a manuscript over a certain word count will be "auto rejected" by agents.
The longer a book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Also, readers expect a certain experience from a certain kind of book (particularly genre books), and the generally accepted word counts are what a typical writer needs in order to provide that experience and give the reader the feeling that they got something worth the price. Also, longer works are frequently just out of control, filled with backstory, meandering narrative, and (especially) description that the reader will often skip (and resent paying for).

A successful author with a proven track record and an established audience can exceed that typical word count. I've seen professional bestselling authors draw serious ire from readers for undershooting word count by a noticable amount. I've also heard people express deep frustration with some pro writers known for a series made of doorstopper books that only advanced the plot by a few days worth of events despite being 700 pages long.

Some agents/editors/publishers won't take that chance with a debut author. Yes, some agents and editors will reject on word count alone, without reading more than the query. Others are willing to give a debut athor some leeway within reason. What is within reason? I've seen rejection letters on ms's that overshot by 15% (a 115,000 word fantasy in that case). Overshooting word count by two or three times is kind of taking the piss the first time out, but I've seen that too.

I discussed this with a couple of editors a few years ago, asking in particular about a couple of their authors who write doorstopper books. Both said that the books didn't really need to be that long and, in fact, would have been better books at 85k words rather than 250k or 300k. They wouldn't tell a bestselling author that, but they'd tell a debut novelist in a heartbeat.

Does that address basically what you were wondering about?
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Michael Clutton » September 14th, 2010, 9:41 am

In a nutshell, that's the blanket explanation I've been seeing in various places around the web. However, it's always been provided by struggling writers and not by the agents themselves. So I wondered how accurate these word count assumptions really are... if they're an industry rule of thumb... or simply an unwritten expectation formulated by rejection statistics.

I am one of those who is about 15% over the bar for my genre and I've been agonizing over what to trim and how much. I've been arguing with myself over the necessity of chopping up my MS or simply waiting for a wise agent to tell me that he/she can sell the book if I take out x, y and z. That argument hinging around, of course, will an agent even bother if I don't do the chopping first?

I've had 50+ people (non agents) read my MS and no one mentioned it being too long or dragging ... in fact, most said they didn't want it to end and asked when I was going to complete the next installment. This really hinders my desire to edit drastically if it's not required. And yes, I know agents don't care how many people like a MS. Opinions are subjective.

However.... determined to meet industry standards and hopefully get noticed by an agent, I begrudgingly sank knee-deep into the downsizing of my MS. *ggrrrrr* And wouldn't you know it? No sooner did I get underway and I got a request for the full MS from a solid, reputable agent. So, now I'm puzzled.

Do I continue the downsizing or wait to hear her opinion. I sent the MS as-is and so far she hasn't mentioned its size. Do I sit and wait anxiously for the hammer to fall? Shall I expect stern instructions on restructuring the MS or simply hope that she finds it sufficiently entertaining and marketable in its present state?

I know I'm suffering a bad case of queryitis and perhaps being a bit too anal for my own good. That's why I wanted to get feedback from others who've encountered this issue. NOT just "this is what most agents expect"... but actual "shut up and wait patiently" advice or ... possibly... "you're in deep dookie, get back to choppin'"

Anyone out there want to actually discuss this issue or share what you've experienced?

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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Down the well » September 14th, 2010, 10:16 am

Michael Clutton wrote:Do I continue the downsizing or wait to hear her opinion.
I say wait until you hear back. I'm sure you mentioned the count in your query, and it didn't affect her decision to ask for a full. If she likes it but thinks it needs to be cut, she'll likely tell you where it feels long.



Also, here's a link to Nathan's blog that might help ease your mind:


http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/02 ... count.html

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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Margo » September 14th, 2010, 10:35 am

I agree with Down the Well. Stop for now and wait to get some agent feedback. If you keep cutting, it may not be the material the agent actually would have recommended you cut (if the agent recommends any cuts at all).
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Margo » September 14th, 2010, 10:46 am

Michael Clutton wrote:In a nutshell, that's the blanket explanation I've been seeing in various places around the web. However, it's always been provided by struggling writers and not by the agents themselves.
Just FYI, if you find yourself in the position of needing to cut in future, the thread I linked here has a link in it to a blog called BookEnds (Nathan also has a link to that blog around here in a sidebar somewhere). That's an agent's blog. She has lots of helpful posts about word counts, querying, her thought process when she rejects, etc.
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Michael Clutton » September 14th, 2010, 10:52 am

Margo and Down the Well.... much appreciated. That's the way I was leaning... and it helps to learn that others agree. Why do myself unnecessary harm, right?

On the other hand, if she returns with "I liked everything about it... but you've got a lot of streamlining to do"... then I won't be surprised.

Yes, Margo... I read some of the other blog info you posted while waiting for replies here and found it quite informative. There seems to be ongoing debates about word counts -- how to calculate them and how much weight they carry in the query process. But, overall, I think I'm getting a clearer understanding on the issue.

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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by cheekychook » September 14th, 2010, 10:53 am

I can't offer a lot of advice, particularly since I haven't read your book, but I can share what limited experience I have, as well as stories I have heard.

I wasn't doing a complete word count on my WIP yet when I finished it---I wrote it in chapters and saved them as separate docs because I was writing the story the way it was coming out and I didn't want to know what the word count was until it was "done". As soon as it was done I edited the whole thing, pasted it all into one document and held my breath while I waited for the tally----it was 135,000. That leads me to believe that before the initial edit it was, at some point, probably over 150k. I don't know for sure, and I don't want to know. I let it sit for a little while, and sent it out to a reader. The reader said she loved it. I asked specifically "is there anything that feels long or were there any scenes you think I should cut?" She told me one scene had read a little long and said "do not cut out anything else." So I tweaked the scene she mentioned and edited the whole thing cover to cover, again, leaving the plot intact. I got it down to 124,000. I had two more readers. Both said "didn't seem long to me---don't cut anything." I went back again, looking for little words here and there to take out---I condensed some conversations, I condensed some description. Cover to cover edit left me with 119,000 words.

My story is commercial fiction that strongly leans toward women's fiction. 120,000, from what I've read, is the upper limit of being considered even remotely acceptable. Considering my starting number I was actually thrilled that I had gotten down to 119----hey, it's below 120, right? At that point I swapped fulls with my critique partner. She suggested removal of some little words, made some suggested dialogue tweaks to shorten conversations without changing what was said, and agreed with all the other readers---don't take out any plot, leave all the scenes intact. Actually, she told me to add one (which I did, and wound up being another 1100 words, so my numbers moved in the wrong direction for a bit).

When I got my manuscript back from my critique partner I went through the whole thing AGAIN. Between her suggestions and my own tweaking (rearranging dialogue tags, removing adverbs, taking out every last "just" or "that" except for the absolutely essential ones) I came in at 112,000. I was thrilled. I really thought that was it---the lowest I could go without losing stuff. Then I decided to start getting my first chapter, first 3 chapters, first 50 pages etc ready to go out in case someone requested them when I started to query....and I realized I could still take out a few tiny things....so I did. And after a whirlwind weekend edit I now have a book that has retained every scene, every plot detail, every conversation.... and it's now 109,000 words.

I'm guessing that may still be too long by some people's standards, but hopefully not so long that it gets tossed out without a second thought. We'll see.

I do know a published writer who had similar number issues (started at around 150, got down below 110 before querying)---she got an agent and the book she is actually publishing is the magical 100k word length now. It's not just a rumor. Yes, there are always going to be exceptions to the number rules, but they're just that, exceptions.

I guess my point is that you have to take the industry standards into account, because they will impact you....but you can probably get a lot closer to them than you think while losing a lot less than you'd expect. I'm still amazed I was able to take my word count down by so much without losing content. I don't tend toward purple prose, I don't use a lot of adjectives or adverbs....but the little words still snuck in....and now they're gone.

I would suggest editing just to see what you can (relatively painlessly) pull out and see what you come down to with those deletions----you may be surprised how low you can go by cutting single words here or there (or everywhere).

Good luck with your decision.
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Margo » September 14th, 2010, 11:13 am

cheekychook wrote:....but you can probably get a lot closer to them than you think while losing a lot less than you'd expect. I'm still amazed I was able to take my word count down by so much without losing content. I don't tend toward purple prose, I don't use a lot of adjectives or adverbs....but the little words still snuck in....and now they're gone.
I really find this to be true. I'm especially mindful of it right now, because I've been doing a lot of editing for people. I'm finding lots of unnecessary phrases, which oddly enough become very noticable the tighter the rest of the writing is. I suggest to people when they get to the "what's left to cut?" phase that they look at their prepositional phrases. If those have not already been addressed, it's not usual for someone to find they can cut two or three phrases per page. So, about ten words per page, 500 pages (for a long ms), and they've cut 5k words right there without losing content and actually tightening up the writing. Most people would be amazed at the difference this can make in how the sentences flow.
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by cheekychook » September 14th, 2010, 11:26 am

Margo wrote:
cheekychook wrote:....but you can probably get a lot closer to them than you think while losing a lot less than you'd expect. I'm still amazed I was able to take my word count down by so much without losing content. I don't tend toward purple prose, I don't use a lot of adjectives or adverbs....but the little words still snuck in....and now they're gone.
I really find this to be true. I'm especially mindful of it right now, because I've been doing a lot of editing for people. I'm finding lots of unnecessary phrases, which oddly enough become very noticable the tighter the rest of the writing is. I suggest to people when they get to the "what's left to cut?" phase that they look at their prepositional phrases. If those have not already been addressed, it's not usual for someone to find they can cut two or three phrases per page. So, about ten words per page, 500 pages (for a long ms), and they've cut 5k words right there without losing content and actually tightening up the writing. Most people would be amazed at the difference this can make in how the sentences flow.
Prepositional phrases, yes---a fabulous way to lose words---and they do, they just sneak in and you don't miss them when they're gone.
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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Quill » September 14th, 2010, 5:09 pm

Wow, cheekychook, that is an amazing story, and thanks for sharing.

I remember a blog of Nathan's from this year (I believe), something to the effect that most manuscripts above 120k words don't need to be above 120k words. The sense of it I got was that story didn't often warrant more than that many words, meaning the prose could stand to get sleeker.

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Re: feedback on word counts

Post by Jaime » September 15th, 2010, 11:11 am

Michael, congrats on the request for a full!

I'm finding myself in exactly the same situation (except for the full request!). Although I'm very proud of myself for cutting my MS down from 175K to 111K, I'm still worried it's too long and will be overlooked at the query stage despite fellow writers being happy with my query, and my betas waiting on my sequel! I never thought I'd be able to cut as much as I have. I've done a lot of rewrites, and the problem I face now is that I'm happy with all of it except the second chapter, which is what the agent will see if they request a partial. In all honesty, though, I don't think I'd be questioning my second chapter if 111K was a perfectly acceptable word count for a debut.

Long story short (ha!), I would wait to see what this agent says. I would love to be in your position right now! She may have the answers to all of your questions! Good luck :D

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