Fears, Neuroses and word-count

I am at the point where I am sitting on what I believe to be a pretty good query letter and I really need to send it out. I’ve researched an agent. I’ve made it clear that this query is specific and targeted for a reason – not some generic mail-out. I’m ready to go… and yet I’m not going.

Ultimately the reason for this is a sense of internal neurosis. I’m pitching to an agent at the very highest end of the business, so I’ve basically talked myself into accepting the query will fail. While high expectations often suck because they just set you up for the fall, the converse also sucks, because it’s not even sent yet and I’m already dealing with the symptoms of rejection.

The consequences of this are manifold.

  • I want to go back and re-write the first three chapters of the book. Again. For the un-knowable-illionth time. And I’m not just talking about tweaking the prose. I’m talking full re-tooling rewrite. This serves no purpose but grows from a fear that it’s not good enough.
  • I am obsessing over whether my three page synopsis in double space font would be more acceptable as two pages single-spaced, or maybe I should split the difference and go 1.5 spacing and trim some material to get it to two pages. This from a synopsis that’s already so lean I worry that I haven’t cut through the suet and into flesh.
  •  I fear that the wrong font / type-setting / format will get my query (submission) discarded out of hand as the obvious work of a rank amateur. This fear exists despite my repeated and detailed referencing of the relevant style and submission guidelines.

Mostly though my fear is that all this effort will be for nought because of a single sentence which I cannot change:

“It is complete at 241,000 words”

To put that in perspective the generally accepted length for a novel (particularly from a first-timer) is 80,000 – 100,000.

To put it in a different perspective I’ve cut that down from over 300,000 – so it’s not a case of failing to edit. I cut it by nearly 20% to get to this point. To cut further would require cutting out characters, scenes, perhaps whole narrative arcs. The flow-on editing from which would be enormous.

I’ve borrowed from the hard work of some fellow bloggers to compare my manuscript with some published novels:

By Nicole Humphrey Cook’s count mine would be the second longest of the Harry Potter novels, and longer than any of the Lord of the Rings. In fact it would be more than half the length of the total Lord of the Rings word-count.

At National Novel Writing Month there’s a list that shows my manuscript would outweigh those of Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky, be nearly half of ‘War and Peace’ and about a third of the Bible (Old and New testaments).

So is my manuscript too long? Colleen Lindsay at ‘The Swivet’ says it almost certainly is. She’s a former agent so she should know, and while she deals more predominantly in YA (which I don’t believe is the best target market for my writing) her points are well worth considering.

Have I written a long novel just for its own sake because I am used to seeing big Fantasy novels? I can’t rule that out, but I’d like to think not though: I’d like to think I have written a story and that I have used precisely as many words were required to tell it.

Is it long because I am just not a very good writer, and I need to pare it down to its essentials? Again I would be irresponsible to rule this out, but I have cut it back quite heavily already, and further cuts will change the structure completely. Perhaps this is what needs to happen. Perhaps I’m looking at something I consider beautiful and others are seeing something lumpen and fat? I have given the manuscript out to several readers: Two family members who are readers of the genre, a friend – likewise, a former classmate from my days studying writing at uni. None have come back with feedback that it needs cutting. I’m trying one more reader though. One I know won’t be afraid to be honest and critical, so perhaps that will answer the question for me.

Of course I could be the exception. Lindsay mentions Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ – a debut at 240,000 words – so it does happen. Why could it not happen for me? If the material is good enough, should word-count be an automatic deal-breaker?

Her final advice is to keep it below 120,000, even if that means splitting it in two. This mirrors advice I got from another critical friend as I was work-shopping my query letter. So perhaps the answer is in front of me all this time… find a cliff-hanger somewhere in the middle of the novel and split it in two.

I think though that that decision will wait for another day. In truth what I really need to do is stop worrying, stop playing out every scenario in my head, and start acting. Even getting further publishing credits will help if I’m seen as an established writer rather than an utter debutant.

The query is ready, and waiting… time really that it was sent.

Stay tuned.


One response to “Fears, Neuroses and word-count

  • The revisions « J. Michael Melican

    […] It took me a while to realise I was wrong. Even when people looked a bit sceptically at my ‘finished piece’ and said ‘gee, it’s pretty big’ (keep your mind out of the gutter!) I thought to myself: ‘yes, yes it is. It is a great big fantasy novel that I have written and I’m fine with that.’ (when really I wasn’t) […]

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