Tag Archives: query

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.


Query Letters

Query letters are hard!

Sure there’s plenty of sites that give you some advice*, and often agents have blogs where they explain what thye like or don’t in a query letter. Often though these contradict, and what one agent recommends another despises. Sometimes the same agent will advise against something in early posts and change their view over time. Other times there’ll be a query letter that breaks all the ‘rules’ and yet gets the desired attention.

So here’s my (humbly submitted) take on query letters:

They have one purpose – get you to the next step. 

This sounds simple (I hope), but it sometimes gets lost in the minutiae. Query letters are a tool with a purpose. That purpose is to intorduce yourself and your work and get someone interested enough to want to read more. That doesn’t make them simple to produce, but it needs always to be the guiding principle. All the other rules and recommendations support this goal, but they are subservient to it. If you break all the rules and yet someone is interested enough in your letter to want more, then it’s a good letter. If you follow all the rules meticulously and get a dozen rejections before someone wants to see more, it’s still a good letter; it’s served its purpose.

They need to be honest.

I think query letters are a case of don’t try to please everyone. If your query letter does a good job of introducing you and your work then consider it a success. If it gets rejected that doesn’t mean the letter’s not a successful letter. It might mean that the agent or publisher you queried is not a good fit for you, or for your work. There’s nothing to be gained from a query that represents you or your work as any way other than truthfully. If an agent does make a request based on that query they’ll soon find out that your chapters or your manuscript aren’t exactly what they were looking for anyway. That’s another rejection and back to square one. All you’ve gotten is false hope and it’s cost you time when you could have been finding an agent that wants to work with you.

They need to show your talents.

It’s not just about your work; it’s not just about your bio. It’s a combination of both, and it’s also a kind of demonstration piece. Being able to explain your novel succinctly shows you have a plan, and a structure. Being able to attract interest shows that you have the hook, or point-of-difference, that will make your work marketable. Being able to discuss your work as a product shows that you consider yourself a professional. Being able to write an engaging and interesting letter shows that you have the command of the language to write engaging and interesting prose.

I found that breaking the query letter down into these three focus points helped me cut out a lot of unnecessary plot synopsis and really hone in on what was important. I don’t know if it will work yet, but I’m a lot happier with what I have now than what I first sent out.

This is a query letter I had for a while and submitted to a couple of agents. It relates to my novel Exile, and it was not successful. I’ve changed it because it’s not honest. Reading it I get the wrong impression about who is the protagonist of the novel (Duc Abastille isn’t introduced until about a third of the way through the novel).

I was too focussed on exposition of back-story that I barely introduced the characters which my novel is about. I think it’s an engaging query (but I’ll let you judge that), and some of it I’ve retained for the revised queries, but it is not an honest one.

Specific Agent

Specific Agency


As a young man Gerard Abastille was an acclaimed hero of the Battle of Three Fords. His victory brought peace to the warring families of Alterre, and brought him the noble title of Duc… but that was seventy years ago. Now Duc Abastille is old and the peace he won is worn and brittle. When his sons are killed in suspicious circumstances he is left without an heir, and his legacy is threatened. He suspects his old enemy Jarl Blodax, but in the internecine politics of Alterre no one can be fully trusted.

Jacqueline, only daughter of Duc Abastille, has been disowned for her love of the commoner Selwyn. Together in exile, they have raised a family beyond the borders of Alterre, but their past is not so easily left behind. When become victims of a broader conflict their children are thrust unprepared into a brutal world. Rymon must conform to a role demanded of him by his birth, Marianne must find her place in a world that treats her as chattel, and Jolyon must somehow overcome his guilt and perhaps find a way to bring his family back together.

EXILE is a Fantasy with minimal, ambiguous references to magic and non-human races. The morality is gray, and while the setting is epic in scale the plot is focussed on the narratives of Selwyn and Jacqueline’s surviving children, not the fate of the world. It is complete at 241,000 words. 


* Some of the linked sites here are for cover letters, not query letters. Cover letters are usually either for short fictions (and therefore you’re sending the whole story so a synopsis is, in a sense, redundant), or will accompany a synopsis and/or sample chapters. There’s plenty of other sites too. Google ‘how to write a query letter’ and you’ll have more to options than you know what to do with.