My college ethics professor gave essay exams. When asked how long she expected our responses to be, she said, “Long enough to answer the question. If that’s one word, great. If it takes three pages, so be it. But if you try to fake knowing the answer by writing a bunch of B.S. I’ll give you a zero.”
I liked her.
Last month Craig Johnson spoke and signed at my local Indie. Mixed in among his usual amusing anecdotes and good ol’ boy humor was the revelation that when Viking signed him they asked him to cut down his first manuscript in the Walt Longmire series. Like, a lot. Enough reduction in word count to make me shudder.
A couple of my friends attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in July. We were in frequent contact as they navigated the choppy waters of agent and editor appointments, not to mention bracing total strangers in elevators, hallways and bars. One has written a contemporary, humorous thriller. The other a historical romantic suspense. They’re both quite good and not in the least overwritten. But, over and over, their story concepts were less important than how long the manuscripts were. Both are over 100,000 words. Not by a lot, but that seems to be the magic number which nixes the possibility of publishing.
On my recent book tour in the Seattle area I spoke with a Sisters in Crime member who has more than one finished manuscript and is looking for an agent. A well-known name was on the verge of signing her, then changed her mind based on the length of my friend’s manuscript – which, again, was right around 100,000 words.
Everyone is cutting back. I get that. Frugality and cost cutting are my middle name. Names. Whatever. And genres do impose certain size expectations. Thrillers and romantic suspense used to be acceptable at 100,000 words, though. So did some mainstream mysteries. But while there are still some epic tomes of Wonder Boys proportions being published, (Neil Stephenson comes immediately to mind) they’re the exception to what appears to be an increasingly rigid rule.
Are publishers cheating readers by insisting on shorter manuscripts? Is it necessary to ensure their survival in this time of change and uncertainty in the industry? Or is short what more readers really want? Have sound bites, ten-second commercials and communicating via text, Twitter and Facebook updates altered our tolerance for stories that take longer to tell – and read?
OR: Is this just a situation where I happen to be hearing this same story over and over, like when you learn a new word and then suddenly you see and hear it everywhere?