Monday, August 23, 2010

Size Matters

Cricket McRae

size matters

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?


Anonymous said...

I have an agent who is interested in my WIP. I sent it to her at 106,000 words. She asked me to get it under 100,000, just as you've discussed. I trimmed it by 10%, down to 96,000 words. (Luckily my narrator was a bit pompous.) Now I'm waiting to see if she likes it.

Jess Lourey said...

My agent told me that shorter is better, too, Cricket, but it wasn't because of reader attention span but rather because it's cheaper to print. Less paper, less ink. I'm okay with that. I struggle to get my books to 70,000.

p.s. I'm so happy you blog. I love your voice and the books don't come fast enough.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think when an agent or editor hears 100,000 they immediately think the writer hasn't revised anything and they don't want to wade through it no matter how good it may be to find out.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Jess is right, it mostly has to do with the cost of printing the book. I was told book printing is purchased in blocks of a certain number of pages. Even if the book goes 1-2 pages into another block, the publisher has to pay for that chunk even if they do not use it. Most publishers do not want to see a manuscript over 90,000 words. Then, of course, there are those big ticket authors who can write a 1,000 page book and their publishers don't blink.

I also think Catherine's theory is true, too. Most 100,000+ word manuscripts, especially mystery, simply need better editing.

Beth Groundwater said...

I guess I'm really lucky that my novel manuscripts usually wind up at 75-80,000 words in length. In fact, if I remember right, the length of my first two books varies by less than 5 pages. I usually have about 20 chapters and about 40 scenes. That length just feels right for me, but I know shorter lengths feel right for some authors (like Jess and my friend Mike Befeler) and longer lengths feel right for other authors.

Terri Bischoff said...

Ok, I admit, I cringe when I see manuscripts come in over 100,000. Unless it's a thriller, if I take it to production, they will want me to cut it down. It's all about cost and page breaks. We can do some things with formatting to give us a little more room, but a book over 100,000 just plain costs more.

Next time you are the bookstore, take a look at prices, too. Cozies are usually cheaper and shorter than thrillers. I think we as publishers have to be careful not to outprice our readers.

Darrell James said...

As a reader, if a book is too thin it makes me feel like the author is still a beginner and can't write an entire novel. If it's too big it feels like I'll have to invest too much time in this book (this author). About 85,000-90,000 words is my comfort zone.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I always write long, and have to trim words. Writing for a kids' series with a rigid word limit was great practice.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for the post, Cricket. The question of the write manuscript length drives me crazy. My manuscripts keep getting longer with each draft, while my friends seem to keep cutting with each of theirs.

Carol Grace said...

The shorter the better for sure! With deadlines looming who's got time to write 100,000 words? I started my career writing short stories for women's magazines so everything longer than 20 pages is a stretch for me.

Cricket McRae said...

Good luck, Paul! Hope your potential agent signs you asap!

Jess, I'm with you -- 70K is plenty for me. I wonder if longer manuscripts will become more acceptable as publishers move toward electronic books? Also, thanks for the kind words re: my blog. ; )

Catherine, I'm sure you're right, especially given the number of queries and manuscripts agents and editors receive.

Sue Ann, keeping the page blocks (are they called folios?) to a miminum makes sense for publishers, especially given increasing competition with online books. The recipes in my last two books were cut for just that reason -- preferable to cutting quality of paper or ink in my opinion.

Beth, five pages difference! I guess it simply goes back to how long it takes to tell your story.

Terri, a cozy at 100K would strike me as ridiculous -- and cringeworthy! A thriller, as you mention, is a different matter, though cost cutting seems to have understandably affected all genres. And you make an excellent point about printing costs being passed on to readers.

Darrell, I imagine a lot of readers have that same comfort zone.

Kathleen, trimming words always seems to be an organic part of rewriting for me. So far I haven't had to meet a rigid word limit, though. What discipline you must have!

Keith, are your stories changing, perhaps becoming more complicated so that they require more words to tell? Because if that's the case it speaks to the idea that some very worthy stories cannot be told well with fewer words.

Cricket McRae said...

Lol, Carol! Good point. With authors writing two or three books a year, shorter is better. I've heard rumors that short stories are making a comeback, too. Anyone else have information about that?

N. R. Williams said...

My ms. is almost 130,000 words, I am still trimming. Before you say yikes, it is an epic fantasy, sometimes called high fantasy. This was acceptable a few years ago and isn't acceptable now. I love my world and plan to write several sequels but I also have a series of short stories that I am creating at 20,000 words each.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Lois Winston said...

Coming in late tonight to comment on this. It's all about money. Not only the cost of ink and paper, though. Books are often sold in metal display racks in the big box stores. If a book is too long, only 2 rather than 3 can be displayed, so only 2 will be ordered for each store instead of 3.

The other problem is price point. The longer the book, the more the publisher has to charge for it to cover printing costs. Consumers have shown that they think twice about making purchases over a certain price point, especially in this economy.

G.M. Malliet said...

Maybe e-Books will change this.

Cricket McRae said...

N.R. -- "...acceptable a few years ago and isn't acceptable now." Exactly.

Lois, I didn't think about the displays -- makes a lot of sense. And good point, along with Terri's, about keeping the price point reasonable.

Gin -- I wonder. Then again, reader tolerance for long books might be evaporating, too, and ebooks wouldn't change that. Wait and see, I guess.