Make It Word Count

If you’re an aspiring author like me, eventually two words are going to cross your path if they haven’t already: word count.

If you’re really new to this biz, you may still be telling people about how many pages your book is. And that probably works better for friends and family. But all that agents, editors, and publishers want to hear about is word count.

Why? Because you might be writing in Courier, Times New Roman, Squiggly Wiggly (please don’t), but the one thing that stays uniform across the board is word count. How many words have you crammed into that Word Document that is your novel? But more importantly, how many should you have crammed in there?

As is with a lot of things in the writing world, the answer is it depends. It depends on your genre, your age range, and whether or not you’re JK Rowling or Plain Tryingtagetpublished Jane. But is there any kind of guide for how many words a novel should be?

According to Writer’s Digest, this is a typical guide for novel lengths:

Adult: Commercial & Literary ~80,000-89,000 (for you newbies, if you have it double-spaced with Times New Roman, this will be around 300 pgs, depending on your formatting)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy ~100,000-115,000 although lean toward the short end of that figure

Middle Grade ~20,000-50,000 depending on age range

YA (they say the most flexible of ranges) 55,000 – 69,999 although the trend is getting closer to the top of the 80Ks for the max. Again this depends on genre, story, etc.

Picture Books ~500-600


The thing is you can’t use other authors to argue the length of your book because 99% of the time your arguments are invalid. Especially if the author in questions is 1) super famous, or 2) wrote something a long, long time ago. When you’re a household name, you can write a 160,000 word book because odds are your name is the money-maker the publishing world sees (although for your reader’s sake, please don’t).

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Why Get an Agent? (BKSP notes)

Do we really need to bother with an agent?  I mean, we can upload our manuscripts to Amazon right now and have it on the Kindle almost immediately.  What do we really need agents for?

I suppose that depends on what we want to accomplish with our careers.  If you only want to get your memoirs out to the few members of your family and friends who want it, then you probably don’t need an agent.  But if you want to get your book to the right audience to possibly earn a living off of this hobby and passion, then it’s time to embrace the idea of an agent.

Agents are always thinking of the business side of it.  They know the value of a book and they know how to create value for a book.  They’re well-versed in promotion and have spent years in the publishing industry.  They have contacts and they know which companies are reputable and which are not.  They know how to do international promoting, which for a writer may end up being the work of a bachelor’s degree.  An agent can help you see the strengths and weaknesses of your book.  Here’s the way I see it.  Just because you can use Photoshop doesn’t make you a graphic designer.  Same goes for publishing.

Just your friendly neighborhood agent man.

Also, contracts are always written favoring the one who wrote it.  You can lose a lot of rights to your work if you’re inexperienced with contracts (which is likely most of us).  The agent wants you to get the best deal possible because that gets them the best deal possible.  They want success for you because that means success for them.

Agents were also asked what they thought would be an ideal client.  They said know how to promote yourself and your book.  Network with other bloggers.  The marketing side of it can be a lot more work than the writing side of it.  Know how to use social tools to help better market yourself and your book.  And be professional at all times.  Don’t put info out there that’s detrimental to your publishing.  Publishers Google you too.

Respond well to feedback.  Listen and apply what you’ve learned.  Now does that mean you bow down to everything your agent says?  Not necessarily.  They know something isn’t working and they’ve offered a suggestion on how to change it.  You may not like the suggestion, but that doesn’t mean ignoring it will fix the problem.  Ask questions so you can understand why it was something that didn’t work so you can change or strengthen it in a way you feel good about.  You may come up with a better idea for change than they originally suggested and then you’ll both be happy because the problem is fixed.  And lastly, the ideal client has mutual trust.  They know their craft.  Don’t pester them about how much promotion your book is getting, or comment rudely on another client’s website because they happened to be focused on them for a little while.  I think it still comes down to two words: be professional.

Query Letters & Loglines (BKSP notes)

If you’re serious about getting your book published, then you seriously need to know your material as though you’re the number one fanboy of your book (and shouldn’t you be anyway?).  That means learning to talk cohesively about your book, both in word and print.  Often as writers this is not our strong suit, but the better prepared we are the greater the chance we have of getting our foot in the door.  Knowing how to describe your novel in a succinct way likely means a better query letter and logline.

Loglines are also referred to as the hook.  It’s a little blurb that tells a potential reader or agent what the book is about.  It’s got to have something in it that both catches their attention and drives them to reading your novel.  A logline should only be one or two sentences–basically what you could say on a 30-sec elevator ride.  If you decide to enter your book into a contest, a logline comes in handy.  It’s extremely helpful for conferences, and something good to give your beta readers the overall idea of the story.

For those who don’t know.  Query letters are your cover letter for your book when you’re out seeking an agent for publication.  They are extremely important to get right!

Now, onto the notes:

Write your query letter with a marketing hat.  You’ve got to think, how can I reach my audience best?  And who is my audience in the first place?  Where is this book going to be put on a bookshelf?  Don’t tell the agent the state of the marketplace, they know.  Tell them instead where your book fits in the market.  Using comparatives can be helpful (ex. it’s Lord of the Rings meets Bridget Jones’ Diary).  Although they do caution against using too popular of titles, like Harry Potter meets Twilight.  Agents said the sense they get from that is you aren’t reading other books in your genre.  They want more specific comparatives.

Don’t tell the whole story of your book in the query.  Agents only need a reason to read your stuff from your query.  In fact, avoid doing a plot summary altogether.  Most said to find books similar to yours and read the flaps to see how they do it.  Don’t say you’re the next Faulkner or J.K. Rowling, etc.  They will think you are arrogant and will move onto the next query.  And don’t say it’s never been done before.  There’s nothing new under the sun, and it may show your ignorance in what’s already out there.  Don’t start with a rhetorical question.  Often they’ll answer it and move on.

If you’re sci-fi or fantasy or anything that has lots of made-up words, don’t use too many in the query.  Agents say they get distracted trying to figure out who’s what and where.  Keep it simple in the description.  Personally, I would recommend only using your protag’s name if the other names are too complicated, and maybe the place name, and use plot to describe the rest.

If they require a synopsis, don’t go crazy over it.  Have a succinct 2-3 pages.

In the query make sure you have a set up of your character, a general idea of the world, the conflict, your credentials, and especially the WORD COUNT.  In credentials, don’t go overboard with details about your life.  Don’t tell them about your cats or the trouble you’ve been having with your family lately or where you recently went on vacation (people actually do this…).  Give it to them brief.  If you’ve won awards or been published before, tell them.  If you have no creds–well, you may still have some.  If your story is about a nurse, and you’ve been a nurse for 30 years, put it in.  If you can honestly think of no creds at all, they still want to know a little about you.  (Note, a little).  Tell them aside from writing you karaoke with the best of them, volunteer at the soup kitchen, and spend summers in Alaska (or whatever you do).  But keep it brief.

If you’re writing YA, make sure to have indicators that it’s definitely YA and not middle-grade.  They say often that’s romance and saving the world (YA) vs. friendship and bullies (MG).

From the panel of Janet Reid, the Query Shark:

Effective query letters…

  • give her an idea of who the characters are, what the stakes are
  • present a fresh idea or perspective
  • entice her to read the book
  • use comparatives effectively

She said don’t write in the voice of your character in the query letter.  Leave the character in the book, let her meet you in the query.  Be reachable.  Agents will Google you.  Let me state that again.  Agents WILL Google you.  Put contact info (even if just an email) on your blog.  An agent won’t leave a comment, but if they can contact you in a slightly more private way (like email or a direct msg on Twitter) they will if they like what they’ve seen.  They’re on the internet too.  They may have run across your blog, liked your voice and want to see what your book is about.  Janet says she does it, so be reachable.

Last bits of advice.  Agents said don’t put the word count/category right at the beginning.  Sometimes if your word count is a little high, if they read it first they’ll move on.  But, if you entice them with a good hook and they see the word count, they may think, it is a bit long… but… I really did like the idea, so I’ll take a look anyway.  And lastly, in an e-query, copy in the first ten pages of your manuscript below your query, even if they didn’t ask for it.  (Not an attachment, copied in body).  The majority of the agents say they’ll skim the query, and if there are pages they’ll read until they lose interest.  A strong query is great, but for most of us, our best writing is in our book.  Don’t miss an opportunity to show them the great writing that maybe didn’t make it into the query.

By the way, Janet Reid has a blog called Query Shark where she goes over what works in queries and what doesn’t.  She’s an agent, so she knows what will draw an agent in.  Be sure to check it out, and if you dare, submit your query to possibly have her critique it.  I’ll let you know when I get up the guts.