Thursday, October 8, 2009

The evils of word count

Word of the day: titivate - To make decorative additions to; spruce.

That is not what I thought that word would mean when I opened my email today.

Bangs bothering face, the tribulations of girldom.

Back in my days of publishing, I always understood word count to be about 300 words to a book page. That meant, if we had a manuscript submission of 90,000 words, it equalled 300 pages. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. However, now that I have delved into the dark realms of book blogging, I have found this to be a highly contentious issue.

Take this blog from BookEnds, LLC for instance. The blog itself is actually about why the agent in question (Jessica Faust, if you're interested) rejects certain submissions, but one of her reasons is word count. She goes on to give very general guidelines on word count, definitely nothing specific, and then gives other reasons for why she doesn't request a partial or full manuscript from a query letter. What happens to the comments section? It EXPLODES with heated word count battles (well, actually it explodes with spam comments toward the end, but BEFORE that it explodes with word count battles). There are arguments back and forth, for and against, but the overriding theme was that everyone was way upset about word counts.

Now, maybe I'm just old-fashioned when I worry about things like plot and technical skills, but this doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me. You're given a framework in which to do your writing, every agent across the board acknowledges that they will give you a little leeway both ways, and you're off to the races. Fretting about a few hundred or thousand words here or there just doesn't seem that important. The commenters, especially those who are unpublished (like yours truly), should really only worry about storytelling and craft. Trust me, even Faulkner got edited, which means your first draft and your final draft might be distant cousins, but they won't be twins.

For all of you aspiring writers out there whose word counts are over 100K, let me just say something: WOAH. What the hell, unless it's a fantasy, can you have to say for that long? I can tell you right now, about 90% of you need to get to cutting, because that thing sucks. Don't tell me it's essential to the plot, don't point me to other debut authors whose books were a billion words long, don't sell me on it. I've read enough crappy manuscripts in my time to know that you 90% need to do some serious, hard core editing. And I'm being generous with that figure. If you don't have experience in the industry to know if your books are going to fly at that level, then don't try it. Walk before you hovercraft.

But for the rest of us, in general, the guidelines are just that: guidelines. They're not meant to shackle you down or box you in. Don't panic, don't set your story a hundred different ways with a hundred different fonts and hope you can fool an agent. Most agents are looking for a really good story, not just a mediocre piece that fits within their word count specs. The only time queries get thrown out because of word count is when they are outrageously in one direction or the other (30Kers and 100Kers, I'm looking at you guys). Be happy you have the feedback you do, set your goal posts, and then kick the ball through (I'm using football as an analogy for writing, sports and literature totally go together).

1 comment:

ashbo said...

Other things that are just guidelines: APA Ethics Code as per the class I'm currently taking, the pirate code, according to J Depp et al., puberty (