Posted by: oneyearbook | June 11, 2009

Short and sweet

Really interesting post over at Editorial Ass, where Moonrat, self-described “recovering editorial assistant,” dispenses advice from the editorial point of view. An author asks her if there is a word cap count on a debut novel – ie, will this author’s manuscript, which comes in at 135,000, be rejected out of hand?

Joyce is dang lucky that this wasn't his debut

Joyce is dang lucky that this wasn't his debut

Yes, Moonrat says, there is a cap, and yes, the author will have trouble with that length. “I would say that the absolute upper limit of OK is 100,000 for a debut novel, but you’ll find some people turned off to it if it’s anything above 80,000,” she says. (The reasoning seems to involve economics, and to thus be more pronounced in today’s economy.) She later goes into more detail, in the comments: “I publish literary novels (among other things). My ‘sweet spot’ seems to be 72,000 words. It happens time and again. I think that’s a good length for a literary novel–or an ‘upscale commercial fiction’ novel, to borrow a turn of phrase.”

But one of the commenters says that he sold his historical novel in January and that it weighed in at 140,000 words , and a commenter named Jeff says, “I know of at least one debut novel (literary fiction) contracted earlier this year for 6 figures that is just over 110,000 words.”

Obviously long debut novels have been published, in the past; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and The Time Traveler’s Wife are perhaps the longest I currently own. I note that both of those have a speculative element, and that genre seems more lenient (not that TTW was ever classified outside the mainstream, but still.) The Gargoyle, which got a whopping advance and was a debut, looks like a long ‘un, judging by the heft of the hardback I’ve seen in stores. Again: speculative element.

But, really, pushing aside questions of genre and the issue of those who’ve broken the rule, I think there is something to be gained from editors requiring some tightness in word length. I saw this a lot in school: a lot of writers do not think of themselves as editors, or of editing as a part of the writing process. That’s something that comes later, that involves someone else. I imagine there are millions of first novel drafts out there that would highly benefit from losing at least 25,000 words. I’ve read more than one long published book and thought, “This would have been improved by further editing.” It’s very rare that I read a shorter book and think, “I wish someone had padded this out a bit.” Sometimes, as someone at Editorial Ass suggested, sometimes in fantasy, when there’s the issue of world-building.

Personally, editing my work has always been my favorite part of the process. That part that they call “killing your babies,” the removal of all the bits you thought were amazing but that don’t actually add to the piece in any way? The ruthlessness of that thrills me. The act of cutting, cutting, cutting, and coming out on the other side with something half the length and twice the emotional power? Dangerously addictive! In school I appreciated a literary non-fiction prof I had who made us work under strict word counts for all our assignments; the first time, when I took a 1200-word autobiographical travel piece to 600 words and found that yes, it actually was better, I was overjoyed. It was like a recipe for improving my work: cut. Cut. Cut more. Arm me with a scalpel and anything could happen.

Attentive readers will have noted that the last time I mentioned a word count I had hit 122,000 words for my rough draft. However, that manuscript’s already been through a rough first edit – the removing of large, extraneous portions – and it’s down to 84,000 words already. So all is well on that front.

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