Books Read in 2011

Tessa's books-read-2011 book montage

Clockwork Angel
The Hunger Games
Catching Fire
Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer

Books Read in 2011 »

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Word Count and Querying

Image borrowed from:
Attempt One:

Before I started on my manuscript, I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to write enough words for a full length novel. I tried writing a novel when I was 15, and it ended up being 3,000 words. I did a little better on a fan fiction that ended up in 74,000 words (16 chapters), which I think is quite amazing. It's packed with adverbs and other no-no's, but it's a good story with a good plot and sub plots. I was 26 at the time. Today I find that the more I write, the longer the word count. It is a challenge for me to keep it low enough, because there's just so much to write about. The first attempt at full manuscript ended in 125,000 words. I queried it as such, and got an auto-rejection. It may have been because of the word count, or because the query letter was horrible, or because the writing was terrible and packed with no-no's. Probably all of the above.

Attempt Two:

At the time, I had no idea there was such a thing as "appropriate word count" for young adult fiction (or any other age group, for that matter), I just thought that more words equaled better writer. I compared my manuscript length with Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, by doing formulaic count of words I was taught while learning to type. I remember the day I learned about appropriate word counts. I sat in the black chair in my office, curtains pulled closed to shield the tiny room from light, desk cluttered with books, print-outs and stationary. The silly little text on my screen said 110,000 max for YA novels. I felt like giving up. How could I possibly cut a single word out of my novel? Every single word was important. But after a lot of research, a reading of a book on how to write, and a second look at the manuscript, I realized that there was quite a bit I could cut out. The revised 125,000 worded manuscript became 111,000 words. Much better, or so I thought.

At WriteOnCon, I discovered that 111,000 is way too much. There was an agent who went over queries live. She began by plucking out all the manuscripts over 90,000 words and tossing them into the bin. She said that the manuscripts with higher word count have to be truly exceptional. She said that 90,000 words +/- 5,000 is max in YA (apparently opinion on this differs, possibly because my novel is Fantasy, which means a little more leeway with some agents). That means I'll have to cut it down to at least 95,000 to avoid such auto-rejections from agents. Before the WriteOnCon, I had submitted queries to a lot of agents. I also received quite a number of rejections. The reason could be because of the word count, or because the revised query letter was terrible, or because the revised writing wasn't quite up to snuff yet. Probably all of the above.

Attempt Three:

I learned from this that you should only query a few agents at a time, because of the learning curve. If I had submitted to all the agents I've now submitted to with my horrible first query - all of them would reject it. If I would submit to all the agents I have yet to query with my terrible second query - all of them would reject it.

In other words, to avoid auto-rejections based on word count, I have to slice my manuscript even further. I'm doing that with the aid of critique partners - something I never had before - something I should have had before. I have also tried to be honest with myself, and cut out pieces that I knew, deep down, were not supposed to be in the story. With the first 6 chapters rewritten/revised, plus a whole chapter later in the manuscript removed, the word count is already down to 104,000 words. After WriteOnCon, I have a formula for a fantastic query, along with amazing critiques from Elana and Casey that I won at the conference, so I'm hoping I'll be able to produce a kick-ass query before I continue my agent querying next year. I also realized, during WriteOnCon, that I have to take a second look at adverbs, and other tics that are frowned upon. The reason I'm not querying until January next year is not only because agents are generally less likely to sign new authors late in the year, but also because I'm taking Creative Writing at university, and I'm learning heaps.

We're reading Sol Stein's Stein on Writing. Chapter two is so inspirational that I had to put down the book and jolt down ideas. He talks about the importance of the first line and first paragraphs in a book. He gives fantastic examples (real examples are so rare in those educational books on how to write!), and I now know that I have to change the beginning of Book of Black. In fact, I've been inspired to change the whole first chapter with a whole new concept to dive the kids into the other world faster. He helped me see how my first chapter is a bit distracting. It's a good chapter, but there's a misleading story that doesn't set the tone for the rest of the book. I see now that this first chapter is material for a different story.

So, with all these new discoveries, and with the aid of the amazing WriteOnCon, that was a revelation to me, I hope that when I start querying again, I won't get auto-rejected because of word count, I will have a catchy query letter, and that I will get a contract because of my new and shiny writing skills.


  1. The small batches of queries are a good idea. I would sometimes even send to a few agents in the middle of my wish list until I knew I had a "working query", meaning one that would get me requests. Then I would send from the top of my wish list down.

    Good Luck!

  2. Isn't it amazing how much we learn as we go on! I've heard that agents don't mind if you re-query with a substantially different manuscript sometime in the future. So you shouldn't be disadvantaged from already having submitted some queries at least, particularly if you wait until January.

    You sound as though you're well on track to getting to your ideal word count. I can't wait to share your revising journey with you on The Voice.

    And as for your query letter, how fantastic was WriteOnCon as a tool for polishing!!! :)

  3. Yep, I keep learning so much that I wonder when I will ever feel I've learned enough to be a publishable author. My word count (though for adult epic fantasy) is at the top end of the range at just over 130,000 words. I only got it down that small because I took out a character that I really wanted to have in the book (and the only character that lets the reader know that there is a sci-fi element!).

  4. Jennifer: That's an advice I read somewhere but chose to ignore *sigh*. I was too eager to get my work out there. I guess that this whole thing has taught me a valuable lesson : Patience!

    Rach: It truly is an amazing learning experience *nods* I also heard that they don't mind if it's been shred up and put back together in a better way. So I'm not freaking out about my past mistake :)

    As for the polishing on WriteOnCon - it was just a life changing experience. No words can express how grateful I am for that conference.

    As for The Voice - only the coolest crit group created ^.^

  5. Ted: I suspect that adult epic fantasy word count is somewhat higher. I hear chick lit requires a low word count, but they don't have to create and explain a whole new world. Besides, when you're in a different world, you just want to curl up in the sofa with a nice thick book and hope you won't have to leave that world - ever. That's my take on epic fantasy books (yes, I've read a few). I'm always sad when fantasy books end (like Harry Potter), because you can't go back unless you re-read the books. I guess that's why fan fics are so popular in fantasy worlds.

  6. Oh yes, it's hard to cut anything from your manuscript. I feel like I'm cutting my arm off. But then, after I do, and the text flows better, I feel better myself!

  7. I know exactly what you mean, Aubrie. The text only gets better and better the more I cut, but it's so hard at first.

  8. I know the feeling all too well. The first draft of my YA fantasy, the one that's currently doing the rounds, came it at around 110,000 words.

    That didn't last long. I love revisions and I had the most tremendous fun deleting roughly 40,000 words.

    I did scribble down some extra words too, but I ended up with a respectable 74,000 words. :)

  9. I feel your wordcount pain. I finally weedled my 110,000 word fantasy down to 97,000 words, which I thought was great, but then I've changed a major plot point and will be adding some new chapters. Even with those that get deleted, I'm sure it'll bloat back up over 105,000. Then back to cutting.

    I have to admit though, I kind of like the cutting. I find it a bit cathartic and when you read through again it feels so much tighter.

  10. It's so neat to see how you work the creative process and the writing process. Everyone is different and with each step we take the more involved and understanding we become of how the publishing world actually works.

    When I said I wanted to be a writer I thought it was as easy as putting pen to paper, now having written two novels and working on my third I realize this is WAY harder than I anticipated, I still need to revise, edit, query, pray for an agent, all of that takes work, and lots and lots of learning the buisness. Thank goodness for an amazing writing community or I'd constantly be lost!!!

    Great meeting you! Found you over at Elana's blog!

  11. Marieke: 40,000 words! Let's see how close I can get to that!

    Amanda: The cutting is great once you finally decide to actually do it - and which parts. I've been waging wars with myself on which parts need to be cut and which are important. Deep down I know (and always knew!) which parts needed to go, but I love what I write, I love my characters and I don't want to cut anything that'll make people love them less. Still, the general result is that the manuscript ends up much better.

    Jen: Welcome and thanks for stopping by :) I'm totally with you on the perception of being a writer before giving it a go. I was going to write my novel and send it. The agents would fight over it, and the publisher would rave about how great it is. Then I would get a bunch of money like Stephenie Meyer. Ah, lovely dreams and delusions.

    The online writing community is fantastic. I don't know how writers did it in the old days before the internet! That's something to admire.

  12. No worries~ Though I've never had a problem with word count, it was everything else. The whole process s about constant growing and evolving. You'll get there! I'm still trying to there...

  13. I guess a writer's road of learning never ends. Writers may be seasoned and have found their own voices, but I'm sure they still need to keep up with the industry.

  14. Offering the agent free chocolate if they ask for a partial couldn't hurt.

    Just joking.

    We writers learn as we go and grow. Keep your query letter lean. Most agents give you ten seconds ( the first paragraph to get their attention.) Your hook must be great to keep them reading. Best of luck with your quest. I'm on it, too. Roland

  15. Thanks Roland,

    I'd probably eat the chocolate myself ^.^

    Writing a query letter has become the bane of a lot of writers's existence, and I'm no exception. I'm hoping that once I've finished the revisions, I'll have a clearer picture of what the main thread is, what my MC's biggest yearning is and how to present it in few words.

  16. Thanks, Tessa, for visiting and following my blog. You asked if I write Westerns from the way I handled the conversation between Will Rogers and Mark Twain.

    Yes. Fantasy Westerns. I have written two fantasies, one historical, the other urban, with the same undead Texas Ranger. No, he's not a vampire. He is beloved of the Angel of Death, and she will not take him, nor let him age past the 50 years he looks.


    Today's post has an actual query that succeeded and an explanation from the agent why. This blog has a series of successful queries posted. Check it out to get ideas how to write your query. Thanks for visiting, Roland

  17. The more we learn the more there is to learn. At least that's how it seems sometimes!

    Good luck with your judicious cutting and with your improvements to your query letter. Sounds like you're heading in the right direction.


  18. Thanks Adina, and yes! The more I learn the more there is to learn.

    I put my WIP aside for a bit to focus on an MG novel. It's amazing how much my writing has improved after everything I've learned. I'm hoping that the more I write, the less I'll have to edit (in the future).