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letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 241
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: women's fiction

Dear Authors:

A note from the trenches....

Despite the fact that some of the basics can feel repetitive to me, I was encouraged last week to occasionally revisit them either for new entrants to the query wars or even as reminders.

So, wordcount....

This year's record submission stands at 475,000 words, which would be 1900 pages at the 250 words/page standard. It was the first volume of a series. I think that might be a wee bit on the long side.... This week's record came in at a mere 215,000 words.

Ideally a person would write the story in however many words it takes to tell the story. But with economic considerations which require the art to fit the business, consider lengths from 80,000-120,000 for single title romance (leaving aside category romance which has very specific wordcounts), women's fiction, thrillers, suspense, non-cosy mystery, some YA (upper ranges, not middle grade), settling towards the 100,000 mark if at all possible. Cosy mysteries tend to be shorter with some even as tight as 60,000 words. There's a little room to maneuver here and certainly in science fiction and fantasy lengths may tend to sometimes run longer, but even there 150,000 seems to be the upper range considered comfortable, with indications that 125,000 is really more reasonable, and 100,000 still more ideal. [Special note: more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules. YMMV to some degree.]

Now, often when this topic is raised, someone brings up exceptions. But, as they say, the exception proves the rule. (Hey, I read Anathem last summer and plan to read The Historian this summer, so I know they're out there.) And this will also be something that is unlikely to apply to certain break-out bestsellers or well-established authors that can afford some wiggle room. Evenso, I had a client this year asked to reduce a novel by a significant amount due to the economic necessities of casting off the book (glossary: "casting off" - when the publisher uses arcane equations to determine how many pages the book will be and what cover price they will need to have). Debut authors may find this an even more substantial issue as they have no trackrecord to use as leverage. Longer and longer manuscripts will continue to raise the physical price of the book until price resistance may be too high to attract a sufficient number of buyers. Therefore, in a very competitive market, this could actually come into play in the determination of buying a book.

The other potential issue in a book of great length is the need to keep the attention of your readers and have them return for the next book and the next and the next... It might be suggested that lengths of this sort could indicate the possibility of a narrative that is too padded with scenes that don't adequately develop the story, or, if that's not the case and the author can't find anywhere to tighten the pace up, perhaps something that needs to be split into multiple volumes. (Though in the case of the 475,000 word opus, which would more comfortably be divided into 4 books, one wonders if the sequel is equally hefty and how many books are planned.) Also, consider whether the story begins at the right time -- so many submissions that come through have a sort of "warming up" section while the story finds its way. While establishing certain plot, character, or setting details may be necessary, keep in mind when to start telling the story.

If your work is exceptional, of course, none of these rules will apply. As for me, I would still read the query and the first five pages before I respond as the brilliant story may still snare me, and revisions may be possible. But it might still prove a challenge to many.... So, just something to keep in mind as you type "The End."