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Kill Your Babies

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I sat down at the computer to write a blog post when I started thinking… Gosh, it’s really weird how I’m writing this blog post on March 8th, but it won’t be posted until March 14th, because I’m loading my blog up ahead of my trip to Paaaaaaaaaaaaaris! Wow. I can’t believe I go to France tomorrow. An eleven-hour direct flight from San Francisco. I’m going to go stircrazy on that plane, and then I’ll have to navigate the Métro. Can’t complain, though! It’s Paris, after all. Hmm. I wonder if my readers know that I’m writing from the past. What will it be like on March 14th? That day, I’ll be in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy wine country. Mmm…wine country…

A noise from the hall sneaked into my thoughts, pulling me out of my reverie about pinot noir. “That’s right!” I muttered to myself. “I’m supposed to be writing a blog post!”

***

It’s difficult to describe disconnecting a character from his thoughts. This action is usually laden with cliché after cliché after cliché. Voices sneaking into thought. Dialogue snapping a character out of their thinking. Noises startling. Talk of reveries (as you can see above). Fog and/or haze lifting. Being lost in thought. And on and on.

I’m sick of all of them, basically. I would recommend that you avoid this altogether. If a noise is going to come from the hall mid-thought, describe it, then jump back into narrative. If dialogue intrudes, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring. Just like you should eliminate the frame, you don’t need to tell us that thoughts have been interrupted. Give us the thoughts. Give us the interruption. Then give us the results. It’s that simple. The narrative of the thought actually stopping is fluff that should be easy to trim.

An example:

Blah blah blah. Wine country. France. Thinking thinking thinking.

“Mary, write your blog post already!” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Mary wondered how long she’d been spacing. “Duh. Thanks, Mary!”

There’s that one descriptive phrase in there, to get the reader back into the action, but you could even do without it because the “Oh!” conveys surprise or a startled feeling. This issue is a very small nitpick, but, as I said, every word and every phrase counts in your writing.

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Big Revision

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page.

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective.

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards.

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

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by Tim Martin, current VCFA MFA student

(boundaries): noun. the boundaries of acceptable behavior: limits, parameters, bounds, confines.

These are exactly the words that steered me to the big Victorian Orphanage on the Hill in Montpelier: Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was time for me to find a place and a community to break free of personal writing patterns and see how many personal “limits” could be crossed, how many boundaries could be pushed.

I came to the right place.

VCFA’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a program that allows experimentation – of themes, issues, styles and platforms. I initially enrolled with a set of objectives (finish novels, explore previous ideas) but with the influence of experienced tutors, specialist workshops, and an environment of innovation, I realized I may be limiting myself. Now’s the time for creative amplification!

So how, in my first semesters, am I pushing those personal boundaries?

Firstly, I’m setting aside my comfortable stock line of “I do fantasy, Middle Grade”, and launching into YA realism, digital picture books, and a quirky chapter book series. New work, new frontiers. One project, possibly to be tackled this coming semester, will feature the fictional journals penned by the son of a convicted criminal. As protagonists go I don’t know anyone like that, so my boundaries are already smashed. Research will be needed – perhaps within prisons, perhaps with inmates, or their families. Demographics, culture, even time and place will all be foreign to me. Yet it’s clear I will be extending myself as a writer, by crossing into new genres and exploring new territory.What better way to throw myself from comfort zone to deep end?

Secondly, I’m looking into how content can jump from platform to platform: how a story can be shaped in different ways on-line, in apps, media and a variety of book styles. How does the quality of this content hold up? Is it relevant? Does it expand storytelling creatively and intellectually?

Finally, I’m excited by a specialized workshop I’m attending at this summer’s residency at VCFA, orchestrated by Louise Hawes and promising to leave me with “insights into the limits of language, the music of words, and the profound nature of non-verbal communication”As an appetizer, Louise has tempted her six students with boundary-busting appeal: “Thanks for being brave, curious, and crazy enough to tackle this adventure with me.”

Experimentation can feel exhilarating. It can also seem daunting if you’re used to a particular genre or you’ve previously carved out a personal writing path. For me, it feels right. And it feels like those confining shackles are already being wonderfully dismantled.

Tim Martin is about to start his second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. You can read more about Tim and his work at www.timothyjohnmartin.com. If you have any questions about his post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact him directly at tim [at] timmartindesign [dot] com.

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There are two main description issues that I’ve been seeing in manuscripts. As I said in my post on Mimetic Writing, the writer uses description to curate the story and direct the reader’s attention. Description is a tricky thing to pull off in writing, and it’s also a very subtle thing.

Done wrong, it either draws not enough attention or too much. Done right, it becomes a critical part of the prose. While description is rarely the star, it does make up the stage upon which the action plays out. Here are the three things that usually go wrong:

Underdescription

A lack of description is a small but potentially fatal flaw. The reader may not notice a lack of description — it’s usually difficult to acutely notice something that isn’t there — but their experience of your story will not be the same.

When I read things that have little description, I get this fuzzy feeling while reading. That’s instead of the mental clarity I expect when reading something that really gives me something concrete to imagine. Things without description are hazy. Things with enough description really make the writer’s words gel in my head. Without description, the reader tends to skim through your prose, unanchored. Readers go too fast and don’t really revel in the details of your writing.

My rule of thumb is that we need a description of every character that will help us see them (and also provide characterizing detail, like that they only paint the nails on their left hand…which tells me they’re a bit offbeat, or whatever), and we need some carefully chosen descriptions of each setting. (There’s a big catch to both of these, see below.)

Overdescription

Where prose without description tends to go too fast, prose with too much description tends to go slowly. Gone are the days when lavish pages of description can keep a reader’s attention. The important thing to remember about excess description is that it will slow down your pacing, so you need to choose when to include description carefully.

Know that when you stop to describe something in detail, you are giving your readers a great mental picture, but action usually stops. And realize that you don’t need to describe every single thing about a scene, or every action taken in that scene, or everything about a character (if you describe character traits, you’ll usually fall into the trap of telling, so do physical descriptions of characters and then let their characteristics come across via showing, in scene).

Misdirection

In real life, “misdirection” refers to knowingly diverting someone’s attention in order to sneak something by them, usually a magic trick or your hand into their pocket to steal their wallet. In writing life, I’m going to revamp the term a little bit. When I say “misdirection,” I mean that the writer is unknowingly shifting the reader’s attention to the wrong thing in a scene. How do you do this unwanted thing? It’s usually a description problem.

Imagine a dinner scene. There’s a lovely turkey on the table. The family gathers around to smell its velvety aroma, rich with thyme and rosemary. The butter under the skin has put a crackly golden glaze on the breast. The knife slices right through the tender meat. There are large chunks of fleur de sel sprinkled on top. The parents are talking, meanwhile. You take your first bite and the savory juices, the crunchy skin, the tang of the salt almost overwhelm your taste buds! Oh yeah, the parents just said they’re getting divorced.

Say what?

In this paragraph, the writer (me) got obsessed with describing the turkey on the table (probably because I haven’t had breakfast yet) and totally skipped over the real point of the scene: the parents have gotten the family together to make a huge announcement. Whenever I read a scene the spends way too much time describing an insignificant detail when something else much more important is going on, I usually think, “You’re talking about that right now?”

Like, you just heard that the ogres are storming the castle and you have time to detail the inlaid crystal on the hilt of your sword for us? Really? Ya think you might want to either shorten that description or put it elsewhere, a time when there aren’t bloodthirsty monsters on your tail?

Lavish description at an inappropriate time is probably a signal that you need to kill some babies. (Translation: cut some of your favorite passages, not actually go down to the nursery and go on a spree.)

Therefore…

Your goal when describing either scenes, actions, or characters is balance. Plus you need to figure out when to describe. Just because you need to describe each character and scene doesn’t mean you have to describe it in detail the first time we encounter it.

This is one of the biggest problems I see in novel openings because, well, everything we encounter in a book’s first 10 pages is new to the reader…every place and character needs describing. But if we did describe everything in detail in the first 10 pages, there’d be no room for plot or scenework right at the beginning of your novel, where it matters the most to hook your reader (or an agent).

You don’t have to do all of your descriptions at once. Just like you layer in the plot, you should layer in descriptions to keep adding to our understanding of a character and their scenery. Give us a physical trait in one scene, a new element of the environment in another scene, etc. Resist the urge to infodump with your descriptions, and really pick the right time and place. And watch out for ogres…it is Monday, after all.

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The reader who asked about chapter breaks a few days ago, Dana, just sent me a follow-up email, in which she says:

Many thanks Mary! I have been taking more notice of the pacing lately, both in my own writing and in what I read, and I think scenes and chapter breaks do weigh in. What I am realizing is that, if done correctly, few readers really notice the shift in scenes or the chapter breaks. It is just when they’re awkward that they require attention.

This emphasizes one of the biggest point I can make about writing in general. You know you’ve attained successful writing when, ironically, nobody notices. That’s when I know I’m in the hands of a master, at least.

When I’m caught up in your voice sounding inauthentic, or slow pacing, or awkward dialogue tags, or in grown-up language or phrases that sound like they’re better off in a business memo, or a character acting, well, out of character, or slang that doesn’t need to be there, or clunky sentences, or too-long chapters, or one-dimensional scenes…I know that the writer is still working on their process.

And that’s okay. We’re all always working on our process. But there’s a difference between an obvious work-in-progress and writing that has a publishable quality to it. In my line of work, I’m always seeking the latter.

How can I tell? Well, I can’t exactly tell you when and why something works, without question. But I can definitely tell when something doesn’t work, and that’s, as described above, when I start to notice the writing.

I often use this analogy when I speak at conferences. Great writing is like my shiny little iPad…it’s a well-oiled, good looking, smoothly functioning machine. The aim of good writing is to be unobtrusive, to be especially perfect in moments that catch my attention, but never to catch my attention in a negative way. My iPad works perfectly, and is always impressive and dependable. The only time I will ever be upset with it or disappointed is when one of the little magical gears or cogs or motherboards inside it stops working. Then, the chip or cable or circuit will catch my attention.

So it is with writing. If it’s working, it’s fantastic, it’s easier than it looks (come on, how many of us have read Meg Cabot, for example, or another compulsively readable author, and thought, “I could totally do that and still have time for breakfast”?), and it doesn’t call attention to itself.

It’s when I notice the writing, usually, that there’s something wrong with it.

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Something an agent (Scott Tremeil) said at the NJ SCBWI agent panel really put a point on something I’d been thinking for a long time and hadn’t quite gotten around to articulating. We were asked to give listeners one parting piece of advice. Mine, perhaps selfishly, was about the wonderful benefits of revision and getting a good critique group (since I want to see very, very polished manuscripts, of course).

Scott said that, sometimes, if he hears that a writer has been working on a manuscript for 10 years or so, that’s a red flag for him. I have to completely agree. Writers who are emotionally tied up in their story to an extreme degree are also a red flag. These issues make me worry: Is the writer too close to the manuscript to be able to see it objectively and revise it accordingly? Is it too precious for them? Are they so emotionally involved with the piece that getting it rejected by a publisher will be damaging? Are they so invested in a particular story or can they  move on from it to write something else? Will it also take them 10 years to craft the next book?

Writers who belabor something for years are problematic. I know some mad geniuses like Harper Lee only have one great book in them. In today’s market, though, the ideal writer (to an agent or publisher, that is) can turn out consistent, quality manuscripts about once a year. This way you can always have a next book coming out and you can start building your readership. You’ll have a brand and, twice a year, readers can look for you on shelves — once in hardcover for this year’s book, once in paperback for last year’s.

Writers who are writing about a personal subject that is very close to their hearts make me anxious, too. If you are writing a story, for example, about the death of a character’s sister to, Heaven forbid, work through that tragedy happening in your own life, how will you deal with an editor rejecting that story? Or with an editor coming in and wanting you to make changes? Is your subject matter too close to home? Is an experience in the novel too precious and too reflective of your own life?

In no way am I saying “Don’t write about something painful or personal.” Do. That way, your story will have great emotional resonance. And it will be cathartic for you. But do realize which part of that story is yours and which part of that story is fiction. Which part belongs to you, privately, and which part belongs to readers, publicly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is extremely personal, but publishing is a business. If you don’t think you can walk this fine line with a manuscript that’s on your plate — whether it’s because you’ve been working on the manuscript for so long or because you’re dealing with deeply personal subject matter — it may be better not to pursue publication with it.

The point I wish I’d made, after hearing Scott’s advice, is this: there are many times in a writer’s journey where a manuscript is just a manuscript. Every single thing you write is a learning experience…but, sometimes, that’s all it is. Glean what you can from a manuscript or an essay or a paragraph, and move on. Start something new. You’ll be better and stronger and wiser for it. I like hearing that a writer has a lot of drawer novels, actually, because it tells me one very important thing: they know how to learn from an experience and move on.

This advice obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people love mining their emotional past an others take longer to write a manuscript. But if these things are starting to feel like obstacles to you, the best solution may be putting that particular manuscript aside and starting something else.

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Well, we’re finally here: December Revision-o-Rama! I can already hear the shouts of joy (or are they groans of agony?). I know a lot of you reading think that revision sucks. Writing out the first draft, while time-consuming and frustrating at times, is also freeing. You’re spilling words on the page. You’re creating. You’re letting your imagination roam. Basically, you’ve got your “first draft goggles” on and everything is great.

Then you’re faced with looking at your manuscript in the cold, sobering light of morning for the first time. There are typos. The dialogue is flat. Characters make the same gestures over and over. We don’t know what the protagonist looks like but we’ve spent 5 pages on the love interest’s glittering blue eyes. You forgot to describe anything or you described everything way too much. And how did it escape your notice that absolutely nothing happens for five straight chapters in the middle other than a lot of driving around and witty banter? Plus, it needs an ending. It has either dropped off so quietly that you’re completely unresolved or it went out with such a bang that you’re sure you forgot to print the last 20 or 30 pages.

You hit the liquor cabinet. If there is a mild-tempered cat or squeezable puppy nearby, they know to scamper out of your path and hide under the nearest couch. You crawl into bed. Things look a lot worse than they did before.

Well, guess what. Writing and plotting and tension and dialogue and description and characterizations are all elements of craft. It might’ve been fun to get all of your ideas in one place and in a semi-coherent order, but now they actually have to make sense. Now comes the hard (and rewarding!) work of actually teasing a publishable book out of that novel-length wordcount.

This is actually the most wonderful part of writing, and the people who have revised enough manuscripts figure out soon enough that they actually love revision. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. Characters need motivation, logic and consequences for what they say and do. Every scene needs to teach us something new about a character or plot element. Every chapter needs to further the plot along. Each sentence needs to earn its keep in your writing and justify staying in the draft. Each plot and subplot needs to have an arc and resolve itself by the end. Characters, no matter how big or small, need to make some kind of change or progress. Emotions have to rise and fall like waves throughout.

If I can’t make you love revision like I do (usually ‘cuz I’m not the one doing it, LOL), at least I can help you respect it this month. Because if you don’t respect or recognize the importance of revision, you’ll have a very tough road ahead of you in professional writing. Most writers tell me that they spend between three and five times as long revising as they did writing their first draft. This is completely normal. In fact, most people spend all that time revising just so they can give their manuscript to their critique groups or beta readers… and revise some more! (Check out an old post of mine: How much revision is normal?)

So consider this your pep talk. On Friday, I am going to start talking about, I think, one of the most important elements of a book: character. Then I will go down the line to plot. After that, I’ll tackle dialogue. Then description. Then… dun dun dun… voice. After that, I’ll finish out the month talking about tweaks, tricks and smaller things that you can look for in revision. Sound good? Good. Wake up and smell the red ink, writers! We’ve got some literary babies to sacrifice!

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Impatience is a writer’s worst enemy. To all those who are rushing rushing rushing to get your manuscript out the gate and into my hot little hands, think of it this way real quick: you’ve spent… what? A year of your life on this manuscript? Why not give it the best chance possible and spend as much hard work revising as it — honestly — needs?

There is a finite number of agents and editors. Once you query your project around to every agent who represents your genre or age group (or every smaller publisher that still accepts unsolicited submissions) and once they reject you, you can’t do anything else with that project other than a) self-publish it (a whole other bucket of fish, to be discussed later) or b) revise the hell out of it and submit again to people who might be open to seeing a drastically different version (your pool this time around will be much smaller). So… just take the time, revise the hell out of it from the get-go, and skip that whole nasty getting-rejected-first bit! In other words: be patient.

Sad truth alert! Not every manuscript you write will go somewhere, publication-wise. Far from it. Every manuscript you write is supremely useful, though. I think every time you sit down at the keys, you should be striving to improve. Everything you write this week should be better and more exciting to you than what you wrote last week. You hear people talking about starter cars and houses, maybe even starter spouses. Well, I think that almost every currently published writer has written at least one starter (or drawer) novel. MG and YA superstar Lauren Myracle wrote something like five books, she said once, before getting her first published. Some have many more than that. So will all the novels you write be published? Even eventually? Probably not. In fact, I think it should be a good and healthy thing to look at some of your starter novels and be horrified by the quality of the writing. That means you’ve come a long way since.

Everyone knows the story of the person who never once sat down at a computer before, wrote a first draft manuscript inspired by a dream they had, sold it for a million dollars and got six thousand movies made of their story, etc. etc. etc. You know why everyone knows the story of “the exception to the rule”? Because it’s news. It’s so rare that everyone talks about it and raises it to mythical status. The other 99.999999% of us mere mortals have to write plenty of dreary starter novels (and don’t forget about the Million Bad Words) before we can figure out how to draft a living character, create a compelling plot, achieve tension and humor and literary magic. That sort of stuff takes practice. And practice takes… patience.

For a lot of writers, or anyone working in the creative arts, our ego often compels us to think we’re “special.” What teen girl hasn’t heard stories of some chick at the mall getting discovered by a modeling scout and then immediately dressed up really cute and gone to the mall in hopes of scoring her one-in-a-million chance at stardom? It’s worse for writers, because they don’t actually have to get dressed and leave the house to indulge in such fantasies. Who among you hasn’t started in on a hot idea and thought, “This is a brilliant, undiscovered masterpiece that everyone will love the second they read it”? Who hasn’t let themselves boast, “Let all the other writers slog around in the trenches because I’m special“?

Well, talent is a huge piece of the puzzle, naturally. But hard work, I’ll argue, is a bigger piece. Because naturally talented people — especially the people who know they’re naturally talented — often get an entitled attitude and wait for the success to come to them. It’s the people who think “I might not be special enough yet but, damn it, I will be successful” who usually end up towering over their smug counterparts. Because the ordinary writers have to work for it and they know it. They have to put in the hours to see improvement, to witness the talent start to shine. They learn to work hard and never give up. And those are the people who make it, while some of the naturally talented people sit around on their couches, waiting for that model scout to come knocking.

In the writing game — and I’ll say it is one, on many levels — the qualities of patience, hard-work, humility and the eagerness to learn will get you much farther than striving to be the exception to the rule. The former you can control, the latter you can’t. Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your success and your career?

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ChristaCarol asked this question a bit ago and I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. :)

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts. I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside. It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there. I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic. Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. :)

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picturebook — 300 words max
  • Picturebook — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapterbook — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapterbooks are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut! And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

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Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.

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