Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pitfalls Facing Newbie Writers, Part II

Today, we're going to look at another pitfall that newbie writers face.

If I had to label this pitfall, I would call it neglecting to do your due diligence. Another way of saying this is failing to research your genre before querying.

It so happens that, in the last week, I saw two posts online by two different agents: Kirsten Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency who has a blog called Pub Rants (http://pubrants.blogspot.com/); and Jessica Faust, who--along with my own agent, Jacky Sach--is co-founder of BookEnds Literary Agency (http://www.bookends-inc.com/). Both Kirsten and Jessica were talking about newbie writers who shoot themselves in the foot by querying manuscripts that are the wrong length for their genre.

There's a standing joke among writers about the newbie writer who announces s/he has begun to market a 200,000-word manuscript.

First of all, that's not a manuscript; that's a doorstop.

Please understand. I'm not saying that you can NEVER sell a manuscript that long. Look at Elizabeth Kostova whose debut novel "The Historian" was 656 pages. And that's not manuscript pages; that's book pages. But that's like lightning striking the pecan tree in your backyard. It *could* happen. It's just not very likely.

You MUST stay within the word count for your genre. Kirsten said it much better than I can. In lamenting queries about novels that were 50,000 to 60,000 words, she said: "Where are writers getting the info that this might be an appropriate length for a work? That it would be a marketable length? Standard word length is usually between 70,000 to 100,000 words for a novel. Fantasy can push up to 110,000 but for a debut, it’s going to be a tough go if the word count is higher."

I've been on loops where newbie fantasy writers ask about where they should send their 150,000-word novels. Invariably, they are insulted when someone suggests they might want to trim the novel length before querying. The question I ask is, "Have you run this novel by a critique group?" Most of the time, the newbie says, "No." HINT: A good critique group can help you cut the fat out of your bloated manuscript. And, believe me, without even reading the novel, I can promise you that a 150,000-word opus is probably bloated.

A couple of days ago, Jessica Faust--answering questions for Dorothy Thompson's Writer's Life Group--had this to say about novel length: "Book length is very important...Of course it also depends [on] what you are writing. Cozy mysteries for example can be closer to 75,000 words while a romance should typically be closer to 90,000 words...The trick is to know your genre and market and know the word count because yes, it does matter. And don't give me that song and dance about Nora Roberts writing 150,000 word books. When you're Nora Roberts we can talk."

The thing is, with the advent of the Internet, there is NO excuse for not doing your homework. The information is out there if you take the time to look for it. When you submit a manuscript that is not the appropriate word length, you are screaming "sloppy" and "amateur."

While no agent will hold it against you for being a newbie, agents do want to represent clients who behave like professionals because, after all, this is their livelihood. If they are going to hook their wagon to your star, they want some reasonable assurance that you aren't fumbling around clueless.

By now, any reader of this blog knows that I am a huge fan of Miss Snark (http://misssnark.blogspot.com). On July 4, 2005, she said: "First. it's word count that matters. In fact, it's pretty much ALL that matters unless you are working in the graphic novel format."

Heed that admonition. Know what word count your genre requires and stick to it.

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