2.01.2006

Comparisons are STILL odious

Dear Miss Snark,

I'm sending out my first full manuscript to an agent. It's very short (65k). Would it be appropriate to mention in the cover letter that many similar novels (most notably Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451) are also short?


No.

It shows you haven't a clue about the difference between front and back list. Both of those books may be classics but they were published before most editors and agents were born. Editors and agents are looking for things that can be sold TODAY (and no comment screeches about how dare I suggest Animal Farm couldn't be sold today.)

65K isn't very short, particularly if you're writing genre fiction. It's just short, but within acceptable limits.

And don't compare your book to others. If anything say readers who liked the novel Miss Snark's Guide to Etiquette will also like this, or this book will appeal to readers who liked Miss Snark's Guide to Etiquette.

52 comments:

Nonny said...

It depends on the genre, doesn't it?

The impression I've been getting from looking at what's been published in various genres is that 80k - 100k is the "sweet spot." (With category romances and YA/juveniles as exceptions... but even YA seems to be drifting towards longer.)

Is that accurate?

Maxwell said...

Nowadays, you can read Animal Farm without having any idea that it is essentially a short history of the Russian Revolution with animals representing the key political figures. Check Cliff Notes if you don't believe me. When it was published, I'm sure it was much more obvious. The fact that the story alone is enough to maintain the book's classic status is a testament to how great an author Orwell was.

Of course, Bradbury was one of the top names in what was considered the Golden Age of Science fiction. There's a lot of argument as to who was in the "big three" and when, but most people put Bradbury in there for at least a few years. Also, he was considered one of the masters of the short story. Your book is short, but it’s not a short story, right?

Do you really think it's appropriate to compare yourself to Orwell and Bradbury just to illustrate that short novels are often great? That's like using Elvis and Johnny Cash as examples of how cool black hair is. It comes off as you saying I'm as great as the very best of the genre. I can't see any way that kind of comparison is going to sound good to a prospective agent. It's in the same category as the 'I'm going to make you the next Max Perkins' query, albeit one step higher up the ladder.

Martin dho said...

This is an interesting matter to me. My novels (unpublished) are about 50k. I am reconciled that this is the size of the story I am creating. My heros of writing are Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett who often came in at this length. (Not that I would include their names as a justification in a cover letter.) Is this size a great detriment? Am I being looked down upon? I would hate to have to artificially bulk them up. Pace means a lot to my writing style.

Anonymous said...

check out the thread 'size matters'
at WritersNet in literary agents--Agent Gina P speaks to this

Rhonda Stapleton said...

anonymous - can we get a link for the writersnet thingie? I can't seem to find it...

Elektra said...

Maxwell--who on Earth can read Animal Farm and think 'wow, I wonder if he knew E.B. White'? He wasn't exactly sybtle with it.

Elektra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elektra said...

writers.net

Anonymous said...

Are you serious? 65K words isn't a short novel? A 280 to 300 page novel, printed in a typical format, will clock in at around 100,000 words (or less), according to my calculations. I guess the attention span in this country must have plummeted overnight.

Eileen said...

No comparisions? Dang. I was thinking of marketing my novel as the the DaVinci code of Chick Lit. I pictured Mona Lisa holding a Kate Spade bag. Now I have to think of something else.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

Eileen -

I think the critical difference in what you're doing and what others are talking about is that you're not comparing quality, but subject matter.

I think you might be ok with that comparison you made. e.g., Bridget Jones meets The DaVinci Code - that would probably work, in my opinion.

Check out this blog: http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ - it actually addresses the "movie pitch" concept...

Maxwell said...

Electra: To answer your question, if it is a serious question - Me. The only E.B White I've read is the examples in that little grammar book we all love. Curriculums change, and Animal Farm was never on any of mine. I just picked a copy up and read it when I was in junior high. I had plenty of time to make my own reading lists, while the rest of the class was struggling with The Contender and The Outsiders.

I graduated high school in 1986. There are a lot of successful authors, agents and editors writing how-to books that are younger than me. No surprise, they use movies to illustrate their points because there is no longer any set reading list for the educated person. Maybe there is one for a generation, but there absolutely is not one that works across generations. You don’t really get the classical education you pay for today. That's been deconstructed right out the university system, for good or bad.
I’m not trying to get political. I’m just saying that it’s smart to be conscious of the generational differences in educational standards. Animal Farm means a lot of things to a lot of people. Picking it as comparison to your novel because it's short is either totally absurd or an attempt to be subtly arrogant. If you fall into the absurd camp, you can save yourself a lot of grief by not assuming you had the same experience as somebody else while reading something. If you fall into the arrogant camp, don't compare yourself to the classics and thank the benevolent Miss Snark you didn't just get a reply of "Get over yourself."

Sal said...

rhonda stapleton asks, anonymous - can we get a link for the writersnet thingie? I can't seem to find it...


here

Elektra said...

I'm sorry I wasn't clear--I was referring to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Talking animals and such.
I didn't mean to say that my book is the next Animal Farm or Fahrenheit 451. It is not.
I meant only that it is in the same genre, and that most of the other books in said genre are very short. The most well known of those are Animal Farm and co.
Miss Snark how shown me the nitwittery of my ways, and I thank her for that.
You graduated high school the year I was born--not sure why I'm mentioning that, just thought it was an odd coincidence.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

sal, elektra, and anon - thanks! that size thread in the forum did help me feel better...I tend to write on the short side!

Rhonda, who prefers to call it "succinct"...haha

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

Miss Snark,

Is it really a treacherous thing to compare your work to that of others? I've talked to a few heads of publishing companies, and a few published writers and have been told that you SHOULD compare your work to that of others.

If someone compares their work to another's, is that as grevious as, say, NOT sending an SASE?

Because I'm torn. If comparing myself to others, as I've been told to do, won't HURT my query's chances, then I'd rather hedge my bets and compare the voice of my work to The Rules of Attraction with a twist of I Know This Much Is True..

PS: Tell KY he needs to meet up with Jim from MacAllister's romance series!

Beth said...

This short-is-good trend is discouraging for those of us who write big. And sad to think that wonderful writers like James Clavell would likely not get published in today's climate, just because of length. At least, not as debut authors. After all, Shogun is half a million words.

Anonymous said...

I think the worst thing about the original poster's question is that his/her feeling the need to "remind" the agent that F451 etc are short is basically insulting the agent, telling said agent that s/he doesn't know anything about lit and must be reminded of it. And we never want to insult the agent. ;-)

Martin dho said...

beth
Write your piece the length it needs to be. I'm not a successful author suggesting that, but it seems to me that if 500,000 words are justified, more power to you. Of course, with some, 500,000 words are 499,999 words too many.

Anonymous said...

Hi, beth.

James Clavell, of course, didn't publish "Shogun" as a debut author. His first book was "King Rat," which was far far shorter, followed by "Tai-pan," which was a large book, but not as large as "Shogun."

True, "Shogun" probably wouldn't be published as a debut novel today. But it probably wouldn't have been published as a debut novel in 1962, either (when Clavell first published a book). It's the kind of thing you typically need a track record for--but there's always exceptions (look at Santmeyer's "And the Ladies of the Club"!)

Anonymous said...

I think historicals have a little more leeway as far as size - look at recently published THE HISTORIAN, at 650-plus pages its a doorstop of a debut novel.

Mark said...

It's useless to compare current works to those of bygone eras. The majority of POD books are short and mentioning Hemingway's first books in regard to similar length is of little value. And Virinia Woolf self-published and all that. It's not a vaild comparison.

Foogle Bottom said...

I'm feeling really depressed today (for a variety of reasons) and I just wanted Miss Snark and the Snarklings (sounds like a doo-wop group) to know that reading her blog, and everyone's comments, is a highlight to my day.

You really do give me hope to get through this down period and keep tapping away at the keyboard.

Bernita said...

Doo-wop!
Don't be blue, my friend,
We feel for you, my friend,
Just stay tru-uue...

kathie said...

Great advice. Very much along the lines of your famous...write and write well. Love your blog and always take an interesting fact away from it. Hope the gin is good, and the day is only long enough to land a sale or two.

kathie said...

Eileen,
I love the description of your novel...sounds like a fun read. And I mean that in a good way.

megan the librarian said...

Electra, I'm not really sure where you're going with the White/Orwell thing. Are you implying that Orwell got the idea from White? Because Animal Farm was published in 1945, and Charlotte's Web in 1952.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2,

A correctly formatted manuscript will run 400 pages if it is 100,000 words.

FYI

Sincerely, Anonymous #? [too scared of M.S. to divluge identity]

Elektra said...

Megan, no, that's not what I was saying.
I realize that Orwell didn't take the idea from White.

Poloman9 said...

Can a book less than 100,000 words make it into hardcover? That may sound like a dumb question but I feel like all the hardcovers I see are mind-defyingly long...

kathie said...

My agent had me shave my novel from 83,000 words to 58,000. I went through line by line removing sentences that were redundant, tightening things up. I only cut out one small scene entirely. We may curse the attention span of modern readers, but I want to sell. It is interesting to me, that a lot of books in my genre are more than double mine. But I trust my agent.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

The first draft of my un-represented, unpublished book was just past 90 thousand words. The first rewrite shortened it to 80,000 words.

I like finished, concise writing. Why tell in ten words what you can show in five words? or one?

Writing concisely shows where detail is needed, and it reveals needless repitition. New detail added about 2,000 words to my manuscript. It's now at 82K words.

"There is sin in the abundance or words; he that restrains himself does wisely."--Solomon

Maya said...

Thanks to the Anonymous who responded to Anonymous #2 re the comment that "a 280 to 300 page novel, printed in a typical format, will clock in at around 100,000 words (or less)."

A 280 to 300 page novel should be approximately 70K to 75K words if it is formatted in Courier 12 or TNR 14 with one-inch margins and 25 lines per page (figure 250 words per page). You can format Word to do exactly 25 lines per page.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Start at the beginning. Tell the story until you reach the end.

Then stop.

Anonymous said...

The comparison distinction seems pretty clear. Comparing yourself to Cormac McCarthy would be folly. Suggesting, to an agent, that the people who liked Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing would like your book is a marketing statement, and it gives the agent "a place" to look at your book from.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to jump in, but I'm dying to know what kind of book is similar to both Animal Farm and Farenheit 451?
Bacon recipes?

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

A submission letter for the perfect cross between Animal Farm and Farenheit 451.

Dear Snarkie,

I've written Burn it in the Zoo. My book makes significant political statements. It's set in the National Zoo. Two Zebras get elected to congress on the Free Oats Party ticket. They foment a rebellion in the National Zoo and ban the possession of Zoo Guides. They can't read; so visitors shouldn't either is their philosophy.

They convert the one time writer of Zoo Guides (who just happens to be a rather horse-faced English woman) to their point of view. She organizes a brigade of Zoo Guide burners.

Some of the older critters organize a counter-culture movement and teach younger critters how to memorize the Zoo Guides as a series of grunts, snorts, whistles and birdcalls.

Finally they decide to live in peace. So the Guide Burners light one last fire and roast the grunters. And behold all animals are equal. It's just that some are dead.

Isn’t this just the best parable? I mean it explains American Politics exactly!

Please send a check immediately!

Sal said...

Maya sed, Thanks to the Anonymous who responded to Anonymous #2 re the comment that "a 280 to 300 page novel, printed in a typical format, will clock in at around 100,000 words (or less)."

Apples, oranges, aren't we? I read Anonymous #2 as writing about a printed book, not sheaves of manuscript paper.

A quick fling through Google and Amazon shows that Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott with 336 pages (PB -- 324pp HB) clocks in at ~ 114,619 wds.

(114 619 / 324) * 300 = 106 128.704
(114 619 / 324) * 280 = 99 053.4568

I think we have a failure to communicate.

Elektra said...

Yes, but how many of those pages are filled with blank space?

Maya said...

Sal: Thanks for your translation skills.

I've been thinking in manuscript terms for so long that I forget there is any other format beyond that and the "tools" "word count" on my computer. ;)

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Yikes! This comment queue formed fast. My novel is *blushes* 154,000 words. I'm trying to shave it down to something close ot 100,000. It's fantasy, and I am not a writer that uses long paragraphs of needless description. But until I get it down, I don't think much of my chances for publication.

As a reader, I'm more likely to choose a large book than a small one. Less than 90 minutes worth of reading isn't worth my $7, and I'm a fast reader.

Miss Audrey said...

Those of you who are so intently sizing up page count have way too much time on your hands! IMMHO

Eva said...

I'm so glad this topic of size came up, particularly regarding the debut novel. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm going to my first writers' conference and will be meeting with editors (ahh! don't panic, breathe in, out). Anyway, we can only shop one ms and I've got 3 to choose from. I like all three of my mss equally but for different reasons. One of them (a historical covering most of the 20th century in America)is 868 pages (200,000 words). From what I'm reading here, its size alone should eliminate that ms from my list of choices for a first pitch.

Am I getting this right?

Anonymous said...

In response to POLOMAN--yes a novel can be less than 100,000 words and still be hardcover.

The company I'm with is putting out a novel under 200 pages in hardcover. Publishers Weekly gave the book a very warm review and never once commented on the length.

Our house has put out at least four novels 50,000 words or less. The length felt right for the book. We didn't give it much of a second thought.

Allene said...

I surveyed editors on formatting issues and asked the question about book length. Many said, "As long as it takes to tell the story."

The majority fro adult fiction preferred 75,000-100,000.

Mark said...

My previous two nonfiction works are 87K. About 280 pages. For fiction I'm looking a bit longer, but not much.

Sal said...

Miss Audrey said...

Those of you who are so intently sizing up page count have way too much time on your hands! IMMHO


I'm sure you're weren't referring to ahem. my page count work, because my page count work took far less time than the post to Miss Snark's comments thread.

My calculations involved this plus a click plus a page-down to this and then a double-check to see if the HB had the same (relative) page count as the PB.

Oh, and Google has this great feature, if you've never used it.

Pop /(114 619 / 324) * 300 = / into Google and it'll come back with

106 128.704

Neat, eh?

Yours in writerly pursoots, I remain,

S.

sara said...

Becca and others,

Fantasy tends to run a little longer than regular fiction. Jennifer Jackson (as in, the agent with DMLA) posted something on this a while back on her blog. According to her, 100 - 150 k is the standard for fantasy.

Here's the link.

/Sara

Anonymous said...

The anonymous who stated that a 300 page book was 100,000 words or less obviously wasn't talking about the manuscript printed on the laser printer, he/she was talking about the final printed *published* book. The number is exactly right. 65K is indeed a short novel.

Maxwell said...

Elektra: It's a coincidence alright. An even weirder one is that by my calculations, I was almost exactly your age when a college professor successfully convinced me not to persue a career in writing. He said I should experience more in life before attempting to write about it.

I'm not 100% ready to write this off as bad advice, but I'd have to say am at least 95% there. You see, I have no ability to just quit my job and go for it at this point. I've done a lot of writing, mostly technical and barely published articles, but mostly I've been working at various schools of hard knocks.

Yeah, I suppose I have a vivid background of experience to draw on now, but so what? You live; you experience. You need to pay your dues in any career, but there's also a certain amount of dues you have to pay to get into ANY form of working for money. You need to learn a lot of diplomacy, tact, humility and other unnatural social skills just to survive. There's no reason you should be doing what you love at the same time, because doing something you don't love doesn't make it any easier. It also breeds an attitude of uncaring, that many people never shake, or fully come to grips with.

So, I say go for it. Don't listen to that professor who says you can't do that until you did this for so many years. Maybe it's never too late. It's more likely that it's never too early.

Eva said...

Elektra, I agree with Maxwell.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Sara--Thank you for that link. It's reassuring, though I think I will continue to do a fine-line edit to remove any redundancy.