This aint magazines, you don't get paid by the word

Dear Miss Snark:

I am in the final stages of writing a historical novel. The editing is almost over. It has been great fun. In a couple of weeks the unfun part will be starting, with queries and the like. One problem: I hit the word count function on my word processor and I have 235,000 words! And this is after a liberal use of pruning shears.

Is it going to be an immediate turnoff for an agent or publisher? The thing is divided into four parts of 55,000/60,000 words each, but it is a single story.

Any suggestions?

Miss Snark is as fond of lifting weights as the next slacker couch potato but 235,000 words is 135,000 too many.

Yes, something this size is a problem. First, if you're a new author, you're going to be most likely published in paperback (tpo or mm). 235,000 words makes a HUGE book, and subsequently the price is high. When you are starting out you want the lowest price you can do because while Miss Snark lies on the couch she reads econ texts that tell her price and demand are related.

Right now you are in love with your words, and the idea of pruning them is anathema. Get over this at once. You must be ruthless with your prose. Trim it like kudzu.

You have a couple choices.
First is prune. There's a LOT of advice about this in the comments trails on previous posts about length.

Second, just split the thing into two, or better yet, three books.

Three, query and see what you get.

I vote for #1 with all four feet.


Anonymous said...

Damn! You mean Tolstoy has stopped selling?

(Which reminds me of the guy I met at a conference who was pitching a 300,000 word - incomplete - memoir about his life in model railroading.)

Anonymous said...

I'm agonizing at the moment about how wise it is for a first time author to split a long work up. My own story will weigh in at around 400k, and it's split into three books. But I've heard this might be my doom.

I know personally how annoying it is to lay out cash for book one, only to discover a year or two later that book one didn't do well enough for there to be a book two. This has made me more reluctant to buy a book one from a new writer. This phenomenon is known as the "curse of the trilogy" (or duology, or in Robert Jordan's case, the "curse of the dodecagology and counting...").

So what are you gonna do?

Well, for me, I've basically finished books one and two--even if I rearrange the chapters like I'm thinking of doing--and there seems to be nothing but time to finish book three. I'm thinking of taking a break from the ol' trilogy and writing a related stand-alone set in the same fantasy world as my BFF.

If I don't get any nibbles on my magnum, MAGNUM opus, I can at least start querying the stand-alone. Who knows? One little credit, and a few readers hooked on my view of the universe, and maybe agents and publishers who were too cautious to look at a trilogy will reconsider.

Of course, my book isn't about model railroading, so who's gonna wanna read it anyway? ;)

Anonymous said...


Tolstoy is selling now because there is a new translation of "Anna Karinina" on the market. Check it out; I promise that this version is worth the full cover price.

Anonymous said...

And yet, most of the historical novels I see are much longer than other genre. You might want to go to The Historical Novel Society at http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/main.htm to see if you can get a genre slant on this.


Anonymous said...

There is such a thing as a "meta" novel. Sort of the new wave in series. They're a finite number of books in a series. It's a series that, if read in order, is like one verrryy long book. But the trick to selling it is that each novel must stand on it's own, and satisfy the reader. You must be able to read any of the books in *any* order, have a totally satisfying read with an ending to that story, yet, if you decide to read the books in order, it tells the complete story.

It's a balancing act, filling in blanks for readers, not spoiling the next book, or the previous book. But it can be done. So if you're smart, and set on such a long book, think about breaking the larger book into smaller books. Detail a subplot, turn it into the main plot of the smaller book, take your main plot, string it along for however many books, and voila'!

Anonymous said...

Don'tcha think that lots of times the big new breakout bestselling book (in hardcover) IS a big book? And don't you think that readers like big fat books over little skinny books? I mean, I do.

My thought is, the writer thinks the book is done. So unless someone the writer repects (who has also read the book) says, "this would be brilliant if you eliminated these three characters and all that stuff in the 19th century" I say query while you write the next one. The next one is guaranteed to be better. A chopped up version of this one is not. It might just be the same, but less so.

Shelli Stevens said...

Trying to do the page count math in my head. My lanta. It's like pulling teeth getting me to 90k. God bless the novella surge right now.

Linda Maye Adams said...

I think the first option is to try pruning rather than splitting it up. I'm always amazed when someone has a really long work and says they absolutely can't edit anything more--and I look at a sample chapter and see phrases that are unnecessarily wordy on the first page. Even when I proofread my own work, I find places to cut!

Anonymous said...

Mine - published next month - is 142,000 and no one from agent to booksellers has batted an eyelid. It is as the accessible of of literary, where perhaps the genre rules are more relaxed, but I would say that historical can definitely be at the fatter end of the range of acceptable lengths.

My advice would be, don't start sending out queries when it's 'finished', because you can't possibly see what needs doing to it until you've had a break. Put it in a drawer, write something else (Book Two?), then re-read it with pencil in hand and ruthlessness in your heart. You'll be surprised what can go. Anything that can't needs to be there, and if you do that well enough, anyone reading it won't feel the beast is too long, only that they can't wait to know what happens next.

Anonymous said...

"Gone With The Wind"

Georgia Girl

Anonymous said...

Shelli, don't bother with the page count. Your publisher will agonize over this. Just stick with the computerese word count. I hear tell the last few remaining holdout publishers who didn't use computer word count, now use it. Probably because they discovered it's easier for THEM...

As far as the trilogy (what is it in SF authors that makes 'em want to write multiple books at a time? Do they just fall in love with the universe they've made, & wanna live there a little longer?), do follow the advice and do BOTH: pare it down, split it up.

I know a very fine author who had a deal for a two book fantasy series. The pub put out the first book, wasn't terribly happy with its numbers. They decided not to buy the second book. Then it won award after award, they not only refused to revert the rights to her, they insisted they held first refusal on the second book, due to the initial contract, so now she's stuck with noplace for this second book to go. (She's still winning awards with the first book, more prestigious than those she's already scored).

So her advice, if I can presume to speak for her, is to sell the first book as a single title. Cut it to a manageable length, tie up the ending so it's not a wallbanger (I hate endings that don't happen within THAT BOOK), and hope for the best.


Anonymous said...

I'm agonizing at the moment about how wise it is for a first time author to split a long work up. My own story will weigh in at around 400k . . .

Holy wordcount, Batman!

Anonymous said...

Fat books are a real turn-off for me (only slightly more than super-thin). I look at the thickness of the book before I even look at the cover. I am sure I miss out on a lot of good books this way, but I do read recommended books regardless of what they "look" like. I am reading Motherless Brooklyn right now because Miss Snark and some Snarkanoids said it is a good book. So far, that is a correct assessment. -JTC

Cynthia Bronco said...

Sometimes I see "Debut author gets two book deal" on Publisher's Lunch. I wonder if it's better if you just call the second part a sequel. Mine came in at 71,000 words, which I thought was short until I came to Snarkland (land that I love).

Jean Bauhaus said...

I don't know about word count, but each book in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series weighs in at about three pounds each, and judging from his popularity there's definitely a market for massive, multi-part epics. I think if the story is good and the characters are compelling, most people will keep reading. But like rb said, each volume has a satisfying conclusion, leaving the reader wanting more but not leaving them feeling like they're coerced into buying more so they can feel like they've finished the book.

But then again, trilogies and multi-part epics weren't Martin's or Tolkein's or whomever's first published works. As kis suggested, maybe it would help your current story to set it aside and work on something else for a while. Maybe the "something else" could be the thing that breaks you into the market and paves the way for your epic to be published.

Anonymous said...

235,000 words is about 750-800 pages in mass market paperback (longer if it has a zillion part titles, maps, and addenda).

For a first novel, that is almost certainly a money-loser. (For a fifth novel, that is likely a money-loser.) Publishers lose money on first novels all the time, but the bigger the potential loss, the harder it is to justify taking the risk.

Put the book aside for a while. Then reread it and ask yourself the following questions every 5 pages:

1. What is this scene accomplishing in the overall book?

2. Does another scene do this as well?

3. Can this scene be combined with another one, and the new version accomplish two (or more!) things simultaneously?

Ask yourself if you have redundant characters. Can you combine two minor characters?

Ask each word if it's pulling its weight. Are you overusing passive sentences? Strings of prepositional phrases? Using "verb + adverb" or "noun + adjective" instead of powerful verbs and nouns? Repeating the same information in two sentences?

What percentage of those 235K words are devoted to describing the landscape? Clothing? Dishing character- or setting-backstory? Sometimes landscape, clothing, and backstory are necessary, but often this is just auctorial wheelspinning.

Anonymous said...

A 2005 historical fiction release came in at just over 241,000 words. It also garnered a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was well-received by other literary critics. The novel? The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

To quote Miss Snark, it always comes down to the writing.

none said...

Hmm, I think I may have been writing a meta novel without realising it. Certainly it goes on and on and on and on...

Anonymous said...

pruning sounds like the most prudent course of action. you can always save what you cut out for a sequel.

i want to know what writer says that writing a 235,000+ word novel "has been great fun." either delusional or really, really enthusiastic...

Anonymous said...

All those guidelines, all those rules! Novels must be under 120,000 words! Songs in Ordinary Time was a debut novel and weighs in at 277,324 words. I believe The Clan of the Cave Bear was also a debut novel at 223,443 words.

I don't know what to believe anymore.

Anonymous said...

Absurd. Historical fiction adds time, setting, smells, and background for the ignoscenti. If you reject based on word count, shame on you, Miss Snark. I've read small-count "page-turners", yeah, turned the page as if I'm reading with a fast-forward device. Toilet-seat reading.

Be honest. History is dead in the USA and gets no respect. Point of interest. We all had a year of US History in high school -- and so did dear old mom and dad and our grannies and gramps without women minorites, etc.

Given your POV, Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger might starve to death if they lived today.

Viva Sabatini, Costain, Shellabarger, and even the verbosely entertaining Dorothy Dunnett.

Beth said...


I'm right there with ya. Books have to find their own length, and some stories take a lot of roomto tell. Like mine. But I take heart that Naomi Novik's debut novel about dragons in the Napoleonic era is doing very well. They split it into three volumes, published a few months apart.

Anonymous said...

Shelli, I've got the opposite problem. I start with a short story, and it turns into a 160k behemoth.

Whaddayagonnado? I write what I write, and if no one wants to read it, it won't stop me writing. Maybe my kids will get rich off it when I'm dead. They'll find this dusty manuscript (or hard drive) up in an attic, query it around and presto! Posthumous fame galore!

Brenda said...

Find a good critique partner and let them read it (you should that anyway, in my opinion. MY CPs find stuff I overlook a billion times.) They'll be better at helping you trim it down.

Anonymous said...

I am the original poster. Thank you for the advice and encouragement. Both are great. I will try the third option suggested by Miss Snark: keep the 235K monster as is, query and brace myself.
Hopefully I will be wiser in a few months.

michael gavaghen said...

Geez, Snarklings, the last thing a first-time novelist needs to hear is advice AGAINST cutting... I've gone from 155K to 135K to 120K to 107K in subsequent drafts, without losing anything essential. Notice I didn't say without losing anything good. A lot of the stuff that got cut was good -- funny non-essential scenes, good irrelevant dialogue. Elmore Leonard tries to leave out the boring parts, and I've tried like hell to do the same.

Maybe this author is capable of bringing off a 235,000-word novel out of the box, but the odds are against it, and the industry professionals sure seem to doubt it.

I have a mind game I play when I need encouragement to keep cutting: I equate every thousand words of my novel to one minute in a movie. So my first draft was the equivalent of sitting through a 2-hour, 35-minute movie, which is one helluva long flick.

235,000 words is out there in Godfather Part II territory. All due respect, but there aren't a lot of people who can pull that off.


Mark said...

"Right now you are in love with your words, and the idea of pruning them is anathema."

In Hemingway's last years this was his problem. A writer noted for leaving much out, couldn't. It's not a good sign on either end of the career.

Stacy said...

Ok. At 350 words per page, your novel would come in at - according to my calculator - 672 pages. Add prelims, we can round it off to 680 pages. Are there illustrations? God, I hope so.

Very few writers can keep people around that long. Are you the next Stephen King of historical novels?

MWT said...

There's a novella surge? Where??

(I'm coincidentally working on one and would love to be able to sell it somewhere.)

It seems to me that the best strategy for a new author is to start by publishing something small and standalone. If that does well, and the author manages to establish some readership, then try to publish the trilogy.

Lydia said...

If it's fantasy? Split away. Series are very popular, have been for a long time. They keep the first book in print for years to come. Just make sure it stands solidly alone!

Mystery and romance, absolutely not.

Other genres...sometimes. It depends on the genre, the market mood, and the book.

Anonymous said...

Dear - anon #1 - (if I may be so familiar)

"Anna" is Tolstoy's novella.

Bella Stander said...

Yes, some readers DO prefer little skinny books. Since I broke my arm, I can only read books that are light enough to hold up and keep open with my good hand. So I have a renewed fondness for mass market paperbacks.

Bella Stander said...

To the writer(s) in need of pruning shears, I offer this bit of timeless wisdom from a former employer:
"See how many words you can take out and still have it say the same thing."

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark wrote:
<< You must be ruthless with your prose. Trim it like kudzu. >>

Ooo! A clue to Miss Snark's heritage? How does she know about kudzu unless she has lived in the South?

Aside from that, I have to say -- one does not "trim" kudzu. One demolishes every single vestige of kudzu using all the weapons and chemicals at one's disposal, or one will be completely engulfed by the stuff. I recommend Agent Orange. Even then, kudzu in the South will come back and envelope one if one sits still for more than four minutes at a time.

Similarly, a wordy novel must be attacked with machetes and Agent Orange. Go forth and edit!

(And good luck!)

Anonymous said...


I feel your pain. My fantasy novel is now at 74k but I am within 4-5 chapters of the end. I don't want to sub anything under 90k. Hopefully the action will take longer to write than I am predicting!

Good luck with yours!

Anonymous said...

How about this--put the monster in a box for 6 months and write something shorter. Send that one out as your "first novel."

While it's making the rounds you'll go back to the one in the box with fresh eyes and be in a better place for pruning without mercy.

In the publishing world 6 months is NOT a long time at all.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of inviting the wrath of Her Divine Snarkiness, I have to question the claim of 100,000 words for a historical novel. I just did a quick Google on word length for novels, and found lightweight romance novel publishers requesting manuscripts 0f 70-75k. We all know how weighty Harlequin/Candlelight/Silhouette/etc. are. In the meantime, bodice-rippers and historical novels in the book store strike me as being much longer than the 122 pages I calculate the querent's novel as being, going by a standard I found on the Web for self-publishing that says the average word count per page is 815 words (paperback). (Although I haven't actually counted a novel's word count on a given page to check, I admit).

By my calculations, the querent's novel in its current form is 288 pages. Which seems perfectly reasonable for a historical novel which is supposed to be weightier than a Harlequin romance, right?

*I* would buy a 288-page historical novel. Madame, let me know when your book hits the stands. We'll celebrate at a trendy New York bistro with buckets of gin, and we WON'T invite Miss You-Know-Who. ;)

Anonymous said...

frenchy, I'm not entirely sure of your calculations, but I recently got a historical 'romance' novel (Trade Paperback) and it's approximately 230,000 words (not counting the glossary, bibliography, and notes) and is approximately 650 pages long. The author told us her agent made her lose 200 pages, so it was much bigger originally than it is now. (BTW, this is her first novel.) The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman is 925 pages long (hardcover) and at about 430 words per page, it is close to 400K words in length.

At the risk of going against Snarktide, I think it would make some sense to get a better sampling of other recently published books in the genre to see how long--or short--they are.


Lydia said...

>In the meantime, bodice-rippers and historical novels in the book store strike me as being much longer than the 122 pages I calculate the querent's novel as being, going by a standard I found on the Web for self-publishing that says the average word count per page is 815 words (paperback).

You're looking at a page on self-publishing for information about REAL publishing????

250 words make a ms page. A 100k novel is 400 "standard format" ms pages. In print for me, at NAL (Penguin), that has ended up being around 300 pages. In print at Avon (Random House), which uses larger type, that would be about 350 book pages.

That ms is 1100 ms pages long, making it at LEAST 700 pages in mass market pb, even if the print is tiny, tiny, tiny. Probably more like 800. In other words: too long for an unpub. That's why it needs to be divided or chopped. It really depends upon the book as to which would be better. MOST unpubs who have long books have a lot of random stuff or repetition that the story would be better off without. But I wouldn't make a blanket recommendation to cut because it isn't always true--just mostly. Miss Snark, ever the cynic and probably having been subjected to hundreds of overweight novels, gives a blanket directive to chop. Though there's a 90% chance she's right, that 10% chance that she isn't is keeping me from agreeing with her under all circumstances.

>By my calculations, the querent's novel in its current form is 288 pages. Which seems perfectly reasonable for a historical novel which is supposed to be weightier than a Harlequin romance, right?

You're really cheesing me off here, since by "weightier" you seem to mean "more important," not merely "thicker." I don't write Harlequin romances, but I do write mainstream historical romances, and they are neither "fluff" nor "bodice rippers." But I suspect you're speaking out of prejudice rather than experience. So many people do.

Anonymous said...


I'm not advising anyone against cutting! Snip, snip, snip! On my first round of revisions, I managed to shave 30 000 words off the first book in my trilogy. (All right, so I moved about 10 000 of them into book two, so sue me.)

I'll still never be able to get the entire story to come in under 200k. It's just not gonna happen.

Like Buffy's version of the meta novel that goes on and on, my story just got bigger and bigger as I told it. There are ways to cut without sacrificing plot and pruning your voice to death, but they still sometimes can't get a WC down to 80 000 words. Just a fact of life.

With historicals, and especially SFF, there's so much info you have to introduce that the reader couldn't possibly already know. With authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, who writes historical fantasy based partly on European history, much of the culture is derivative of reality can be inferred by the reader. Other writers have to start from scratch.

I AM thinking of rearranging my story so the first sort of stands alone. Of course, that means having three books, from three general POVs that start at the same time and whose plots run simultaneously. Book one starts on the same day as book two and book three. But I don't know...

And for anyone who could possibly read one of GRRM's tomes without dying for the next one--what kind of alien are you? Sure, he ends on an ending note: it's called the cliff-hanger.

Stacy said...

frenchy, 815 words per page is way too high. This book would have to be almost a square foot in size, with words the size reserved for phone books. Not easy reading, not the kind of book you could tote to the hairdresser or the doctor's office; books this size or prescribed reading, as in, you won't be a doctor or an economist if you don't read every word.

Anonymous said...

frenchy, whatever self-publishing site you found that says 815 words/page in paperback is DEAD WRONG. Perhaps they are using a weird font an that 8 is really a 3?

Jean Bauhaus said...

Heh, kis, I got to read the first three Martin books in rapid succession and when I finished I was dying to read Feast for Crows. But during two years of waiting I managed to train myself to be patient for the next installment. Of course I'm eager for the next one, and you're right, he does employ cliffhangers pretty skillfully. But my point was that each novel--each chapter, for that matter--feels like a complete story, even though you can't wait to find out what happens next.

Anonymous said...


OK, so you're not an alien. And that was a tough two years, wasn't it?

Actually, the problem I've been struggling with is one reason the wait was so long for Feast. It was too big a book, so he split it up. The next one will be set in the same period as Feast, following Jon Snow, Danaerys(sp?), Bran and all the others we didn't see there. So I guess it's possible with multiple plots, to divide the story up that way.

(Going off to my computer to get started.)

Beth said...

To anon #whatever--Penman's Sunne in Splendour is 406,091 words, according to Amazon's next Text Stats feature, so that was a very close estimate you gave. Of course, she's a respected historical novelist, so she can get by with writing books that big.

So can GRR Martin, whose A Storm of Swords (third in his series, and published in one volume in the US, though not in the UK) is 422,842.

Diana Gabaldon's The Fiery Cross (also published in one volume) is 498,030. And her latest, A Breath of Snow and Ashes is only slightly smaller.

Another Dejected Writer said...

Crap! You mean my debut novel, THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING THAT'S HAPPENED FROM THE BEGINNING UNTIL NOW, might not get published because publishers care about word count? How the hell am I supposed to share my genius with the world if nobody will publish my million word epic?

Anonymous said...

Regarding Penman and Gabaldon, both of whom I adore, their first books were humongous. I think historical fiction is that way. I believe The Sunne in Splendour is Penman's first.