People who think they are the exception to the rule...aren't

Hi Miss Snark:

Can you tell me the importance of novel length for an unpublished author? Are there sort of standard minimums and maximums? If so, can you tell me how certain writers (David Foster Wallace seems to come to mind here) get their first novels published with over 400 pages. I'm a nit-wit, so if you could explain in detail, I'd be oh-so-appreciative.


David Foster Wallace's
first novel was published 20 years ago in 1987. It had 155,000 words in in it. Here's how I know that.

In 1987 FedEx would send someone to your door to pick up a document, take it to their office and miraculously FAX it anwhere in the country for about $20. It was a very very big deal.

If someone offered you that deal today, you'd laugh and point out the world has marched forward for good or ill, and what was a good deal then, isn't the same today.

Today there are a lot fewer places publishing literary fiction, and a lot fewer editors willing to take on big ass novels. I don't say this critically cause it's mostly a reflection of what people are actually buying.

Here's what you need to think about every time you whine "but X was able to". Go read my back post this week on going through the slush pile. 20 queries/5 surviving to be read in more detail. I don't think I mention word count in any of the instant rejections but I probably would have if it was over 200,000 or under 65,000.

Even if you don't tell me the word count, you have to write a compelling query letter about a book I think I'd like to read. That's the first and highest hurdle.

If in fact you make it over that hurdle, and then I discover you've got a big fat book, you've simply set the bar for the next hurdle that much higher. You have to be so good that I can't live without that book cause selling 200,000 words these days is harder than selling 100,000.

Maybe this will help:

Percentage of books on my list that are more than 125,000 words: 0

Chances you are the next David Foster Wallace: <0

Chances you are publishable if you understand agents are persuaded first by commerce then by art: >0


Anonymous said...

This is so true from the agent's point of view, but from the creative writer's point of view, writing to an arbitrary number of words is putting the cart before the horse. It's easier to sell 120,000 words of which not one is redundant, than 90,000 where one word in three could be cut without being missed.

If an agent or editor says 'too long', then it's because there are unnecessary words. If they say 'too short' (rarer, with aspiring writers' work) it's because there aren't words enough to do the job the writer's trying to do. If every word is really earning its place in the story, then the agent/editor won't be counting words, they'll be dying to know what happens next, and reaching for the phone.

But you always put it much more succinctly, Miss Snark: 'Write, write well, good writing trumps all,' can apply to wordcounts as much as to anything else.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately my agent did not reject the 200,000 word novel. I'm very lucky indeed.

Miss Snark said...

if you're the IJ Parker who writes mysteries, correct me if I'm wrong here but Dragon Scroll is 97,000 words.

or was it Rashomon Gate you referenced.

Besides, genre fiction (particularly SFF) can run longer than lit fic.

Anonymous said...

To Miss Snark:

Since you've circled back around to another almost absolute, what is the topic from an earlier post? (Query letter with all the right stuff, but a topic I don't ever do-no.)

I think I know since some agents have flatly stated their inability to deal with said topic, but I would very much like confirmation.

Kim said...

You'd also have to take into account what genre you're aiming for, as word counts vary for that. Publishers post their guidelines, which usually include word count and approximate page count.

I write romance,(quiet in the peanut gallery) and most romance publishers request a word count of 85k to 100k for single title. Category is less - approx. 55k words.

Just take a peek at what publishers you might be interested in and go by what they want.

word ver - uzmitbpa - WTF? It took me longer to type that in than to create my comment ;)

Kat said...

*points upward* What Miss Snark said. It's still easier in genre fiction (particularly sff) to sell if you hit the magic 80K-120K mark, but I've heard of people selling 240K works on the strength of the writing. And then being tied screaming to their computers until they trimmed it to a manageable size, but hey, it sold.

SFF readers -- and particularly fantasy readers -- have a higher tolerance for long beginner works, and they also have a high tolerance for series works, which means that even if you have a megaton book it can be split into two, three, or four bite-sized pieces. Elizabeth Bear, Charlie Stross, and Peter Watts are all people who've been asked by their agent or editor to split the original book into bits.

But I don't know how well series go over with literary or commercial fiction readers -- at least, in this sense of series, where you're talking not a set of stories about the same people but one big long story told over many books. Someone else will have to fill in the blanks there.

CEP said...

Wallace is a poor example because, IIRC, he was sponsored into both his agent and his eventual publisher (which, BTW, was the snooty imprint at what is now Penguin USA) through high-end academic connections. And that does not mean an MFA from an institution that advertises in Poets & Writers, either.

And Wallace is also a poor example because his early works are category fiction in literary fiction clothing, too, but that's another story entirely.

Believe it or not, there is actually a solid technological/economic reason for wanting works of under 100,000 words for the broad market: Binding technology. Once one gets to a certain thickness, one must use slower binding equipment... or make the mistake of binding them like telephone books, like the US editions of the Harry Potter books. I'll never forget the shirt-rending by the Publisher when the revised edition of a bestselling textbook I was editing went over 3cm!

Anonymous said...

Long debut novels do still happen. Mine (and it's not SFF) was 190K when I finished the first draft, 185K when I sent it to my agent, 180K when he sent it to the publishers. I was expecting them to go at it with a hedge trimmer, but it's 177K now that the edit is done - and not because I fought cuts, either. I rejected one 200-word cut and a couple of tiny ones, but that's it.

And Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian is hunormous. These may be exceptions, but they do happen. I figure all you can do is write everything you need to write, cut everything the reader doesn't need to read (those two things aren't the same, at least not for me), and then hope.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Amazon's text concordance counts words the same way publishers count them in manuscripts. That 155,000 words of David Foster Wallace probably described itself as 175,000 words on the title page.

My first draft is 128,000 words according to the word processor, but according to the standard algorithm it's about 143,000 words.

Yes, I have some chain saw work to do before an agent ever sees this thing.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark wrote:

"Chances you are the next David Foster Wallace: <0"

Really? Less than zero? Are you certain? Slim, I'll warrant. Maybe vanishingly slim. But less than zero, which is to say, impossible?

This sort of putdown is almost universally directed at unpublished authors – at least it is hereabouts – spoken ex cathedra as if from a greater being to a lesser one.

But I wonder: How do you know, at least until you've read a few pages? The questioner might in fact BE the next David Foster Wallace. Or the next Robert B. Parker. Or the next Norman Mailer. Or the next Truman Capote. Or. . . so on.

I come to this site pretty regularly, and for two reasons. First, there's often very useful information, freely and frankly offered. Thanks for that.

Second, there is nearly always, well, snark – self-assigned superiority, smart aleck answers to honest questions, liberal doses of discouragement, heaps of scorn.

I like that kind of thing. I process it into determination. Too bad for the next David Foster Wallace, though, if he happens by here, believes what he’s told, and puts his manuscript away for good.

Southern Writer said...

Stephen King's complete and unabridged The Stand, republished in 1990, is 463,519 words, and worth every one, imho. The shorter version which publishers insisted upon, was published in 1978. It was, of course, not his first novel.

Gone With the Wind is 419,218 words - a debut novel published in 1936.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith at 155,535 words was a debut novel in 1943.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is 363,495 words, published in 1985. Not a debut novel, but was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

This Much I Know is True by Wally Lamb is 306,991 words, published in 1998. Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone at 145,806 words, was his debut novel, puny in comparison.

Songs in Ordinary Time (1995) by Mary McGarry Morris is 277,324 words, a debut novel.

Sophie's Choice (1976) by William Styron is 242,606 tearjerking words.

White Oleander (1999) by Janet Fitch was a debut novel. 138,669 words.

The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver is 178,293 words.

Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) Arthur Golden's debut novel is 186,399 words.

Thank God a few editors are willing to take on some big ass novels. Every one of these were best-sellers. Someone bought them. Someone read them.

Write a wonderful story, and write exquisitely. Worry about the size later, if you have to.

Anonymous said...

1987 was TWENTY YEARS AGO! Does anyone else find this hard to believe?

You know, there are exceptions to the word count rules, I know, and my favorite author is one of them. Miss Snark wouldn't give this author the time of day since he's a fantasy author, but I'll forgive her. :) His first novel was something like 250,000 words. But. Though he is, as I said, my favorite writer, I think he could have cut his word count 50,000 to 100,000 words without losing anything vital. By writing tighter and cutting scenes that don't significantly add to the story, he could have done it. But this book was published in 1996. And in publishing, "Trends come and go so quickly around here!" it seems. It may have been easier to sell this book back then. But still not as easy as it would have been to sell a 150,000 word novel. Especially given the fact that much of it could have been cut, riveting though it was.

Personally, I'd rather not take the gamble, not with my first book. I'll conform to the rules if it kills me.

Joe said...

To the most recent anonymous poster:

The Broom of the System is one of my favorite books, ever, and I've had momentary fits of insanity during which I've fancied myself as being the next David Foster Wallace. I can pretty much assure you that if the aspiring future DFW's will is such that a Miss Snark blog posting about book lengths would derail his or her authorial dreams, that particular individual probably wouldn't've published anything anyway, and certainly wouldn't've published anything that would've reminded anybody of DFW. The key here is that the publishing world has changed since 1987, making The Broom of the System irrelevant as a first-novel example of how to do things. (Just about all of DFW's writings serve as beautiful examples of how not to do things, which is largely why aspiring actively to be the next DFW is kind of a bad business plan.)

Anonymous said...

I'm catching this late. RASHOMON GATE was 128,000 words according to computer count. The 200,000 words belong to a new novel which is not a mystery.
Still and all, I feel very lucky and am very grateful to my agent and thought I'd mention that.

Anonymous said...


Let me be explicit: I know there is only one actual David Foster Wallace (unique DNA pattern, debut book at age 25, all that stuff). I was not suggesting there might be another human being who aspired to be another ACTUAL DFW, but would be discouraged from being another ACTUAL DFW if he read Miss Snark's entry.

See, I was using the term "next DFW" in same way I assumed Miss Snark was -- as a figure standing for any well-regarded, commercially successful author.
And I was criticizing the reflex, so popular here, to denigrate and discourage, sight unseen. (I also meant to imply folks enjoy doing that b/c it makes them feel superior, whether they're entitled to the feeling or not.)

Besides that. . . hey. . . WAIT a second.

Why, you didn't REALLY think my post was ABOUT David Foster Wallace at all, did you? You just chose to pretend you thought that I thought that Miss Snark thought we were writing about the actual DFW. Then, instead of taking on what I was writing about, you wrote your post as if . . . Wow, I get it now.

Boffo rhetorical technique, Joe. Very effective. Almost had me there.

Anonymous said...

Katie: No, I cannot accept that 1987 was twenty years ago. It doesn't seem possible . . . I can't be old yet. Let's just gloss this over. *GRIN*

I discovered THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM (a keeper on my shelf) because I was told to read the New Young Rat Pack (I did like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY and LESS THAN ZERO somewhat, and THE RULES OF ATTRACTION would have been OK if it had been edited a little more) and I started reading all the stuff that came out as "Contemporary American Fiction" from Penguin or whoever it was. The cool thing about TBotS was that I clicked in to Lenore's way of thinking immediately. I couldn't believe it had been pubbed, for the voice seemed like something that I could have written. I like to play "Hi Bob." And I was really following along with Lenore's search for her disappeared relative. But it really irritated me that the book trails off in the middle of a

Flip Dixon said...

David Baldacci's debut ABSOLUTE POWER was over 150,000 words long. I believe Grisham's THE FIRM was over 130,000 words.

Anonymous said...

I would like to repsond to something c.e. petit said above about binding. I've worked in publishing for a long time--the only time i came across an actually bindery slowdown was with a book that had 992 pages and 2 16 page inserts. Normally, one would use a low-bulk paper for the larger page counts--books like The Historian and Jonathan Strange used the regular bulk and thus appeared even longer than they were. DF Wallace's Infinite Jest, at 1,088 pages, is about the max most US printers can bind in a normal fashion, even using the low bulk paper, at least in hard cover. They can go a little higher in paperback.