Miss Snark fires up the Stihl

Dear Ms. Snark,

I write a novel, The Jaguar’s Heart, this after writing and selling over a hundred articles and short stories disguised as articles, two children’s books, two TV shows, and more commercials and videos than I want to talk about. On the advice of a well known novelist, and an editor, I write to thriller length, 180,000 words

I go to Southern California Writer’s Conference for a reality check. I read, get spontaneous ovation from a room full of strangers. SCWC editor says, You don’t need me. Send it, you’ll sell it.” I pitch sixteen agents. Get requests for three partials, two fulls, which result in two, “I’ll take it,

First if: “Terrific read, evocative prose, etc, etc... But, it’s set in Mexico and Mexico is all poor people and drug dealers. Publishers don’t like Mexico. I’ll take if you change the setting.”

Second if: “It’s really good, but too long. Nobody wants big books these days. Cut it to 100,000 words and I can sell it muy pronto. Or, make it two books. I can sell both.”

I can’t move the setting. It’s got Aztecs and brujos for Christ's sake. I’m talking to a producer about a film option. He calls it, “Castaneda meets Clancy.”

As a journalist I write to word count, but losing 80,000 words of an 180,000
word novel isn’t a cut, it’s a chainsaw rewrite.

Should I fire up the chainsaw, maybe going for two books? Or keep pitching?

Thanks in advance,

PS Cool blog, except we gotta talk about your taste in booze.

Right now.
No thriller is 180,ooo words and yours doesn't need to be either and I can tell you that without reading it.

The Mexico objection is just stupid. Every agent and most smart publishers know exactly how many people in this country speak Spanish as their first language, and how many US citizens like to vacation in Mexico, retire to Mexico; and understand that Mexico like most countries has a wide variety of people, a substantial middle class, a thriving literary community and oh yea..they buy books.

You can whine about my taste in hooch when you start buying it bucko


Adrienne said...

I know it may seem impossible to cut anything, but it really is doable. I had to do it myself. Now my book was only 97 000 words but I have cut it by 17 000 which is quite huge considering my starting number. I have done this with only cutting one small scene (that I was fine with cutting) and the rest were done by working within chapters, paragraphs, sentences. I repeat, it is doable. Truly. And the most surprising thing is how when I re-read my book, I can't really tell what has been cut. Granted I am long winded (example this post), but I have faith you can do it. Heck have faith in your own abilities that you can do it. Seems like you got a wee bit of talent there!

Anonymous said...

Regarding the agent who wanted you to change your place from Mexico to who knows where. An agent I queried about a novel set in New Orleans wrote that no publisher would publish a novel about New Orleans no matter how good because New Orleans was "passe" and it was "no longer interesting."

ORION said...

Yeah and an agent told me using the Lottery as a premise was over done.

LadyBronco said...


Fire-up the 'ole Stihl and carve yourself two books out of your 180,000 words.

You have an agent waiting, so DO NOT pass this opportunity up!

Anonymous said...

It's clear Mexico is a saleable setting. Don't listen to that first agent. You can continue querying, but while you wait for the responses to come back, I think you should fire up that chainsaw and have a go at cutting stuff. You'd need to cut nearly half its contents, but if you did, this agent would be crawling all over the chance to sell it. You should at least try to see how much you can drop.

Anonymous said...

Been there done that...

Agent-The young officer that gets injured, can you eliminate the main character and make him your protagonist instead?
Editor-I love the older cop angle, everything today is slanted towards youth.

Editor-I think you have nailed the terrorist mindset!
Editor-Can you tell the story more from the terrorist perspective?
Agent-Can you show more feelings on behalf of the terrorists?

Agent-I really like the seemingly unconnected murders and the tension that they build!
Editor-Can you perhaps do away with a couple of the murders?

Editor-Your main plot theme of the attack is brilliant very unique!
Agent-My biggest issue is with the main attack it caused me to sigh somewhat in disbelief.

Editor-The part with the young officer is very suspenseful I squirmed as I was reading it!
Review-One undiscovered helicopter-crash victim's survival made me groan but Clackson stays well within the bounds of wide-eyed anticipation

Review-In a way, one can believe that terrorists must think in these black-and white terms otherwise they could not continue through with their tasks; tasks they believe are blessed and directed by god.
Editor-Do you really think that the terrorist are that single minded with their only purpose to inflict damage?

Review-There are a couple of delightfully unexpected plot twists. One is a romance angle involving the terrorists.
Editor-The part with the two terrorists romantic involvement didn't work for me and can maybe be taken out?

and so it goes.

Anonymous said...

Cut to 120,000. If it's that good, they won't quibble. That takes care of 20K words. Next, ruthlessly slice out all the parts that don't advance the plot directly. You know, the situations and conversations you're so damn proud you wrote, no one will notice you left them in. After that, follow Adrienne's advice and do line edits for extra fat. With your training as a journalist, you may not have much extra weight there. Failing to reach your goal, market it anyway at whatever count you have. Or analyze for a satisfying dramatic plateau, cut, stitch, and you have two books.

Cynthia Bronco said...

I recommend sending a nice barrel of gin to Miss Snark. As stated in her latest post, she does make it herself, and we certainly don't want her delicate digits to prune from her efforts.

Michael Carr - Veritas Literary said...

This is why it helps to have a realistic word-count plan before you start writing. I think it would be harder to cut 80K than to write a completely new book. The two book comment might be worth looking at if your novel is structured right.

As for the payaso who made the Mexico comment, as they say in Spanish, en boca cerrada, no entran moscas. Just ignore that.

Anonymous said...

Chainsaw, that's what they said to Thomas Wolfe. They were wrong then. They would say the same to Tolstoy, to Melville, and a hundred others whose names you all should know.

If a book is great, it's not the book that needs to have a chainsaw taken on it, it's the idiot industry that wants us kept in mental diapers reading 80,000 word chick-lit dirty-word poopie panty books while great work with big ideas won't be touched because it's too "big" for the pansy-ass editors and agents to play with. I think it's time for some *publishers* to weigh in on this, do they read this blog? Gimme a great big break, and a swig of that Oaxacan Mezcal, 'cause I'm with you in Rockville ...

Anonymous said...

I found this one:


in paperback form it has 1022 pages.

There are two sequels, 768 and 432 pages.

That's a lot of dead trees for a trio of pretty long reads. You can cite that as an example that long, well-researched novels sell.

The idea of splitting it into a two-parter is a good one. It looks like you've have follow-through, having done two books instead of one!

Anonymous said...

Tom Clancy doesn't cut no stinking words.

Anonymous said...

If it's a good read, it can't be too long.

Anonymous said...

Check out, In Country - not one extra word. Nelson DeMille usually runs a few hundred thousand words - thank goodness.

Anonymous said...

The literary types knock him all the time...but take a trip over to Nicholas Sparks web site and read how he cuts novels by more than 50,000 words sometimes. I've learned there's no point fighting it; just give'em what they want.

Kerry Allen said...

You'd probably also get more $$$ for a two-book deal than a single novel.

Not that anyone writes for money, of course.

Anonymous said...

I'm having a hard time believing an agent actually told you to change the Mexico setting. I'm having a harder time believing you took him seriously enough to publicly wonder if you should follow his advice. Also, where did you get the idea 180,000 words is the accepted length for thrillers? Not from research, that's for sure. But the tipping point, when I seriously came to doubt the validity of your post, came when you suggested Miss Snark get off the gin. That's when I knew you were a phony.

Anonymous said...

First book's always too long. Even for journos. Suck it up and cut it to 120,000 tops. 180,000 is NOT thriller length, I dunno who told you that, but they were wrong. Deaver/either Connolly/McDermid/Rankin didn't write longer than that for their first books. Sounds like you're onto a winner when you do that. Congrats!

Anne Elliott said...

2 books, yeah! Why not? Sounds like a fun revision project to me. (No, not volunteering.)

Cutting is not the same as deleting. Your outtakes can be valuable, regarless of how you resolve this.

Anonymous said...

I thought they were a phony from the way the email was written.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to perform a snarkectomey on one's work.

Daisy Bateman said...

Can you lose a subplot? It can be painful, but that's the easiest way to deal with a case of rampant wordism. And if you can extract it cleanly it can still be useful down the road.

Also, don't underestimate the shortening power of line edits. I suffer from serious "that" overusage and I have found (that) cutting just the excess of (that) one word can have a noticable effect on word count. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

My agent told me to break my 170K-word first novel in two. Fortunately, I agreed this would be a good thing. Fixing up the front half into a full novel (120K) was actually a lot of fun.

Note, however, that revising the second half is harder (for me, anyway). Still fun, but more complicated.

Unknown said...

Sure there's authors that are published who have huge word counts, who sell books.

Problem is, your name is not Tom Clancy.

Write to industry standards. When you're a bestselling author, THEN you can break the rules. Until then, you're just like the rest of us.

The problem isn't the industry, it's the people who buy books... enormous books by no-names don't sell... so the industry doesn't publish them.

ssas said...

Start with an -ly search. That's the first thing I do in revising my first drafts and last time I lost 1000 words right off the top. (Adverbs are only place holders for how you really wanted to say it, as far as I'm concerned.)

A Paperback Writer said...

nyah, I have a better dicho for the racist agent:
Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.


Anonymous said...

Well, this is more proof that "it's all about the writing" is a lie.

Anonymous said...

Listen, just because someone is an agent doesn't mean they have good judgement in what changes your book might need. Just look at all the masterpieces as well as best sellers that were rejected many times over before finding an agent or publisher, or received absurd advice on how it should be rewritten. There are good agents out there - keep looking until you find one who is interested or can at least give you sensible feedback. An agent that tells you the novel's setting shouldn't be Mexico should be understood as telling you, "I'm a terrible agent with idiotic ideas about literature! Stay away from me if you know what's good for you!"

As for the word count, maybe it needs cutting, but I would turn to reliable readers for an objective feedback on that question. I wouldn't take out a chainsaw just to please some stranger whose name I found in a reference book.

Sharon Maas said...

"Wrong location" may sound stupid, but it's serious. That's the snag that virtually ended my writing career the first time around. OK, it wasn't Mexico, but I was seriously upset when my own little British colony in South America was deemed not trendy enough by both agent and publisher. I'm stil trying to prive them wrong, and will get there some day.

I saw chainsaw. I tend to write long myself, but I have several tricks for cutting flab. First go through the ms and cut ten words from every page. In a 700 page ms, that's 7000 words! Then, look at each chunk of dialogue, and cut two sentences from each chunk. Then look cut one paragraph from each chunk of description.
Cut adjectives, adverbs, thats, reword and merge sentences etc etc. It can be done!
Good luck.

Anonymous said...

From Amadeus:

Emperor: Well, I mean, occasionally it seems to have... How shall one say... How shall one say, Direktor?
Direktor: Too many notes, Your Majesty?

Emperor: Exactly! Very well put. Too many notes.

Mozart: I don't understand. There are just as many notes, Your Majesty, as are required; neither more nor less.

Emperor: My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. [hesitates] I think I'm right in saying that, aren't I, Court Composer?

Salieri: Yes. Yes. On the whole. Yes, Your Majesty.

Mozart: [indignant] This is absurd!

Emperor: My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Anonymous said...

Salvatore, you're righteous!

Anonymous said...

Are the trees in Central Park even real? This is a

Anonymous said...

You got it anon, I sure am, and with a giant trunk of fine-honed manuscript to prove it ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Snarklings,

May I respond? To all of you who offered advice, anonymous and named, thank you most sincerely. Your various comments are quite helpful in aiding me to get some perspective on book publishing.

For those who suggest that I am some kind of phony (phony what?) I invite you to join me for a drink and conversation at the L.A. bar of your choice. Or we could do sabers at dawn. All the same to me. All the same to you?

My name is Morgan Ayres. My websites, where you can find my address, and where you may send your seconds if you prefer sabers, are: associatedimages.com & nomadicprods.com Anonymous is for sissies, especially if you going to impugn someone’s integrity. Old school guy here.

I choose to write a thriller because it’s where I thought I could bring some experience to bear, and because that market segment looked like it had some room. I write because writing is the highest from of art I can aspire to, can’t sing, can’t dance. But mainly, I write for money. I get words in a row and send em out and get a check in the mail. This allows me to do things I like to do, like drinking pastis at a sidewalk café in Aix, be glad to buy any Snarklings a drink who happen to be in town in September.

Regarding length. Yeah, I did the research. My main business is marketing entertainment, so I know how to do the research. I too have read Jennings, Wolfe, Tolstoy, etc. Then there’s Vikram Chandra’s 900-page mystery, Sacred Games. In an interview about Sacred Games Jonathan Burnham, HarperCollins senior VP, said, “The American public is accustomed to lengthy fiction.” There are a dozen or so contemporary novels of over 600 pages selling very well.

Who said thrillers ran 180,000 words? Stephen King did, check it out. Two well respected professional editors advised me to shoot for about 500 or so pages, which is the average size of books, including first books, from the likes of Ted Bell, Andy McNab, Daniel Silva, etc, etc.

So I did. However, it appears that I have a problem, one that the gracious Miss Snark has kindly identified. I had conflated word count and page count. My word processor shows The Jaguar’s Heart at 576 pages and 181,000 words. Perhaps my word count per page is higher than the average 250 wpp, or maybe there’s a software, or operator, problem. I’m working on that.

But the bigger questions are: will The Jaguar’s Heart will sell at its present length at all, and if so, would it sell better at its present length or in a slimed down version. I don’t have a clue. Book publishing remains opaque to me. I’ve been in business long enough to understand that the price of paper and ink figures into a publishers calculations. But I’ve also been in business long enough to realize that the public is the ultimate arbiter of taste, and that sometimes the supply chain is simply an obstacle to overcome on the way to market.

The problem with cutting Jaguar into two books is that it has a story arc that would require writing in a new conclusion for the first book, certainly doable, if necessary. Cutting 80,000 words is also doable. All I would lose is much of the character development, the sense of time and place, the color, the flavor, the sensuality of Mexico, a country I once loved like a woman. I would be left with an action driven core that would be much like other action driven books. And would, probably, sell like other competently written action driven books.

I’m working on a Jaguar script with my business partner, who has sold seven feature scripts, and wrote an Emmy award winning special. The script will run to 135 pages, and have no color, no scents and sounds, no description, because the camera will provide all of that. I like the idea of selling a script, more money for fewer words. And, I do realize that many authors are today selling slightly fleshed out scripts disguised as books.

But books are my first love, and I had the notion that there might be room on the shelf for a sweeping, colorful, romantic adventure about love, betrayal, political assassination, human sacrifice, immortality, sorcery and the elusive nature of reality, you know, everyday Mexican stuff. But maybe not. Maybe Jaguar isn’t even a thriller. Maybe it’s a “sweeping panorama of adventure,” as one CAA agent said, or maybe it’s just a novel.

I do want to sell a book and maybe get a little leverage for my next work. So, maybe I’ll have a slug of hooch (not gin) and fire up the Stihl, and tell my prospective agent that I’m still pitching while sawing.

To kingm and salvatore, chale no, I never considered moving it out of Mexico. As I said in my post, it’s a Mexican book. I was just looking for a reality check, sometimes it gets a little slippery. The pinche carbon who said that annoyed me, and got my attention, but there was no way. Muchas gracias mis amigos.

And regarding the gin thing, I wrote the lovely and gracious Miss Snark about my tragic encounter with the treacherous booze. Maybe she’ll share with Snarklings. I do advocate excess in all things, but not gin.