MY EDITOR WEIGHS IN
She didn’t like my book.
I submitted the manuscript for The Biggest Cowboy In The World to my publisher in May. I asked the editor to read it through before editing the words because I was not confident that I had a story people would enjoy. It would be wasted effort to make the words better if they weren’t the correct words to begin with.
I’ve spent eight or nine months writing the novel in a vacuum. I did not write a preliminary treatment of what the book would be about (because I really didn’t know) and I did not ask anyone to read the drafts along the way. I’ve blogged before that I set out to write somewhat of a sequel to Smoke Dreams, my first adult novel, published in 2013. I found that it was harder to do and less satisfying than what I expected, but I still maintained the new storyline to be complimentary to the first novel or, at least, not to contradict the first novel. My editor has not read Smoke Dreams.
It took her a month or so to finish the book (she had other commitments and was travelling in July) and we talked last week on the phone (she was in Virginia). Her feedback included these points:
She had a double-handful more of specific recommendations, but the big items needed to be fixed first. Overall, it was not a book she’d choose to read, nor would she recommend it to a general reader.
We talked about whether it was a good story badly written, or just a bad story. Finding new words is relatively easy, but curing a bad story is fundamentally hard and may sometimes require just throwing it away as a bad idea. I’ve heard of many writers who have chunked new works in the trash. I could do that, but I would hate to. It’s the equivalent effort of writing three new Mogi stories.
We decided that it was a story that could become a good story, but needed major changes.
I am happy with her feedback. In fact, it was a relief to finally hear serious comments. I’m probably a better fixer of something than I am a creator of something, anyway, so rewriting a manuscript gets me excited. We decided that changing the story a little would make it less confusing and could use fewer words and develop better characters. She is not clear how to go about it, which is good, because it’s not clear to me, either.
She’s been the editor for nine of the ten Mogi Franklin stories and I surprised her by writing something completely different. Of course, I view it as innovative writing, whereas she sees it as a failure to communicate. I suspect that she is more correct.
I am now rewriting the manuscript, but I did four global things before I started:
My assessment (especially after having deleted 24,000 words) is that my novel had way too much clutter – telling too much history, giving too much description, giving too much background to situations, making actions too slow and ponderous, building too much backstory to characters and locations, and, in general, obscuring both the storyline and the characters with too many words about other things.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t have to put some of the deleted words back. Transitions between scenes, informational content valuable to the story, some flavor and color to the language, items that made for a richer understanding of what was going on, and other aspects. As I’m rewriting, I’ll need to stay aware of what’s missing.
I’ve also ordered some “western” books from Amazon. I’ve read several books by Louis L’Amour in the past, but the bulk of my experience with westerns have come from Larry McMurtry, who is probably too literary to be a model for a traditional “western writer”. I want to read westerns to see the words, sentences, and paragraphs that western writers use, as well as how they use plots, timing, action scenes, transitions, color, and pace. I’m not sure that John Wayne movies reflect a typical cowboy anymore.
Having already made it through thirty of about two hundred pages, I’m feeling good about my momentum. I’ve deleted more words, changed some sentences to be tighter and clearer, and have corrected some small errors. I like what’s happening. I estimate that it will take all of August to produce another draft, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my editor likes my new version.
When I submitted the final manuscript of my new novel to my publisher, the response from the Senior Editor was that my manuscript had been accepted, but that its length (approximately 147,000 words) might be problematic.
My novel, if published at the length that I submitted, is longer than normal for the type of fiction novel that the publishing house typically produces and is probably longer than the “standard” length recommended by the publishing industry for a novel of its type. Novels that are longer than the standard risk not being read by readers because they won’t buy a book that’s either over a certain length or is greater than a certain thickness.
I didn’t know that the publishing industry had “standards” for length, but after reading a few articles, I have found, for example, that adult fiction novels have typical lengths of 80k to 90k words, with 110k being considered as the upper limit; science fiction and fantasy run longer, at about 90k to 100k words, and maybe up to 125k.
Middle grade novels are normally from 20k to 55k words, and maybe between 40k to 55k for older middle graders; 55k to 80k words is a great range for Young Adult Fiction.
These “standards” do not confine any particular book to any particular length (the publisher can do what they want) but are indicators that certain readers may not buy the book because it appears “too long” for their tastes or for what they are accustomed to reading.
I found “standard” lengths for every book genre, including Picture Books, Westerns, Mysteries, and Memoirs. I do not know if there are standards for non-fiction books, and I also do not know if standards are different for electronic books.
My Mogi Franklin Mystery books are 38k for the smallest and about 47k for the longest, so they are within the standard range. The King of Trash is about 80k, and Teddy’s War is close to 90k (it was submitted at 105k words), so they are also within the given range for adult fiction novels.
However, my new novel is out of the norm by about 50%, which is a lot. I want to think that I wrote the story that I was compelled to write, so I have the usual authorly reply that the story needs all the words that I used in writing it. I cover a lot of ground with the action (from St. Louis to Las Vegas, NM, to Ft. Sill, OK, to Goodnight, TX, and then up to Nebraska), while setting the story in at least a couple of timeframes (1870 to 1884, and 1904), so I attribute the longer-than-normal length of the book to its being more of an “epic” than the usual fiction novel.
We’ll see what my story editor has to say after she finishes her first read-through.
It was interesting to find the lengths of some major novels that are considered huge:
The Harry Potter books range from The Philosopher’s Stone at 77,325 words to the Deathly Hallows at 198,227, totaling more than a million words for the whole story.
The Lord of the Rings has a total of 455,125 words across the three books.
The first five Game of Thrones books run from 298,000 to 424,000 words, totaling close to 2 million words. And that’s without the next two books.
Examples of well-known books with fewer words include:
The Great Gatsby has 47,094.
Black Beauty has 59,635.
The Sun Also Rises has 67,707.
Anne of Green Gables has 97,364.
To Kill a Mockingbird has 100,388.
Sense and Sensibility has 119,394.
A Tale of Two Cities has 135,087.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has 145,092.
The Grapes of Wrath has 169,481.
Moby Dick has 206,052.
Lonesome Dove has 365,712.
Gone With the Wind has 418,053.
War and Peace has 587,287.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve never known the number of words in a book before I read it. If I have a “size” criteria, it’s more the thickness of the book, which is connected to how much time I think it will take to read it. There are several books that I haven’t bought because they looked “too long”, and I’ve gotten to where I always look at the number of pages for any particular book on Amazon. The older I get, the less inclined I am to suffer through a great number of pages, regardless of the story.
In spite of that, my current reading book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, has over 500 pages, while another reading book I’ve started, The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, has a little more than 300 pages. In each case, the number of pages tell little about the number of words in each book since the font size can be adjusted, as can the space between lines. I would bet that the book by Mark Sullivan has more words than the “standard” adult fiction novel, and I would also bet that its length is not unusual compared to other adult fiction novels on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Every business should have rules-of-thumb that define how their products should be configured to sell best, and publishers are no different. I’m not sure that I can shorten my story by a third without ruining the story, but I’m open to recognizing that I might have written a story that is too long for an average reader to be interested in reading in the first place.
Experienced publishers and editors live their lives trying to balance words, pages, and covers with readability, marketability, and practicality, so it’s their job to judge my future book for the readers that I’ve targeted. If it’s a long story, it may take a long book to tell it. On the other hand, it may be a great story but if people are naturally inclined to not even buy it, then no one will read the book, anyway.
When it comes down to it, my publisher doesn’t want to publish a book that people won’t read, and, when it comes down to it, I’m supposed to trust them to help me make the book more likely to be read.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.