122 Rules by Deek Rhew

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Path to Getting Published Part 4: Query Letter and Debut Novel Length

A Lesson in Query Letters and Debut Novel Length

I started my second novel two years ago, the first one being a learning experience and is collecting dust in some digital folder someplace. The content for the new book, perhaps my very first true muse experience, started with a flash of a scene that was so clear and vivid, I had to write it down. No laptop and my handwriting is crap, so I typed it in an email on my phone. Wish still had that email, but it's long lost in a cyber trashcan someplace. After that the story just kind of started writing itself.

It felt like someone was handing me the content. That somehow I was cheating and at any time someone, someone with actual talent, was going to call me on my bluff and my story would be done. But that didn't happen.

On the journey I only did the smallest amount of research and almost never talked about my writing. This was mostly because I was worried I would jinx whatever voodoo, disrupt the energy, kill the mojo, or whatever it was that was making things work.

I remember reading an acknowledgement section where the author said he was giving his book away because he ran out of content before he reached the minimum 100,000 words his publisher required. I was about 50,000 words into my own book by then, so I that's where I threw down the flag. 100,000 came and I remember internally doing back flips in celebration.

Cue ominous book too long music

Then I kept going. Right. Cue book-too-long ominous music. A few months later I finished my first manuscript at just over 170,000 words.

I was ecstatic! That was awesome! Booyah!

Editing took nine months and when I finished I had an 180,000 word behemoth. See I'm a put-'er-inner not a take-'er-outer. Still thinking I'm doing okay, I went through and "killed my darlings" taking out excessive adjectives and even pulling an entire story line, creating a novella from that content. Still, even after all that it was still 157,000 words long. Sweet! If 100,000 was good, 157,000 was even better, right?

Those of you in the know are shaking your heads. Right. I know I missed a memo somewhere.

Someone missed a memo
The moment of reckoning came when I posted my query letter on Agent Query for critiquing. I found the link to the site on Dee Ann Waite's blog entry Are You Really Ready to Publish?. Guess what the number one thing they said? WAY too long. The actual comment was, "No agent in their right mind would sign a 160k word debut novel." You have to appreciate Yuffie's candor.

What? No way! Google will justify my indignation! Only it didn't. Nor did an email to Dee. Both confirmed the absolute maximum for a debut novel is 120,000 words, but more in the 85-95k range is preferred. It's too expensive to print such ginormous tombs for a new authors. Plus, does your novel need to be that long? Really? No, probably not.

Google to the rescue!
So the last couple of days I have been figuring out what to cut. NOTHING! Screams part of my mind. But the more I've worked on the query letter, the more I've realized what the core focus of the book is and just how far I tend wander off the path from The Phone Rang... to the The End.

Another revision of the query letter, a printout of the MS, and a sharp #2. No more put-'er-inning, only take-'er-outing with some reworked content.

This has been a roller coaster, dipping into the disheartening and stressful with short peaks of optimism. Needless to say not much else is on my mind as of late. It doesn't mean the end of my writing career, it's just a milestone. A smack-along-side-the-head learning experience. Plus, writing a query letter, summarizing your book in a few short sentences is a bitch.

I have challenged myself to see how much I could take out and still have a great story. With that in mind I'm grinding my pencil and checking my ego.

Take-aways for debut novelists:
  1) Novel word length goal: 80,000 to 95,000
  2) Query letter word length: 250-300
  3) Visit QueryShark.BlogSpot.com for query samples. Agent Janet will critique your letter for you
  4) Writing a query letter is hard work. No two ways about it. No shortcuts.
  5) Visit Agent Query for more help on your query letter.
  6) Your letter is more than just to get an agent. Use it to help you focus on the core of your novel. The two actually go hand-in-hand.
  7) After you are done editing, spend a few bucks and print your book. Then get a pencil and start marking things off that need to be cut.
Stephen King says it's about story and it's only about story. Thank you again, Mr. King. Right as always.

Carry on.


  1. The picture of the phone is blocking some of the words... Best of luck to you, always!

    1. Ah dang. That's what I get for trying to get all fancy. Thanks for stopping by and for the heads up, Veronica. Cheers!

  2. Great post - it is so tough to stop once you get on a roll, but cutting is sometimes necessary. Keeping that limit in mind really makes you focus on the core of your story.

    Here is a link to the Writer's Digest blog that I keep bookmarked for easy reference on word lengths for different genres.

    Keep up the good work - I enjoy following your progress!

    1. Wow, Alecia, that article is fantastic. Love how Chuck hands it to you like a Christmas present, summarized and complete with bow. Thanks for the link.

      My book is bloated and that's okay. I got to stretch my creative legs without concern for length as I learned the elements of storytelling and talking to my muse. I think most new author need that experience. Now I'm learning to trim the fat. The next time around will be much more focused. Not as much as it will need to be, but better. The next, still better. So on.

      This is the most frustrating job I've ever loved.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Good points here, Jay. Thoughtful and occasionally ruthless editing can actually tighten a good story, not take away from it. Best wishes on your writing journey! :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lelani. So true. If you go through your book looking for bloat, it's amazing what you can cut. Turns out not EVERY character needs a back story and half the description is actually better. Who knew? :-)

  4. Have you tried adding even more and turning it into a series? My first attempt was around 110k which was far too long for YA. Instead of cutting, I added until I had 210k, then I split it into three volumes. Sometimes it can be right to cut, if the story is as you say, bloated. But sometimes there's even more you can say. I'd get a few more opinions before you do anything drastic.

    1. Jane, you bring up an interesting point and one that I wrestled with, more often that not at 2 AM. My book has these two inner-connected story lines which come together and resolve at the end and I could never figure out how to break them apart so they stood on their own. Of course leaving line lines mixed and ending it "to be continued" is an option, but it just feels wrong. Talked it over with one of my betas and they agreed.

      There is another book in this, I'm about 35k words into it in fact, but as I'm reading through this one I think it's just fat and needs a diet. What I'm going to end up with are two novels, and 3-4 novellas.

      Your suggestion is brilliant, I've read a couple of series where the author pulled it off splendidly. But in this case I don't think it will work.

      Thanks so much for sharing your idea and for stopping by!