Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The word count of your manuscript

--matters a lot. But at the same time, it doesn't mean anything.

I've planned many books and written many outlines, and I've come to write my outlines in such a way that I orient the whole thing around predicting a word count. For me, this is normal. I tend to ram my shoulder up against the wall of recommended word counts for young adult, which is usually 70,000-100,000 words for a single manuscript (and of course there are those who break those rules and get away with it, but debut 130,000 words like City of Bones are few).

The word count, of course, can be thrown out the window if your PACING is phenomenal. If you've trimmed all the fat and you've written a true commercial page-turner, then 130,000 words means nothing.

Well, that's what I've been told, but let's be honest: a word count in a query to a literary agent is like judging a face before you meet the person. Querying a 100,000 young adult manuscript written by an unpublished author is a daunting task -- and I've done it a few times, so I know. It comes with a stigma.

"Does this author know how to pace or is there a lot of unnecessary narrative in here?"

"Am I going to take the risk and look into it, or should I look at the next query with a similar premise and a more modest word count?"

"How difficult will this be to sell to a publisher?"

Because a larger word count is more expensive, which naturally means they're more difficult to sell.

Orienting my outline so I can predict a word count is absolutely necessary for me. This helps me avoid a more arduous task when I've finished the last word on the final page: finding out my word count is way too big and having to find scenes and parts to chop off. It hurts. I cry and sweat and lay face-down, flat on the floor in a dark corner until I grow mushrooms.

I don't even like mushrooms.

If you haven't learned the language of word counts and you plan to one day seek publication, then you should familiarize yourself with it early on. This means if you say, "I finished a chapter!" and I ask you, "How many words?" you can't say, "Oh, I don't know, but it's seven pages."

Pages mean nothing. I don't know how you're formatting your pages, if you write with thin slivers for indents or extra paragraph spaces or comic sans (and I don't want to know if you're writing in comic sans).

Managing your word count may make your phalanges twitch in displeasure, but as someone who took a 166,000 word manuscript and shrunk it to 106,000, only to make it worse, I believe the minor pain is worth it. To me, it's like guiding a bonsai tree as it grows, caring for and nurturing it day-by-day, instead of letting it expand chaotically and then chopping off unnecessary limbs after.

The key, of course, is finding out what works best for you.

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