Saturday, January 24, 2015

That Word Count Thing...

I see a lot of writer's group posts about getting inspired by authorial talks and going off and churning out mass quantities of words. (Not to mention the whole NaNoWriMo phenomenon). Unfortunately, quantity is not always bliss.

Here is an alternative perspective, from that of an agented author trying to ready his manuscript for submission NY editors. A major challenge with Arisugawa Park has involved paring down the length of a complex narrative focused on Japan & North Korea.

It seems that the days when one could write as much as the plot required are gone and that any novel in the genre I inhabit (literary mystery/thriller) sells much more quickly––and presumably for a higher advance––if it is under 100,000 words. My novel, as accepted by the agency in October, stood at 134,000 words. They took it on despite the length... I felt very honored, as my agent took on two clients last year. That does not mean that I get a free pass, with regards to book length.


The agency intern, who championed my work (and who has since been snapped up as an editor by HarperCollins) made amazingly precise edits. She respected the length on the first go round, while noting in a comment that she really wanted to cut about 30,000 words––100 pages. I could not dismiss this lightly, as I truly found all of her editorial suggestions spot on.

Unfortunately, I could not shake a feeling that part of the reason why the cuts were suggested had to do with marketability. The golden mean trends these days toward beach reads that can be devoured in a day or two. There are also printing, distribution, and returns costs to be factored in and these are still at the forefront, despite the emergence of eBooks.

While not adverse to beach reads, I set my standards a bit higher––I imagine my work engaging the type of reader who enjoys thrillers that do not speed up into an orgiastic writhing of climaxes in the last 100 pages (think LeCarre, but less British). I realize that the tendency for readers is to fly through the latter pages of a well-constructed thriller. Still, I'd rather the reader slowed down, savored the journey––even at the moment of revelation and race-against-time urgency.

Despite leaving the agency, the former intern was kind enough to take a second pass at Ari Park and this time she primarily focused on cuts that would bring the manuscript to a base point where it could be accepted by the publishers. She pared it down to 118,700 words, noting that she really wanted to cut it to 115,000 (at which point it would still not be an easy sell).

I find myself agreeing with many of the word-count minded editorial suggestions––though with that aching pain that comes from "killing your darlings." Problem is, I only agree with about half of the cut suggestions. Some of the sections excised are essential to what I conceive of as the emotional and narrative arc of the story.

Fortunately, as author, I am not without recourse. In taking me on, the agent has agreed that she will ultimately go with the length that I decide fits the manuscript best. It simply may not sell to the editors. She tells me that most commonly, manuscripts over 115,000 words are returned with the vague assurance that the editor will take a second pass when it is significantly shorter. Months turn into years for a book that has already taken countless years and revisions to find a home.

In the end, the practicality of making a living must be weighed. I am counting on this book to make me a solid advance––I need to eat and am between a rock and a hard place. I cannot simply wait until my genius is discovered, as it likely never will be without an underpinning marketing machine.

So the quandary arises––integrity at the expense of a means to continue creative writing on my own terms (i.e. making enough money to earn a semi-respectable living.) Take home––what I have to accomplish in the next week involves no easy choices. Even with a respectable agent secured, the hard decisions never go away.