Pub Rants

Wrong Question/Right Question

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STATUS: I’m digging into a contract so now you will know what I’ll be doing for the next 2 hours….

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MORE THAN WORDS by Extreme

When I was at RWA, I did a workshop with my client Ally Carter. We were the only workshop at that conference that addressed anything in the Children’s realm. Let me tell you, the session was packed (to my surprise).

Anyway, the point of our workshop was this: people who want to write young adult always ask the wrong questions and we want to point that out and explain what the right question should be.

The best part of the workshop was the PowerPoint slides. We’d put up the wrong question on screen and you could feel the in-drawn breath of the entire audience. They had been thinking exactly that wrong question!

So sure enough, Sara got an email today from an aspiring writer asking one of those exact wrong questions. The person asked what is the right word count/length for his/her middle grade or young adult novel.

Gong. Wrong question.

The right question is this: how important is pacing in my middle grade or young adult novel?

See, it’s not about word count (look at the latter Harry Potter and Twilight books for goodness sake). Those books got some meat on them there bones—and it’s not just because they were hugely successful so therefore the author could use whatever length she wanted. It’s about pacing the novel so well, readers don’t mind length.

This September, I’ve got my first middle grade novel publishing. Helen Stringer’s SPELLBINDER is a whopping 372 pages long. And folks, this isn’t in larger print. It’s a long middle grade novel. But the trick is that it can’t feel like it when reading. The pacing has to be absolutely perfect. If it is, readers and editors will not quibble about the length.
So don’t ask me how many words or pages your project needs to be because I can’t tell you. If you are on the low side (like under 50,000 words for YA or under 40,000 words for MG), you might not have developed your story enough. However, I don’t know that for sure until I read it. Maybe you have written the perfect 30,000 word MG novel. I have no idea.

But what I can reinforce is this: asking about word count or page length is definitely the wrong question.

More Than Words (Acoustic) – Extreme

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30 Responses

  1. Weronika said:

    This is an interesting post.

    I have never thought about writing for the YA market in this way. It’s always been about fitting myself into the standards set up for aspiring authors, but it’s good to know that there are ways to fit in without necessarily following all the rules.

    Thank you, Kristin!

  2. Kourtnie McKenzie said:

    I wish I could have been at RWA to find out all the wrong questions! 🙂 Will you be giving this presentation at the Hawaii Writer Conference in a couple of weeks?

    Thanks so much for the advice!

  3. Anonymous said:

    Word count questions always crack me up. For example, I’ve never heard of under 40,000 in MG being on the low side! In my experience, 40,000 tends to be the max in MG! We must be reading different MG novels. 🙂

  4. Becca Cooper said:

    YES! Thank you! The other day someone told me they thought 50K was long for YA these days, on account of teenagers’ short attention spans. I died a little inside. (Being a teenager, I can safely say we do not all have the attention span of a gold fish.)

    So again, thank you for this post! 😀

  5. MeganRebekah said:

    I wasn’t at RWA but I did print out your worksheets from their website! I have them in my laptop case right now, easily accessible.

    Also to Becca Cooper – I feel you! When I was a teen I loved fat books. The bigger the better. I read fast and never wanted the book to end, so I always went straight for the long books.

  6. Di Francis said:

    My love of fat fantasy and trilogies and series started when I was in grade school and into high school. The longer the better. I liked to wallow in the worlds and stories. It’s odd for me to think of short books as desirable.

  7. Tamara Hart Heiner said:

    this is good advice…except when I was shopping for agents with my YA novel, I read on many, many a website something akin to the following: “If your novel is not within [enter word range], it will not even be considered.” It wasn’t usually quite so harshly put (though sometimes it was), but the gist was the same.

    So if a book’s going to be judged by its word count, how will that agent ever know if it had meat or not?

    I actually chopped 30K from my novel. And then found a publisher who promptly asked me to add 20K worth of scenes. But I wonder if they would’ve been interested if they’d seen the original word count, which is usually included in a query but not a sample.

  8. Anonymous said:

    As far as middle grade The Spiderwick Chronicles are all about 15,000 words long while most of the Rowling’s are over 100,00. A story should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story. No more, no less.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Great blog post! I was actually discussing word count with a friend of mine, and on a certain website, most people are writing really short YA! These same people also said YA rarely accepts novellas, but I consider 45,000 to be a novella, which is the length most of them write YA at. My friend told me all of this, as her YA is 85,000, and I was quite shocked to find out my inklings about 45k being a novella were right!

  10. Anonymous said:

    I’m sorry, Kristen, but that is an absolutely fair question to ask about word count. I don’t write YA or MG but I know you all are EXTREMELY rigid about word count for *adult* novels – try, as a debut novelist, writing a book for grown-ups the size of a Harry Potter book! You’re only allowed to do that if you have an MFA and have written an extremely long boring travelogue-style novel about vampire librarians. 😉

    The word count of adult novels is something the writing books do NOT mention. I had to find out about this from blogsters like yourself and Miss Snark, and the reasons given are the same as you hear about teenagers – “People don’t have the attention spans that they used to.” I don’t buy this for a minute as I did exactly what you people are always TELLING us to do, which is to “write what you’d want to read.” Well, my fave novels are David Copperfield, Gone With The Wind, Quo Vadis, and “The Journeyer” (1000+ page novel about the travels of Marco Polo) so imagine my surprise when I found I was supposed to trim my first novel down to 100,000 words to satisfy some arbitrary whim. (It was still shorter than my faves.)

    You are the ONLY literary agent I’ve seen so far who says size doesn’t matter. MG, YA or GU (Grown UP).

  11. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think they are the wrong questions at all. Word length is important in YA because THATS what gives you the parameters of how to pace your novel.

    If you think you’ve got 100k to play with as opposed to 45k, well that just changed the way you can approach writing and the amount of subplots, ect, you can include.

    I don’t see why that is a terrible question. In fact, only hacks don’t worry about word count. They think there are no rules whatsoever and that’s why you get people quyering with 230k epic fantasy novels in YA. Better to ask than to waste all that time on a first draft.

  12. Mochi said:

    Definitely makes sense. Although I find pacing one of the hardest things when it comes to writing. I suppose I’ll have to work on it a bit more.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Unpubbed writers are hungry to know what publishers see as an acceptable word count range. Sure, there are exceptions, but to tell writers it’s the “wrong question” is not helpful at all. (And frankly, makes me feel like I’m some idiot for wondering.) Explaining that under 40K for MG is on the low side, and over 100K for MG is higher than average–but could work if the story is strong and well-paced–is helpful.

  14. Amy Allgeyer Cook said:

    I’m not sure I agree. With the amount of submissions these days, I think editors are looking for reasons to weed out their slush. Word count is something that’s usually listed in the query, and if it seems way out of whack, that can’t bode well for the writer. Especially a beginning writer with little or no credits, workshops or platform to their name.

    Even if the pacing of a book is great, the editor may never get that far. In their mind, selling a 100,000 word MG could seem like too much of a long-shot, and not worth requesting a partial.

    I also agree with anonymous 6:13who said 40,000 is on the long side for middle-grade. Because of Winn Dixie, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Rule, Number the Stars, The Lemonade War…all under 30,000 words. I’ve always been told 30-40K was the average for MG.

    Of course, there are books worth breaking every rule. The Tiger Rising is only about 18,000 words. But if you’re Kate DiCamillo, I guess you’re allowed to break some rules. 😉

  15. Anonymous said:

    Kristen has stated that for her, word count doesn’t matter. It’s the story that counts. If someone is querying her that would be a good thing to keep in mind. Another agent might not feel the same way, and many state it on their blogs. The confusion comes in when the agent’s site or the agency site has no blog and doesn’t give any indication that if you send in a query with a word count under or over their requirements, it may (I said may) get you rejected right off the bat.

    I won’t name the agents, but others want writers to stay within the guidelines of word count, and there have even been agents who’ve put up what the numbers for each genre should be (basically that an author should be within the numbers posted.

    This is also a subject that causes new authors to think agents aren’t consistent in what they ask for. But having a spreadsheet with as much info you can get on that particular agent can help.

  16. Mariana said:

    This is interesting, especially because we see so many people warning about the appropriate word count for each genre. Some agents wouldn’t even bother requesting a partial to see the wonderful pacing the author has set for his/her novel because of the unusual word count. Isn’t this true?

    Anyway, I got curious to know which are the other right/wrong questions, and hope you’ll share them somewhere in the future.

    Ah, thanks for the great posts on publicity! Very educating.

  17. Anonymous said:

    It’s just that for YOU it is the wrong question. But obviously you are not going to represent even a fraction of the people that read this blog or attend your workshops.

    I had an A-list agent for my YA who said, point blank, I don’t want contemporary YA to be over 240 pages in Times New Roman. Hell, that wasn’t even a word count, that was a “I can feel if this is too long just by picking up the damn thing.”

    You have to realize writers crave consistancy within the agent/editor/publishing world. And they never get it. They are asking how long is too long because 15 other agents have all said, 45k for a YA is way too short for me, or 85k is way, way too long. And vice versa and every arbitrary number in between. Nevermind that Story of a Girl is 45k or Paper Towns 85k.

    I read a post not long ago by an agent listed on the side of your blog who said “most” YA was around 80 or 85k. Huh? No way. 50 or 60k, maybe. But 85k? For non-fantasy? I immediately crossed that agent off my list. Sorry, but that is the blind leading the blind.

    I bet lots of agents turned down this latest project of yours simply by looking at the word count listed in the query letter. So, what if YOU didn’t pick it up? Might not be published at all, really. Great. Except not ever author can count on “maybe Kristin will like this.”

    No, a smart writer does ask about word count, and they ask a lot of agents, hoping to deduce some sort of median number they can use as a guide. It’s not the wrong question.

  18. Mechelle Fogelsong said:

    After recently attending the PNWA conference, I realized that each agent seems to want something different. To some, word count is paramount. To others (like Ms. Nelson), it’s relatively insignificant. Some like email queries; others prefer snail mail. The list of preferences goes on and on.

    I suppose this is why so many agencies’ websites suggest you do you homework before you solicit an agent. Make sure that agent represents what you write. I’m not going to change the way I write to suit a particular agent. Rather, I’m going to write what I love to write and find an agent who suits it. I think that pretty much sums things up, don’t you?

  19. Anonymous said:

    The word counts I read on blogs always perplex me. My last published novel (middle grades) was around 65,000 words– but the book didn’t look fat, not even in that jacket. I never think about word counts and always go over what people are saying is standard. People think too much about this.

    I hope you’ll be telling us some of your other questions!

  20. Tara said:

    I think word count can give you general guidelines when you’re just starting out. But if that’s your main concern–you’ve got work to do.

    I also think a more important point is to know the guidelines for the people to whom you want to submit. If you want to keep your 300-word, Times New Roman font story, look for an agent that doesn’t specify 200 words in Courier.

  21. Deb said:

    People, if you send an agent a query on a YA novel, and say something on the order of, “Per XYZ’s stated guidelines, at whom I’m targeting this project, the length here is 45K words” or something to that effect…how can an agent quibble with this?

    And, as much as I liked the Harry Potter books — perfect pacing? Um. No. Book 7 could have been paced much differently and still told the story. IMO.

  22. Lisa said:

    This is random.

    But how long does it usually take you to read a client’s manuscript? Will you take a few weeks with the amount of reading you have to do?

    For example, say you’re working on revisions with a signed client, but nothing has been submitted to an editor yet.

  23. Allison Brennan said:

    I agree with Kristin. Word count is secondary to everything else. Word count is a guideline–a suggestion. Sort of like “Most YA books fall between 60,000 and 90,000 words.” Some publishers prefer the shorter YA, some the longer YA.

    Authors who focus on word count are making a mistake because it’s NOT the word count that sells the book. It’s the story itself: are the characters engaging, is the pacing strong, is the conflict real, is the writing itself any good. That’s what editors think of first.

    I’ve talked to numerous editors who all say they would prefer to have a book that is too long that needs to be trimmed–it’s much easier to cut–than a book that’s too short because it’s very difficult to add content without it seeming like filler.

    That said, I know that authors (especially unpublished authors) are anal about word count because they don’t want to write a 120,000 word book and have the agent say, “It’s too long” without reading a word. My advice is always to write the story as it needs to be written, with all the scenes, the characters, the length that you need to get everything out on paper–they edit mercilessly.

  24. Laura said:

    I am finishing up a YA fiction novel (finally!) but I heard the term Middle Grade fiction for the first time recently and think my book would fit in best there. (I am a middle grade math teacher.)

    Does it make a big difference in my query letter if I say the book is for either MG or YA? Is that something the publisher can help me define or am I supposed to know for sure before I pitch the book?

    Anyone know the answer to this?