traditional publishing

Manuscriptus Gigantus

Good morning. Welcome to Friday. So prepare for a lot of jokes about things being big, or small, or just good enough. Yes, it’s time to talk about your manuscript’s length. We can do this. Maybe without too much snickering.


Whenever we talk size, and then make a move to clutch our pearls because we feel our hard work is under attack or is automatically termed inadequate by people who haven’t experienced it, it’s important to remember that size is subjective within an objective range.

It’s given as a range because no one can agree on a single length, a uniform measurement that everyone adheres to. And this is because you can’t ask a writer to produce every book the same way. Even when you give word counts, not everyone writes exactly to the limit. Sometimes they don’t want to, other times they don’t have to. We compensate for this by using ranges. Here then, are the ranges I’d expect and tell people to use:

Picture Books
I talk to a lot of authors who want to make books for kids, either their own, or their kids’ kids, or just young kids in general. And it’s a nice market, frankly. The art does the majority of the idea delivery, but the accompanying words give moms and dads something to sound out so that future generations can be exposed to the awesome idea that reading is a good part of life and is totally okay to do.

Your magic number is 32 pages. That’s become a rough standard. Now on those pages you may have 1 line, you may multiple lines, so if we’re talking word count, aim for under 500 total words.

Early/Easy Readers
These are the books that, not surprisingly, easy to read. They’re based on a level system, with the higher levels having more words, and each level increasing by 200 words. So if your level 1 book has 100 (most level 1s have either 100 or 200 words), your level 2 will have 300. (100 + 200)There’s a plus or minus here of around 30 words. (Though no one’s going to flip out if your level 3 book has 509 words.)

The Short Stuff
“Short stuff” refers to the group of less than 45k fiction, and there’s a lot of variations and definitions, so I’ll break this down and define things as needed.

Microfiction is a complete story that ranges from 140 characters (Twitterfiction) to 200 words.
Flash fiction is a complete story of 201 to 1000 words.
A short short story is a complete story of 1001 to 4000 words.
A long short story is complete story of 4001 to 8000 words.

A novelette is a complete story of 8001 to 17,500 words
A novella is a complete story of 17,501 words to 45k.

When I say a “complete story” I mean it has all the stuff you’d expect in a full novel, just in a smaller package, and that it all works. It’s not just a chunk of a draft (you wouldn’t take the first 18 chapters of your MS and call it a novella, it’s not a complete story)

Young Adult
Here’s a fertile workspace for authors. And as a result, there’s a lot of variation in the MS size. Likewise, the average MS is coming in larger than ever before, so expect this range to increase over the next two to three years.

It’s a safe bet to have your YA at 55k to 70k but it’s becoming more common that YA weighs in around 75k, with a ceiling somewhere near 80k-81k (though many people take the upper end there to mean the MS is bloating, so mind your mileage.

I’ve been asked if there’s a basement level on YA, and I’d say 45k. Some blogs and people will say 40k, but 45k feels better .

New Adult
Another fertile space for authors, New Adult arose from the expanding reader pool that weren’t tweens, but not yet comfortable diving into the literary classics that secondary education keeps insisting are the only “true novels.” Like Young Adult, these labels then absorb other genre labels, so you can for example have “New Adult Paranormal Romance” or “Young Adult Crime Thriller” without being completely laughed at. They range from 60k to 85k.

The Adult Novels
Here we get to the sweet spot. It’s important to remember that there are far more genre than I could easily list out here, so I’m just going to list the ones I come most into contact with.

Science Fiction and Fantasy novels (not counting the epic novels) run from 90k to 120k. The “epic novels” (think supersized versions) take that upper number up to 175k, but they also call for increased scrutiny, especially from first-time authors who want to use “epic” to disguise MS bloat or an inability to /disinterest in trimming down their work.

Westerns (which are coming back, thanks to the current political climate romanticizing past America) run from 50k to 80k.

Mysteries and Thrillers (different than Crime fiction, which is below) run from 70k to 90k.

Crime and Noir fiction run from 90k to 100k, thanks to a strong resurgence in the last 20 years across multiple media. There’s also a lot of crossover into urban fantasy here.

Romance is a huge genre with a lot of very popular off-shoots, more than I could easily account for. This diversity leads the range to be 40k to 100k, with Regency, Inspirational, Romantic Suspense, and Supernatural Romance ranging from 40 to 80k typically.

Horror as a genre is often left broad, because things that scare us are numerous, whether we’re talking splatterfest books of the 1970s or the more cerebral stories of impending tentacled horror. The typical MS spans 80k to 100k.

Memoir, Biography, Autobiography
Jumping the fence to non-fiction (I’ve never handled the comedic alt-autobiography where you’ve got the fictive history of a not-real person, but I’d consider that comedy which could be 60k to 90k), the range opens up to practically Romance lengths, anywhere from 50k to 110k usually.

There are a lot of numbers here, so I’ve put them together in handy downloadable chart form. Download your copy here.

As we wrap this up, it’s important to remember that these are guidelines, and that a novel can easily not fall into these categories as a standout. But as a range, it sets an expectation for author and reader (whomever that is) alike.

Come in over range, like way over range, and you’ll give the reader the impression you’ve written a bloated MS that you can’t possible pare down. Come in under range and you’ll give the reader the impression you’re nervous and that the MS is starved for anything other than a bare story skeleton with only enough info as to tell the plot in the simplest terms.

Let’s all celebrate that we talked about length without too much giggling, and at no time in the last 1133 words did I mention anything about motions on oceans. Go us.

See you next week. Have a great weekend writing and doing stuff.


Posted by johnadamus in check this out, living the dream, 1 comment

Things You Should Not Put Into Query Letters

Hey writer.

Hey John.

I see you’re working on your query letter.

Yeah, this is really tough. I never know what to say, and I just get so frustrated.

Well, how about we talk a little bit about what shouldn’t go into a query letter, and maybe that’ll help?

It can’t hurt. I’m so aggravated at the whole system.

Do Not Put Any Of The Following Things In Your Query Letters

Death Threats Here’s an easy one. Don’t threaten to kill yourself or the reader of the letter if they don’t approve your work. Don’t threaten their families, their pets, their homes or their offices. I’m aware that Google can get you a lot of information about a person, but that does not permit you to use that information in some sort of terroristic way to get what you want. Also, this is both really scary, and really illegal.

Threats of Sexual Violence Another easy one. Don’t threaten to rape or rape-and-then-torture the reader of your letter if they don’t give your manuscript the thumbs-up. Don’t threaten their families, children, pets, friends, or anyone. Again, this is super scary and super illegal.

Bribe Money Including money to “sweeten the deal” is not going to guarantee your book rocketing towards the best-seller stratosphere. Any agent, editor or publisher who has intimated to you that their approval is for sale IS NOT someone you want to be dealing with. There is a difference between someone joking at a workshop or conference that you can get them to say yes if you offer them a million dollars and pie and actually enclosing a personal check or money order for several thousand dollars. Also, I’m pretty sure this skirts a few legal lines.

Drugs Even if where you live the material you enclose is legal, it is possibly not legal on the receiving end. This becomes especially not-good if you move up the scale of hard drugs or prescription meds and you’re just slipping a few pills or a baggie of powder in with your parcel. This is not going to win you any professional friends nor establish yourself as reputable or nice. So it might totally go over well with your writing group to pass around a joint while you bore people with your free verse about the pain felt by a soy latte, your YA novel about the girl who can talk to endangered species doesn’t become a sure thing since you included that 8-ball.

John, these are all pretty obvious. I’m not threatening anyone, I don’t have enough money to bribe even a child, and I got no drugs. What else am I doing wrong?

Okay, let’s get into the content of your query then:

Your ending If you’re giving away how the story ends, you are betraying the idea that the query is supposed to make the reader want to find out more. It’s a lure, it’s there to both see how well you craft your words AND promote/tease your story. If you tell me how things end, why should I spend time reading the middle, when I no doubt have loads of other things to do and to read where there aren’t spoilers?

Lengthy sections about who you are A query letter is about YOUR WORK. It is not your author bio, it is not a high school yearbook, it is not a place for you to rundown all the various non-writing awards you may have won as champion of the local spelling bee or best grower of blue ribbon radishes. Yes, there’s a little sliver of the roughly 250 words you can use (if you want) to talk about yourself, but ideally, keep the letter’s focus on the story.

Aggressive language We’ll talk about this in depth later this week, so for now, here’s a quick overview. You don’t know who exactly is reading your letter. Yes, you’ve sent it off to a specific person, but they might have an assistant or a secretary or an intern who screens the incoming queries. Also, although you might know who you sent the query to, you might not know everything there is to know about them. They likely keep some manner of their personal or intimate life away from social media, and so when you make the statement that your book isn’t going to be understood by “patriarchal cishet scum” or “anyone who has internalized misogyny or accepted their role as the slaves to hetero culture” (actual things people relayed to me over the phone while writing this post), the person on the other end might not take that very well. The majority of people don’t think of themselves as scum, and certainly don’t consider themselves slaves to anything other than a coffee addiction or maybe a credit card and banking system designed to keep them in debt. Queries aren’t the place for your sociopolitical views. The query is for your manuscript.

Desperate language Here’s the other end of that spectrum. There’s a lot of fail-and-try-again in publishing, especially traditional publishing and especially by new authors who seek to build an audience, develop their voice and put together a body of work. It can be disheartening to receive so many rejection letters, and it can be difficult to feel like you’re making any progress at all or that you’re even any good at what you’re doing. (We’ll tackle the hard reality that may you aren’t some other time). If any of that frustration or desperation (including expressly stating it in mentioning how many previous rejections you’ve received and from whom) seeps into the tone of your letter, you can very likely expect one more rejection to that pile. Just like dating, desperation is not attractive. It is not going to encourage interaction and it’s going to place the emphasis of conversation on making you feel better rather than on the manuscript you’re trying to get published. Again, the query letter is all about the manuscript, not how you’re really tired of being rejected.

I’m not doing any of that, I’m talking about what goes on in my story, and I’m STILL getting rejected. This whole things sucks. I guess people aren’t interested in what I have to say because I’m a man/woman/neither/black/white/blend/chai/old/young/educated/dropout/blonde/bald/deaf/autistic/normal/human person.

Okay, calm down. I’ve read a lot of query letters that don’t mention any of those details about their author and they got rejected just as quickly as the ones that mention gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, persuasion or social standing. Let’s take a look at some more things that might be tripping you up.

Taking too long to get to any action Ever watch a boring TV show? I saw one yesterday about guys who roam around the garages of old people to bilk them out of stuff. I only saw it for about 40 seconds, but that was enough for me to move to something else. What made me change the channel, aside from the part where the guy said with a straight-face “He doesn’t realize what he’s giving up for sixty bucks. He thinks it’s just a toy his granddaughter played with, but I can turn it around for a couple hundred” was the fact that NOTHING was happening. The camera was on a medium shot of three people standing and talking. They didn’t change elevation, the camera didn’t zoom in on anything, just three people standing. Yawn central. Now in your query, how many sentences are going by before something happens? Where’s the action? How big is it? Does it set the tone for the rest of the query? Or are you dawdling in the hopes that the reader is still reading? Get to that action, make something happen, engage the reader so they pay attention.

Repeating yourself Most of the queries I point out as good ones as well as the model I teach for writing them, focus on a tight economy of words arranged in very action-oriented paragraphs. Words aren’t wasted and as little tension or pacing as possible is lost along the way. Because queries are one page long (and that includes space on the page for an address and a closing), you don’t need to reference or belabor the point(s) made in paragraph one a second time in paragraph three. The reader didn’t forget. Don’t hate them and assume they did.

Details that congest what you’re trying to get across Let’s say you’re writing the story of a charming group of friends looking to spend some time together in Las Vegas. Do we need to know in the query letter about the type of car driven from point A to point B? Do we need to know the colors of their clothes? Do we need to know every detail of their itinerary? Ask yourself while writing: Is this piece of information I’m introducing here in this sentence, in this paragraph, moving things forward and into some action or tension? If yes, leave it in. If no, cut it.

Can we spend the rest of this week talking about queries? 


Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in pitching, query letters, 0 comments