Monday, January 19, 2009

Boom, goes the brick!

Now I know that I have writers of all sorts of genres reading this blog. And I love that. I read all sorts of genres of books myself. And you should be aware that there are different word count limits for different genres.

But what I want to talk about is fantasy bricks.

You know them. You read them. I'm talking Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R. R. Martin, my buddy, Ken Scholes... I like all of their books. But they are HUGE. And if you're looking for an agent in this market, a big fantasy brick isn't going to cut it. Ken is a rare exception. Patrick Rothfuss is a rare exception. (Although I'm currently adoring THE NAME OF THE WIND.)

Here are my guidelines for word count:

Aim for 80k minimum and 120k maximum. Try to hit as close to 100k as possible, but not go over.

Why do I tell you to not go over 120k, in terms of wordcount? There's a couple of reasons, but let's hit the big ones first.

One, think about the production costs. Your giant novel is going to be huge. If you have a novel with a word count of 180k, the amount of paper and the type of binding that the publisher will have to use will shoot the cost of that sucker up exponentially. If your debut novel is a nice solid $30 in cash, who is going to buy it? I don't care what exceptional reviews you get... it's going to be expensive for the ordinary reader, especially in this economy. I will be the first to admit that I don't know the economics of library purchases, but I would think that expensive books for readers are expensive books for library systems to buy too. (Someone correct me, if I'm wrong on how library purchases work.)

Two, you often don't need 180,000 words to tell your novel. People argue that secondary-world fantasy world-building demands extra words--that I can't just say "Apple!" and have people know that I'm referring to the uber-hipster-cool computer brand. I have to say "the very neat, sleek, white magical device that plays me the songs in my head. the magic device!" You don't need to describe it that way. In fact, you can totally forgo the description, if the story merits it. Have you ever read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway? It's a standard in creative writing classes because it's really tight writing and a lot of it is told in dialogue. Your characters should be explaining the world around them with as little exposition as is needed. You don't want your readers to drown in your words and have their eyes glaze over. Let's use a bit of a more concrete example for this.

Example One:

The Castle was built of marbleized stone, the veins stretching up and outwards in a constellation of black and white beauty. The turrets were shining, the tops of them glistening with the golden tops that tradition demanded be built onto every castle in the land. The courtyard was bustling with servants: wenches, serfs with potatoes in their arms, people emptying the chamber pots into the castle midden. Garth the Knight adjusted his visor and made sure that his iron-steel combination armor was shined just right. His squire had been instructed to make sure that the white shield was just right, that his red pennant hung from the top of his spiral red and white striped lance, and that his blue eyes matched the gauntlet underneath.

This example makes my eyes glaze over, even though I just wrote it for the purpose of this blog post.

Example Two:

Garth approached the Castle, his eyes on the golden tops of the turrets. He left his horse at the hitching post, and made his way through the courtyard, dodging the servants carrying the chamber pots to the midden. His armor clanked as he hit the stones that led up to the castle doors, and he watched their marbleized surface pass under his feet. He thought it funny that his squire had managed to match his armor to the King's colors: red, white, and blue.

Do you see how Example Two is significantly shorter, yet still manages to convey almost the same information? Mind you, it's not the best written piece of fantasy novel in the world, but it's a lot better than the first example.

Finally, third point... most editors just won't look at a novel that's 180k. For the practical purposes of selling your book, most agents won't look at a book that long because they *are* that hard to sell. For all of the reasons I've named above, and probably more that I haven't listed. So as soon as you list that wordcount in your letter, unless your plot is truly stunning (most people's plots aren't truly stunning), you've just put yourself in the auto-reject pile. And why would you want to do that to yourself and that novel you've worked so hard on?
2009 Books Read:

No, I haven't seen the film yet, but the book is awesome. It's light and fluffy and just very entertaining. I'm very glad I bought it. =)


Jodi Meadows said...

Thanks for this, Jenny. It's good to get an agent's view on bricks and their likelihood of selling.

What I've decided? Best to write for the market's size, rather than risk getting ignored right off. Obviously there's a market for the occasional brick, but that's definitely *occasional*, and probably not a lot of people are going to get their bricks published as their *first* books. Ken and Patrick are probably the *exceptions*.

I'll save my bricks for down the road. My wordcount is not the hill I want to die on.

Moth said...

Ms. Pettigrew the movie is really excellent too (and I've read the book too). Michael is yummy.

Re word count: Is slightly over 100K an auto-reject for a YA fantasy novel?

Jenny Rappaport said...

Moth, nope, slightly over 100k is fine for a fantasy novel.

It's when you start nearing 150k or above, I start getting really wary of even looking at it...

P. Bradley Robb said...

Thanks for the info. It is very appreciated.

Adam Heine said...

This is good info. In a way, I'm fortunate to have an alpha reader that isn't a fantasy/sci-fi fan (my wife). Because she gets bored everytime I start to tangent into elaborate explanations of the political machinations going on before the war that ended 20 years ago. She just doesn't care; she wants to know what happens to the characters she does care about.

She forces me to figure out (1) what information is actually vital to understanding the story and (2) how to insert that information without stopping the story itself.

Rachel said...

Wait-did Garth's squire dye Garth's eyes or the squire's eyes?

Jenny Rappaport said...

Rachel, it was implied that Garth's eyes were blue, and the squire picked a gauntlet that would match. Then again, gauntlets are usually metal, so I'm not sure how it's supposed to be blue... =)

Melissa said...

I have to say Jenny, as a reader, not a writer, I'm reading my first Terry Goodkind book right now (100/800 pages read!) and there is a surprising amount of that glazing issue in there. I tend to skim over it and get to the action!

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Ah, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thinks this. Just because you're writing fantasy doesn't mean there should be big chunks of aimless backstory and description weighing the story down!

Maybe letting fantasy get so wordy is meant to counteract the perception that genre fiction is inferior. Because a huge brick of a book is obviously not for the faint of heart, right? It'd be kind of sad if consumers and reviewers actually do think "big = epic and good", but it'd explain a lot.

Rebecca said...

I'm so ridiculous - I didn't even know "Ms. Pettigrew" was a book. And I thought the movie was delightful, so now I'm super-excited to read the novel. *sigh* Something else on my TBR list...

Sad to say - as a reader and avid book buyer, I don't even have *time* for epic fantasy bricks anymore. School + work + my own projects eats up most of my time. There's some v. good ones out there but too many are bloated, which makes me not want to pick any of them up.

Rachelle said...

Terrific post, I'm sending a lot of people to it!

Are you on Twitter?

Jenny Rappaport said...

Thanks, Rachelle!

I'm @jennyrae on Twitter. =)

Elissa M said...

As anyone who has read The Name of the Wind knows, big doesn't always mean stretches of boring exposition. In fact, I've found that long debut fantasies tend to be excellent reading- maybe because they have to be, to get past the knee-jerk auto-rejects for length.

As a reader, I love long novels. I like to get lost in them for days. Something less than 100,000 words is done and over with in a day, then I'm disappointed. So, bring on the well-written bricks, I love 'em.

Moth said...

Thank you for answering my question! :D

Tochi said...

Very informative, Jenny.

Do you have any thoughts on sci-fi word count?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

When people insist that worldbuilding and court intrigue and so on require many words, I cry "Bullshit!" and point at Roger Zelazny.

Nine Princes in Amber is buckets of plot, character, and worldbuilding, all in a compact 75K words. You could puff that out and it might not weaken it, but it is a paragon of tight writing in the genre.