I stand by this series of tweets. But I may need to clarify something. Someone objected that it might be irresponsible to advise young writers to pretend the rules don’t apply to them, that some projects are just foolish to undertake and it’s better to say so.
Now. I can see where this person is coming from and I sorta kinda agree but not really.
Here’s the thing: yes, there are some projects that are fundamentally unsalable. If you are determined, for artistic reasons, to write a 500K word novel all in Sumerian, well, you know, the audience for that book is going to be very, very small and I’d bet most editors would pass it up no matter how brilliant it was. That’s kind of common sense, right?
A slightly less extreme example–most SF or Fantasy novels come in at around 100K words. Give or take ten or twenty. You’re probably going to have an easier time selling a manuscript that’s 100,000 words long as opposed to one that’s 300K.
But here’s the thing–that’s not really an ironclad rule. I know personally of at least one person who sold their first fantasy novel a couple years ago–it was in the neighborhood of 300K, and the subsequent volumes have also been that length, so far as I can tell. (Hi, Django! And y’all who aren’t Django, the books are great fun.)
See, that sort of thing is covered by my admission in the tweets that, yes, commercial considerations are a thing and you might want to keep them in mind. Or not, you know, because A)you, the writer, get to make the final call just what considerations you want to take into account and B)every one of them is a case-by-case thing. I can’t tell you “never ever write a first SFF novel that’s 200K-plus words, you’ll never sell it.” Because that isn’t necessarily true.
What I can tell you is that most first novels are going to be in that 100K range, and so maybe when you’re working you want to keep that in mind. But you have to balance that against your project. What are you trying to do? What will best serve the goal you have in mind for that particular work? It might well be that the answer is “ruthlessly cut down to 100K” or “ditch it and write something else in a different but related subgenre.” I don’t know, I can’t tell you that. Only you can tell you that. But “most first genre novels are 100K” is not a rule obligating you to stick to that length if you want to be published. It’s a piece of information about what’s mostly being published right now. There are, and will be, exceptions.
No, you can’t guarantee that your work will be one of those exceptions. But, some real talk: there is nothing you can do to guarantee that your ms that has all the characteristics of what’s being published right now–the right length, popular subgenre, whatever–none of that is any guarantee that ms will sell.
If you have a quirky project, and you, personally, feel compelled to see that project through in some way, shape, or form, then do that. Consider advice, certainly. If you can take the advice without harming your project, and it seems good to you, by all means do. I am absolutely not encouraging any writer to refuse to listen to any critique or advice at all in the name of their pure, unadulterated artistic vision.
Nor, by the way, do I consider writers who weigh commercial factors very heavily in their calculations to be sellouts. On the contrary, that is a valid choice to make. I can’t tell anyone reading this blog how or whether to weigh such concerns, because that’s a question of what a given project calls for, and what the writer feels is going to work for that project.
But if you’re going to tell writers never to write anything much longer than 100K, or that they should give up all hope of writing something in a mined-out (or currently popular, soon to be mined-out) genre, well. No. Be aware, if you’re setting out on your 500K vampire-elf novel, that you’re going to have to really impress an editor with it. You might want to consider another project for now. Maybe. Do you? I can’t tell you that, only you can. Think about it. I’d probably say it was maybe foolhardy. But you know, it’s your call, and I can’t tell you that your 80K Angel/Mermaid Romance is going to do any better. Will you get as much fun out of the Angel/Mermaid book? You might want to start there and work on the Vampire Elf next. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes your most ambitious project needs a skill level you don’t quite have yet. Sometimes you need to work up your confidence before you attempt it. It’s your call. Whatever choice you make will be good, it will be okay. There’s no rush, writing takes time, submitting takes time, just write. It’ll be all right. I’m just saying, don’t permanently scrap your cool project because someone said “but you can’t sell that kind of thing.”
And if folks in your writers group or message board or whatever are telling you things like “you have to have a POV character that’s like the reader so they can sympathize with them” or “don’t write in first person” or “editors won’t buy stories with queer main characters” well, frankly, no. “No infodumps.” Really? Take a look at the critically acclaimed books of the past couple years. I can think of at least two, just off the top of my head, that from all I can tell sell pretty well and have been nominated for or won major awards that are pretty infodump heavy. There are likely more, because actually some readers really enjoy the heck out of a good infodump, especially when it’s embedded in a story that hits their buttons in other ways as well.
My advice–don’t get your advice about what editors will or won’t buy from writers group members, many of whom may or may not have sold much themselves but are passing on second-hand, received wisdom that came from Mithras knows where. Take it from actual editors, and from observing what’s actually on the shelves at the bookstore. Always remembering that what’s on the shelves is just what’s being published right now, not a complete set of what will or won’t ever be published in the future. In fact, today’s hot subgenre is already on its way out, for writer purposes. There’s no predicting what tomorrow’s will be.
Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.
This is difficult to do, by the way. You need to have a weird sort of ambiguous attitude, at least in my experience. You have to be really pig-headed but also willing to bend when it’s called for. And only you can decide when it’s called for.
Weigh advice, think, and if, after thinking about it, you really feel passionate about the Vampire Elf, then go to it. Commit entirely to it. Don’t bar any holds, don’t just go overboard, dive enthusiastically over that rail. Worry about selling it later. Who knows, you might hit the right editor at the right time and spark a whole Vampire revival. (Actually I hope not, I’m pretty much over vampires (and zombies for that matter) but you don’t need to take my taste into account.)
Or not. Maybe the Mermaid is a better call. I know it’s frustrating, part of the reason these “rules” get passed around is because we would so much love to have at least some certainty, at least some indication that there’s a way to get where we’re trying to go, some black and white steps we need to take. But there’s no way anyone can give you that. The only sure thing I can tell you is, if you don’t write you won’t ever sell your writing. If you don’t finish what you work on, and submit it, you will never sell your writing. Everything else is a matter of “it depends what you’re trying to do.” So whatever project you decide to work on, it might as well be something you really do want to write.
Mirrored from Ann Leckie.