Back in the Saddle

For many of us, November is a special time when we throw even more of ourselves into writing than usual. The dishes stack up, the diet gets downright scary, the worried phone calls from well-meaning loved ones fill the voice mail, and our word counts soar. But it can’t last forever. Eventually, we have to come crawling out of the primordial ooze of the writing cave and fix a sandwich, kiss our mothers, and unclog the toilet. It’s a bittersweet time.

And in my case, a lazy time. I normally write around 2-2.5k words a day. During November, I write 3-4k a day, ofttimes more. During the first week of December, I typically write nothing at all. I convince my children anew that they know me, I shovel all the pizza boxes into the trash, but I don’t usually write a whole lot. But there comes a point when I have to get up, dust myself off, and get back in the saddle. Then I sit at my laptop and think, “So. I have this ugly little first draft. Now what do I do with it?”

I’ve experimented with different approaches over the years and have found many facets of myself lurking within the writing chunk of my brain. Here are the most common:

Become an Editing Fiend This was me this year. I finished writing The Book, the Crown, and the Sword and immediately went back to the start and began editing. Didn’t even pause for a fresh cup of tea. (That was the plan and the reason I finished a week early. I knew December was going to be MADNESS this year.) This is nice because everything is fresh in your head and it’s easier to remember exactly how you chose to spell that name or what color so-and-so’s eyes were. I have a tendency to take this route. It usually takes me a month or two to write a novel, but then I dive right back in for editing, with takes up to twice as long as the first writing did. (BCS was strange in that it took three weeks to write, and just shy of two weeks to edit. I hope this doesn’t indicate innate suckiness.)

Sound the Charge Sometimes, I’ve been so enamored with a character or a world that I ran headlong right into the next book. Kind of a “Darn the typos, full speed ahead” mentality. This often happened in my younger years while writing a series (or what would evolve into a series) and was kind of nice for flow and continuity. But overall, I found that a lot more problems were slipping through the cracks this way and that I would write stuff into the future strictly to justify it in the past, instead of just deleting it out of the past like it needed to be. Fluff abounded, in every form from a few words of purple prose to entire storylines that simply and definitely did not need to be there. This approach was much easier for the flow of getting words on the page, but I often ended up with WAY more work this way once I finally forced myself into editing.

Let It Ruminuate Put down that red pen. Yes, you. Put it down. Many people recommend this approach and I usually agree. It can be hard to see the flaws of something we look at every day. (Just ask my husband. He puts up with all kinds of garbage from me.) Sometimes we have to let our noveling brain rest and write a little poetry or a brace of short stories instead, or at least get outside of the story that has been our world for so long. I work almost exclusively on the Star Daughter series (City of the Dead, Goddess Forsaken, and more to come!) throughout the year, but every November, I force myself outside of that series. Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s a relief, but it’s always good for me. Having a break can give you a chance to recharge the batteries.

Lock the Door And sadly, I have had projects in the past that I’ve finished, stacked neatly, and never touched again. For one reason or another, I decided that those projects were not worth pursuing. Maybe they were just too clunky to make heads or tails of, maybe they were ugly beyond what I thought I could remedy, or maybe I just didn’t love them as much as I need to to take the next step. And I think that’s okay. Being a writer has few rewards. Often, the process itself is the only prize we’ll ever see. If the process isn’t rewarding anymore, switch over to one that is. If we force ourselves to keep on a project because we think we have to for some reason (It’s so marketable; it’s never been done before; I’ve invested so much already; etc), we run the risk of losing the one thing that makes our writing really, truly worthwhile: the love of it.

Does that mean those projects will never see the light of day again? Not necessarily. Does that mean they weren’t worth the effort I put into them? Not at all. Writers see the world in a special way. We want to touch and taste and read everything, to soak up as much experience as we can, and then make art with it. Many would claim that our medium is words. I would argue that it is experiences. Most people see something mundane, or even unique, and think, “Huh. Oh, well.” Writers see it and breathe, “There’s a story here.” We take those experiences and we craft new ones with them, ones that are surreal or solid, funny or sad, fact or fiction, but always in some way real. And if you look at it that way, no project, and no experience, is ever wasted time.

Now, I do not claim that these approaches are the only things to be done with a newborn manuscript. Just as each writer is different and each person is different, we deal with each manuscript differently. Do what you want. Pick one of the above or make up your own. But however you choose to proceed in this, the final month of 2013, do it with your head high. Your method isn’t nearly so important as your doing. So quit reading blog posts and get back to work. (Unless, of course, you feel the burning need to comment first. I can forgive this final diversion.)

Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult

Plenty is being said about Abbi Glines’s Uncut version of The Vincent Boys, so I’ll just briefly hop on the bandwagon here and add this: If all you did to this Young Adult genre book was slap in some juicy sex scenes, does that really make it New Adult? I mean, the characters don’t suddenly graduate, move out, get a job and pay their own bills, too, right? Isn’t that kind of what makes you an adult?

But let me back up. I am writing an epic fantasy novel. I am told that I also need to attach a few more letters for a subgenre: MG, YA, NA, or whatever. No problem, I think. The main characters are basically early-to-mid-twenties. So… New Adult. Obviously. Well, apparently not.

“What?” I cry. “That can’t be possible!” Nearly all the characters are adults, navigating an adult world. They’ve all been adults for some time. The main character starts a new job and has her first serious relationship, even getting engaged to the guy. None of this is sounding very Young Adult.

HOWEVER. The main character does move back in with her Dad for a good portion of the book (extenuating circumstances, I might add). She spends a lot of time pining and whining. But most important of all? No sex. That’s right, none. Except for some crazy dragon violence and whatnot, the whole thing is pretty PG. So. Where does that leave me?

I’ve been trawling the internet all morning on what started as a very simple quest. How long should this book be to be marketable? If it were YA, I’d have some idea, but NA is still pretty new and there’s not much out there by way of guidelines. But what started out as a hunt for an approximate word count quickly morphed into something else. What in blazes does New Adult even mean? Is my book NA at all?

Elizabeth Burns over at School Library Journal tried to tackle this question in an awesome listing of many other people trying to tackle this question. She dredged up answers varying as widely as “a sub-genre of Young Adult, with ‘slightly older’ characters and sexytimes” and “post-adolescent life” between ages 14-35. Hm.

Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote about this, too, in “Beyond Wizards and Vampires, to Sex“. Sadly, she seems to equate coming of age with sex, which I don’t necessarily agree with. (Note: If you really need to have sex to feel like a grown-up… you’ve probably got a little more growing up to do. Your sexuality shouldn’t define you.) But she did have something to say about the subgenre’s definition that resonated with me:

“While publishers like the concept of creating a new-adult category, its hybrid nature has been problematic. The books fall into an undefined territory between adult and children’s literature… But while publishers hesitated, a crop of young authors began forcing the issue: they began self-publishing novels on the Internet about 19-to-25-year-olds who are leaving home for the first time for jobs or college or a first real relationship.”

This is what I want my book labeled with: that ambiguous time when you’re legally adult, but you certainly don’t have all your duckies in a row just yet. But not necessarily sex. Kaufman also mentions that industry pundits will admit to it being little more than letting people know to expect a bit more spice than Hunger Games. So maybe New Adult isn’t really a genre so much as a warning label: “Hey Grandma, maybe you don’t want to get this for little Jenny- head back over to YA where the steamy never quite comes to a boil!” Do I really want that label affixed on my book?

But I so want NA to mean more than that. As a new adult, I find this incredibly narrow definition to be a touch irritating. Even if I shelve my own problem as a writer, it’s still problematic as a reader. I don’t want to read about some 17 year old’s sextivities, I want to read about growing up. As a 20something myself, I’d like a story involving people my age, dealing with being an adult. I don’t want to get beat over the head with someone else’ sex life.

“Ms. Cabot [author of the Princess Diaries, now moving on to write NA] said that while she changed the settings and added some sex for good measure, the genre’s core was still about fantasy (Kaufman).” What? “[A]dded some sex for good measure”? Is it just me, or does that make it sound completely unnecessary?

I mean, am I the only one that gets REALLY TIRED of high schoolers breathing all over each other’s necks à la Twilight? I mean, I like a good YA story, but I can honestly do without reading up on teenagers hooking up every other chapter. I enjoyed the Harry Potter stories, but my least favorite part was reading about Harry and Ginny snogging in the halls and in the rec room and between classes and in the grass around the lake and everywhere else possible. Honestly. Maybe I’m being immature here, but come on. And they weren’t even really doing anything! You’re trying to tell me there will be more of that in NA? I’d probably have a cerebral aneurism.

It’s funny, but I gained the most hope from an article on Dear Author: A Romance Review Blog for Readers by Jane Little. “New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life.  The post high school / pre responsible time period.  Easy; Slammed; Point of Retreat; Sea of Tranquility are books with suggestive hints of intimacy but involve largely fade to black love scenes.” Ah. Thank you. That’s what I want.

“In New Adult books, readers aren’t responding to teens having sex… New Adult is a time period and a feel — a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others (Little).” Yes! I’d argue that they shouldn’t be teens at all, but still.

“What I would not like to see is the requirement of explicitness in all books.  In other words, if Abbi Glines wants to write explicit sex scenes in her books, great; but publishers shouldn’t force other writers like to do so if that isn’t what they want to include in their stories. In other words, I want New Adult books to focus on the characters and their emotional connections, not the physical ones (Little).” Thank you! Geez, I just want to paste the whole article over. There’s hope!

So… I think I’m going to keep labeling this as NA. I might be completely wrong, but it feels better there, despite some of its more voyeuristic neighbors. But I still haven’t solved my original question: how big is this thing supposed to be? Well, at any rate, probably not as big as it is. Ah, well, back to the chopping block.

But what’s your opinion? Is NA all about the spicey? What am I thinking writing a celibate book? What makes NA what it is, and is it actually a viable market now? Let me know!

Word Count Dracula

I love to write.  But sometimes I have a hard time being succinct about it and my stories have a tendency to go about twice as long as I think they will.  That’s not always bad, but often it’s a lot of self-indulgent fluff.  So I was very happy to come across this blog article by the lovely Jennifer Laughlin, literary agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and author of the blog Jennifer Represents.  As it’s worth repeating, I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did (and do).

(Original posting can be found here.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Wordcount Dracula

Q: My middle grade novel is complete at 250,000 words, and have five sequels planned which will each be approximately the same length. I know that this is considered “long” but I really can’t cut anything, it is all integral to the story. What do you think?

Hold that thought, I am tying a noose.

In all seriousness… while this actually happens to be a fake question, I get queries for books this long all the time. And really? The idea of reading 1.5 million words, or even 250k words, makes me feel dead inside. Your story does not need to be this long, I promise you. (If it DOES need to be this long, it is not a middle grade, or it should be divided into 20 books, not 6.)

YES, if you are hugely successful with your first book, your publisher will want lots more books from you. YES, the more successful your books, the longer they will get to be without anyone batting an eyelash (see: Harry Potter series). But no publisher will let you publish a debut novel that needs to be a lengthy series in order to make sense, or a debut children’s novel of 200,000+ words. This is the reality.

I am on the record as saying I don’t really care about word counts unless they are so off-the wall out of bounds that it is absurd. And it is true. But there are generally accepted norms for this sort of thing that you should be aware of. I’ve pulled some new and classic examples in each fiction category so you can see how they vary.

PICTURE BOOK:  0-1,300 words. Sweet spot: 300-550*
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 336
Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer: 348
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor: 418
Ladybug Girl by David Soman: 721
* Note: I really advise clients to keep their picture books under 600 words – 800 at the very top. Picture books in the 1,000+ word range are generally folktales and fairy tales… and are not exactly in fashion. Unless you are a really gifted folklorist, I would not go down this road. There are very few such authors in the country. They know who they are.

EARLY READER: 100-2,500 words. Sweet spot: (depends on level)*
Elephant and Piggie: Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems: 199
On the Go with Pirate Pete and Pirate Joe by AE Cannon: 1,180
Dodsworth in London by Tim Egan: 1,293
Little Bear by Else Minarik: 1,630
Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel: 1,727
*Note: Because these books are meant for brand-new readers, these books are often marked according to level – the higher the level, the more sophisticated/longer the text can be. Publishers may have their own specific guidelines about these leveled readers, even requiring a certain number of syllables per page for readability. 

CHAPTER BOOK: 4,000-13,000 words. Sweet spot: 6,000-10,000
Magic Tree House Lions at Lunchtime by Mary Pope Osborne: 5,313
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park: 6,570
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett: 7,682
Judy Moody was in a Mood by Megan McDonald: 11,049 

REALISTIC MIDDLE GRADE: 25,000-60,000 words. Sweet spot: 30,000-45,000
Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban: 29,052
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson: 32,888
Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech: 44,907
Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner: 48,454 

FANTASY MIDDLE GRADE: 35,000-75,000 words. Sweet spot: 45,000-65,000
Juliet Dove, Queen of Love by Bruce Coville: 43,912
White Mountains by John Christopher: 44,763
Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander: 46,926
Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo: 65,006
Harry Potter & the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling: 77,508 

REALISTIC YA: 35,000-75,000 words. Sweet spot: 45,000-70,000
Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles: 40,480
Great Call of China by Cynthea Liu: 52,532
Flash Burnout by LK Madigan: 67,186 
Looking for Alaska by John Green: 69,023
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly: 71,935 

FANTASY YA: 50,000 words to 150,000 words*. Sweet Spot: 65,000-85,000 words.
Magic Under Glass by Jackie Dolamore: 55,787
Tithe by Holly Black: 66,069 
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr: 73,426
Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: 95,605
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: 130,949  
Eragon by Christopher Paolini: 157,000

* It is really not advisable to go over 100,000 words as a debut author, unless you already have a following. Consider yourself warned – 100k is often the magic number that makes editors and agents curse, cry, and possibly delete. Not that you CAN’T be published over 100k, it definitely happens for select super-awesome YA fantasy in particular… just that it really will be yet another hurdle for you.

In every category, there are also a few random outliers, like Sarah, Plain and Tall (a middle grade at 9,000 words) or This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (a YA at 250,000) … but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that you aren’t Patricia MacLachlan or Aidan Chambers.

ETA: Remember, this list is by no means exhaustive and should not be considered law. Don’t get too freaked out about it… just find the average word count for books similar to your own, and try to be somewhere vaguely in the ballpark.

So how can you find these numbers yourself? Well, while the Accelerated Reader program is lame in a lot of ways, this is a very handy tool: To find pretty much any kids / YA word count, you can use the AR BookFinder. (Click ‘librarian’ or ‘teacher’ and then search for books like yours – click on the titles to get all kinds of info about them, including wordcount!)