Writing Advice #30: Q&A Pt. 1

This week and next week, I’m going to be answering some of the questions I’ve accumulated over the past few weeks…

First up, from Shannon: “I’m having word count confusion. There’s no shortage of info on agent’s blogs–I think I’ve read it all–but it doesn’t always match up. I think you’re working on a MG book now (like I am) so I’m wondering: what word count are you shooting for?”

I’m probably not the best person to ask about word count. I am notorious for writing long books. Even my short stories tend to be long. My young adult contracts stipulate manuscripts between 40,000 and 60,000 words, but the closest I ever came to that was Hero-Type, which was something like 70,000 words. The others were even longer (Boy Toy winning out, at over 100,000 words).

So, that gives you some idea of what YA expectations might be. Obviously, middle grade is (typically) shorter. For my middle grade series, my editors asked me to stay somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000-30,000 words. I think my first draft was smack in the middle of that, but we all agreed that some additional scenes were needed, so the book ended up somewhere around 37,000 words.

As you can see, I almost never manage to hit the target when it comes to word count. 🙂

But…

Well, I know that there are “rules” and general considerations, but truthfully, when people ask me, “How long should my book be?” I inevitably answer, “Long enough to tell the story.” Or, as my high school Spanish teacher used to tell us when we’d ask how long our essays should be: “Make it like a skirt — long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to keep things interesting.”

Helpful, eh? 🙂 As you can see, I don’t overly concern myself with word count. Quality is more important than length. But especially when you’re starting out, I can see how it’s a nerve-wracking, nausea-inducing issue. So my advice is this: Hie thee to a bookstore or library. Find books like the kind you want to write. Figure out their word counts. (Rule of thumb: Page count times 250.) Average them. There’s a target to shoot for.

Next up is Meena, who asks: “How do you find a publisher? Do you have to live in New York pretty much? If you find a genre you are good at, will they pay you for books you are still in the process of writing?” 

“How you find a publisher” is by getting an agent (which I’ll talk about next week, in answer to another question) and then you let the agent find the publisher for you. Can you find one on your own? Sure. But it’s a pain in the ass, especially since most of the big publishers don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts these days. You’re better off focusing on what you do well: Writing. Let the agent worry about the publishers.

Do you have to live in New York? No! Absolutely not.

As to being paid for books in progress… Well, that depends. For the most part, when you’re starting out, everyone is going to want to see a complete, finished manuscript. Why? Because everyone has been burned by books that start well — or that have phenomenal pitches — and then fall apart by the end. No one likes being burned that way. They want to know for sure that you can 1) finish a book, and 2) finish it well. So, they need the whole thing.

That said… Once you’ve established a name for youself and a reputation, it’s certainly possible (even likely) to be paid for projects that are only partly finished or even hardly begun. My middle grade series (Archvillain, the first book of which comes out in Fall 2010!) was basically sold on the strength of a proposal I wrote describing the series. Realize, though, that this was after I had already proven myself professionally by writing and publishing four other novels.

So, Meena, your answers are: Let your agent handle it, no, and yes, sometimes. 🙂

Last for this week is Jen, who asks: “If you’re below the age of 18, will they most likely not accept a story from you? If they do, will they lower your pay? Do you know if American companies will accept a story from people living in Canada?”

Well, Jen, I have some good news for you: If you can write an amazing story, no one cares if you’re 8, 18, or 88. All they care about is this: Is your story good and will people pay money to read it? If both of those questions can be answered with enthusiastic yeses, you’re on your way to being published.

And yes, you should get the same damn money as an adult. You did the same work, right? Christopher Paolini was a mere fetus when he wrote Eragon (I kid, I kid…), but I guarantee you he got every penny he deserved.

As to American companies accepting stories from Canadians: Same as the answer to the first part of your question — if it’s a well-written story that people will want to buy, an American publisher will accept it if you’re Canadian, British, Mexican, Chinese, Russian, or even Martian. It’s all about the quality of the writing, not the geolocation of the author.

So… Children of Canada! Send in your submissions! The editorial hordes of New York await you!

And now that I’ve called down a deluge of submission from the Great White North, we’ll adjourn for the week. 🙂 Next week: How to find an agent, and more!

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