Word count is going to be the death of my publishing dreams. I have to admit, when I set out to get serious about publishing my first novel, it never occurred to me that the length of my book would be the reason an agent declines to represent it. I just figured that if the plot and writing are both good, then who cares how long it is? Thinking about it now, I feel foolish for not considering word count sooner.
In the publishing world, everyone looks at the length of your work in terms of words, not in pages or chapters. My novel Wolfhowl Mountain is 183,000 words. If it helps you put that into perspective, that's more than 400 pages in Microsoft Word. So it's definitely a longer book, no doubt. However, I've always felt that every word within it was necessary. I told the story in as little words as I was capable, but I recognize that an editor or agent may insist I cut my work down in order to find success with a publisher. In fact, I'm starting to think that might be the only way for me to go if I'm to successfully convince an agent to take my book on.
It's my feeling that Wolfhowl Mountain should be marketed toward young adult readers because the main character is 17. In my experience, most people like to read a novel that has a protagonist about the same age as the reader. That being said, most young adult books normally top out at 80,000 words. (And even then, that's pushing it.)* So, crap! My book is a minimum of 100,000 words too long?
My mind quickly went to what I like the call the "but what abouts..."
But what about J.K. Rowling? What about her? Are you thinking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its some 197,000 words? Then you're forgetting that her very first novel, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone was only 76,000 words. Yup.
Okay. But what about horror master Stephen King, whose more recent novel Under the Dome is 334,000 words? Although King's first published novel was long (around 274,000 words), Carrie, the book that made him famous, is only 61,000 words. Yeah.
Well, but what about Stephenie Meyer; her first book, Twilight, was 130,000 words. Yeah...well, her book was about a handsome sparkling vampire and his whole beautiful sparkling family and their handsome enemy werewolf clan? What's not to love? She got lucky.
So what have I learned? It doesn't matter how good your book is. If it's too long, no one's going to take a chance on it, even if you're the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or even Stephenie Meyer (which I don't purport to be, by the way). And the one consistent piece feedback I've heard from the few people who've read Wolfhowl Mountain is that some of the descriptive passages feel long, and they just skipped over them to get on with the story. I've been reluctant to cut those passages down too much because, for me, the setting of the novel is important to the plot and is in itself, a character in the book. But, blah, blah; blah. Of course I think it's perfect the way it is. I'm the one who wrote it.
So now comes the next lesson all writers must face at some point, one that's harder and more uncomfortable to swallow. What you write, be it articles for a newspaper or the next James Patterson-esque thriller, isn't about you. Your writing is not about you nor is it for you, the writer. It's about the reader. It's not about what you like or dislike. It's about what the reader likes or doesn't like. And readers don't like paragraph after paragraph or page after page of expository writing, no matter how beautifully or masterfully written it might be. They want to get to the story.
Case in point: I'm not just a writer, I am of course, also a reader. (Some people have told me that I read too much, but I don't think that's actually possible. I think far too many people read too little.) Even so, as a person who loves to read, what do I do when I get to really long passages, or come across several pages in a novel, that are jam packed full of tiny writing and descriptions of idyllic countrysides or Gothic buildings or the handsome new stranger in town? I do what everyone else does; I skip over it until I get to a spot of action again. It might be the most beautiful and talented writing on this earth, but everyone one of us skips over it, even me.
Wolfhowl Mountain is something I wrote not to make a profit or win an award or have people slather me in praise for my writing abilities. (Though none of that would hurt, obviously.) It's a story I wrote because I couldn't not write it. And what is the point of writing something you think is good, if you aren't also willing to put it out there for other people to enjoy? And so, I understand that ultimately Wolfhowl Mountain is for the reader, and I need to go back and look at it through that lens for a while, to see if I can write the book that readers want to read instead of the the book I wanted to write.
And that's going to be difficult. Writing Wolfhowl Mountain was something I lived for, for ten years. Every word is written in a mixture of my own sweat and blood. And when I think about deleting passages from it, I think about computer technology and how once I delete those words and hit save, there's no going back. Those words I once wrote with such thought and care are no longer in existence. Those words are gone forever.
That's some powerful stuff right there, I'll tell you. Shortening something I've written, it's like I've been asked to slowly excise away pieces of my body until I've reached some form of acceptable societal perfection. Or like you've asked me which one of my limbs I'd prefer to have cut off, and I can't say none of them, because one way or another, I'll be leaving here without a limb. I may as well have a choice in the matter.
So someday, when I do succeed in publishing Wolfhowl Mountain (hopefully), read the book I wrote for readers with care, because every time you have the perfect mental image that I meant for you to have, every time you feel that I've touched one of your senses, each time you personally enjoy a piece of the writing I created for you, remember that I killed parts of my own soul in order for you to enjoy this book. Yeah.
I guess that's going to change the way I read books too.
*Even adult works are generally under 110,000 words