Another Word About Word Count with Tricia Quinnies
The brouhaha about writers and their word counts, makes a dramatic entrance every so often. Probably more often than we think. We writers, we love our words. Every one of them, from And to Zed. In our writerly heads, each word is carefully handpicked and absolutely necessary to create our magical stories. Like Mozart, each note is essential for our readers to understand our masterpieces.
As if any would dare! No one told Mozart to limit his notes…or did they? Too many notes? For Mozart? The child prodigy used a lot of notes as he attempted to complete—without success—five sections for his, Requiem, but these days writers have a lot less room for our creative genius to run amuck or be free and wild. So, cutting a few words and finishing a book is much more profitable and enjoyable than dying before it’s published.
Even if, our stage—the business of publishing—is bigger than Mozart’s, the attention of the average reader these days is spread thin. There are a lot of choices for entertainment, but still only twenty-four hours in a day.
Since most writers, I can safely assume, are not like Mozart, here is a note of advice:
Word Count Matters and On a Lot of Levels.
If you’re looking to have your book published on the traditional track, you will need an agent. They are the magic potion, the gatekeeper of your dreams and required, because the Big Five publishing houses won’t look at any of your words without an agent.
Level One: The Query
The Count: 350-400 Words
The query letter is the first hurdle and is complete by 400 words. That’s it and even 350 words is better. I know, you’ve spent a lot of time on your completed manuscript. How can your dream agent possibly learn everything about your beautiful book baby with a paltry 350 words? Here’s the answer, straight up, you aren’t the only one writing a masterpiece. You’re one of many. Many, many writers are trying to get their brilliant books out into the world. An agent can easily get thousands of queries a week. So, give yourself a big advantage—read the instructions on the agent’s website and follow the guidelines stated for the submission/query process.
The Best Secret Sauce for a Mouthwatering Query Is:
►Paragraph 1. The Hook
►Paragraph 2. The Book
►Paragraph 3. The Cook
Typically, a logline or catchy description that sums up the gist of your story in one or two sentences. The shorter the better. It’s meant to make the agent curious enough to keep reading. Include the basics: your genre, total word count, and one or two competitive titles.
Here’s where you get to talk about your book baby with a few more sentences. You want to make this section two or three short paragraphs and use the majority of allotted words—200. Give an overview of the plot and most importantly hint at the stakes for your main characters. Stay above the forest and don’t go into the trees with too many details. It’s not an outline. It is a sales pitch to get the agent curious and request more pages.
Tell the agent a bit about yourself and make it brief. Maybe an article that you published (that correlates to your story), a personal interest or hobby. Include these especially if the agent has a similar interest as you. It doesn’t hurt to show that you’ve done your research and determined that this agent could be a good match for you and your work. Keep in mind though, the query is about the book, not you.
Here's a little anecdote to think about. Carly Watters, an agent from P.S. Literary, speaks on the podcast, The S**t No One Tells You About Writing. She (along with CeCe Lyra and Bianca Marais) offer up terrific advice on queries and first pages. The podcast offers a wealth of information for writers, and I highly recommend it.
Recently, Ms. Watters read a query letter sent into the show. I was listening while taking my daily walk on the treadmill. As she read it, I think I reached the half-mile point before Ms. Watters was finished reading the entire query letter.
Turns out, that this query letter was over 1200 words. Folks, this is NOT a query letter. It’s a synopsis or possibly a long-winded pitch, but NOT a query. Do not try this at home unless you want to get ghosted by the agent of your dreams. As a query is the first point of interaction with an agent who could make your career, show them how professional you are by displaying your knowledge and your understanding of a query letter. It will go a long way.
There are a lot of blogs and websites with information on publishing tips and some are completely devoted to the query, such as Janet Reid’s, Query Shark.
Getting the query right, (350 words: the hook, book and cook) makes it easy to show an agent your writing chops and the bonus, if you decide to go indie and self-publish, you will have completed the blurb for your book’s back cover.
Level Two: Your Manuscript
The Count: Know Your Genre
Do yourself a favor and get one detail spot on…make sure that the word count of your completed manuscript fits snuggly into the blanket of your genre. Don’t give an agent a shred of evidence that you aren’t in the know about the genre of your book, with a word count wildly out of the parameters of the publishing industry’s standards. If you think that the more words in your brilliant manuscript will mean a dazzling book that will hook your dream agent—full stop.
Kelly Van Sant, a wonderful agent with KT Literary said it best:
“Understand the genre you are writing in. 10,000 words above or below is OK, but you want to be in the ballpark.”
“So, stay in the ball park.”
Show your dream agent that you know the expectation of word count in the publishing business. If your lyrical and lovely science fiction fantasy with an interstellar romance is 250,000 words, you need to ask Scotty for less power, not more, because 250,000 words is too many words and would only make a good door stop. Unfortunately, that door was slammed shut before you had a chance of getting a foot inside.
Below is a fantastic resource for writers created by The Manuscript Academy. See where you’re at with your precious words:
Level Three: The Publisher
The Count: Words+Paper=Size (And Costs Money)
At this point in the journey of your blissful and beautiful words, it’s time to take off your beret and put on your fedora. Publishing is a business so here’s the skinny, on this perspective. In bookstores, stores and even within your own home—shelf space is limited.
Note to Self: More words make more pages and printing and paper cost money.
Recently, while attending a writing conference hosted by Chicago-North Romance Writers, I had the opportunity hear Sara Megibow, another agent from KT Literary, speak about the publishing business. It was eye-opening.
We writers are always thinking about all our bountiful words, but Ms. Megibow sent out a news flash as big and beautiful as any fireworks display. The Big Five—the publishing business— isn’t a retail business. It’s a business-to-business entity. They are working hard to make huge deals with the other businesses who sell books such as Target and Wal-Mart. The folks who buy books, to curl up and read with a nice glass of wine sadly, aren’t blipping on the publishers’ radar. It’s about the bulk. The biggest bang for the buck and getting the books to the big box stores. The contracts are signed sometimes years before the books see the light of day. Fortunately, independent bookstores are part of the overall plan to sell books, but they too have limited space. There’s only so much space on a bookshelf and no one wants the shelves to bend under the weight of too many tomes.
Level Four: The Readers
The Count: 11,000=24/7
These days, reading time in 2022 is beholden and viewed through a new and microscopic lens. Our choices for entertainment are boundless. Jennifer Baum, owner of Scribe Publishing, broke down some of the research on the publishing business for me and my jaw is still hanging open. There are a lot of books coming out every day in the United States. According to Ms. Baum, approximately 4 million books were published in the United States in 2019. Breaking down the numbers this equates, approximately, to 11,000 books per day. Tracking books sales* is hard for normal people on the outside of the business, so be warned, these numbers aren’t 100% accurate.
The Main Point: There are a lot of books coming out every day.
Even if there are many choices for entertainment out in the world, it is possible to make your book the one story that readers are excited to get their hands on. Afterall, your book is unique, engaging and entertaining. What reader would want to miss out on this opportunity? But given the limitations of time we all face every day; we want readers to become life-long fans of our writing and it can happen if you give them a big bang for their buck: a brilliant story with tight writing will create a fulfilling reading experience for your audience and leave them energized and wanting more. Paying attention and taking care of your word count on all levels will ultimately give readers a wonderful surprise gift—a little extra time to applaud your story.
END NOTES - Here are the five largest publishers in the U.S. as of August 2022.
- Penguin Random House
- Hachette Book Group
- Macmillan Publishers
- Simon & Schuster
Current litigation is deciding whether or not the Penquin Random House merger with Simon & Schuster will be allowed to move forward.
*Tracking overall sales of books is available by few sources so the numbers are challenging to determine.
Tricia Quinnies is a pre-published author—represented by Ann Leslie Tuttle of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. Under the pen name, Audrey Lynden, she writes modern love stories. Tricia organized a writing conference for Wisconsin’s romance writers in 2019 and since, loves giving writers advice and support to keep at it…because writing isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. She lives in Milwaukee, vacations in Door County, and takes a lot of walks along the shores of Lake Michigan. Tricia spends time on Instagram talking about writing conferences and what she’s currently reading, but you can also find her here: