Having an outrageous word count is one of the fastest ways to get your manuscript rejected by an agent. But how long should your manuscript be? As long as you need it to be to tell the whole story, right?
Readers expectations for pacing and lengths vary depending on the genre and age category. There's always a range, and there will always be outliers, but if you're trying to get your first manuscript published, it's generally safer to stay pretty close to the established norms.
You want to research what standard length is for the age category you're writing for (picture book, early reader, MG, YA, Adult, etc) and what standard length is for your genre (non-fiction, fantasy, adventure, contemporary, romance, etc) within that age category.
Here are a few of our favorite resources for checking on word count standards:
This excellent post by agent Jennifer Laughran covers kids up through YA: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html
Another great post by agent Jessica Faust here, dealing more with YA and adult fiction: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-count.html
Blake Atwood breaks down word counts here: https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/
And for those of you writing children's books, whether early reader, MG, or YA, there's a handy (free!) online tool you can use to see how long your comp titles are. If you go to http://www.arbookfind.com, you can plug in titles of children's books and it will tell you what level that book is considered to be, as well as its word count.
One last key thing to remember: these are word counts for final drafts. Your first draft may come in way under or over, and that's okay. I've taken 16,000 word drafts and turned them into 90,000 word novels. And 120,000 word novels and trimmed them down to 80,000. It's possible. So don't despair if you aren't on target right away. That's what editing is for!
The most common punctuation mistakes we see authors make usually involve proper comma usage. Not all authors are grammar pros, and that's fine! That's why editors exist, after all. But if grammar isn't your strong suit and you'd like to change that, today's tip is for you.
Lists don't require commas unless there are three or more items.
For example, the following would be incorrect:
"You have my sword, and my ax." Since there are only two items, no comma is needed.
But if the list has three or more items, then you need a comma after the first item. If you're team Oxford comma for clarity, then you need a comma after all items except the last one. We won't get into the Oxford comma debate here, but I'm personally a fan, so I'll use it in my example.
"You have my sword, my ax, and my bow."
As a bonus editing tip, a lot of comma usage is about rhythm. When you read the list in the example above, it feels a little bouncy, with a break between each item. That's the comma, making itself felt. So if it feels like there ought to be a pause in the sentence, chances are you need a comma.
Today's tip is a quick fix for adding more detail and engaging your readers.
Remember, sight isn't the only sense you can work with.
For most people, sight is the sense we rely on the most when we encounter a new situation, so it makes sense that authors fall back on it when adding descriptions. Touch and hearing are the next most frequent senses we see in descriptive passages.
But what about smell and taste? There are obviously situations where these won't apply, but when you can use them, they're incredibly powerful. Reading a description of a smell or taste can evoke a physical response in the reader, even though it's only words on a page.
And as a bonus, many scents and tastes come with common emotional associations. Try thinking of cinnamon and sugar, or warm chocolate chip cookies, or an outdoor barbecue. It probably made you salivate a little, and put a smile on your face. And you can create the same type of reaction with a mention of unpleasant odors and tastes.
Smell and taste are actually very strongly linked to our memories, so use those experiences to your advantage. A scent can set the mood and make the reader feel linked to the character faster than anything else. (If you like to learn about the science behind this sort of thing, there are some great articles here: http://www.fifthsense.org.uk/psychology-and-smell/ and here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201501/smells-ring-bells-how-smell-triggers-memories-and-emotions)
So go ahead, shake things up a little. Think about that fresh book, old-bookstore smell, and then try adding some extra sensory detail to your manuscript to kick it up a notch.
Welcome back to our live critique blog series. Today, we're critiquing the pitch paragraphs of an author's query letter. As usual, find the unedited version first followed by the query with our comments and suggestions in red to follow. And, if you have any suggestions you'd like to add, please do so in the comments.
Eleven-year-old Alexander Sighs hates being the middle child. His mother spends most of her time with his youngest sister teaching her the art of beauty pageants, while his father spends his time with his older brother teaching him little league jousting and sword fighting. His family never notices when he’s there, so he decides to teach them a lesson and run away from home. His original preparations get botched when he captures two leprechauns.
Alexander is convinced to join them on a quest to find unicorns that were stolen by the evil King. It'd be just like running away only better because he's promised an exciting adventure, fraught with danger. Unfortunately, leprechauns take that promise seriously. They get unexpected help from the evil king's daughter--a witch. While she helps Alexander escape one near-death experience after another, he is surprised to find himself on the King's most wanted list for helping her run away. If Alexander fails to retrieve the unicorns, leprechauns and all they stand for will cease to exist. But if he succeeds, his own existence might come to an end.
ALEXANDER is a 40,000-word MG standalone fantasy novel, with sequel possibilities.
Eleven-year-old Alexander Sighs hates being the middle child. – This is a great opening line. It shows an ordinary problem, but gets straight to the conflict and tells us a lot about Alexander pretty quickly, and kids will sympathize with his plight – His mother spends most of her time with his youngest sister teaching her the art of beauty pageants, while his father spends his time with his older brother teaching him little league jousting and sword fighting. – This sounds such fun! You have used “spends … time” twice in the sentence, however, so consider revising to avoid the repetition. – His family never notices when he’s there, so he decides to teach them a lesson and run away from home. – You could delete “from home” as this will be clear to the reader. Also, could you add more voice here? Perhaps: “His family never notices him, and now Alexander’s done. Over it. His only option: teach them all a lesson and run away.” Or similar. – His original preparations get botched when he captures two leprechauns. – This last sentence seems a little sudden and lacks detail. First: what are his “original preparations”? Are they important? And second: How does he 1) encounter leprechauns and 2) capture them? Perhaps some more detail here would help show the reader more about the leprechauns: where Alexander was, if they met by chance, what he did to capture them, are leprechauns normally found out and about, and why did he capture them rather than running away from them.
Alexander is convinced – Passive; try “They convince Alexander…” – to join them on a quest to find unicorns that were – perhaps delete “that were” for smoother flow – stolen by the evil King. – If the unicorns were stolen, wouldn’t the King still have them? Why do they need to find them? Did the unicorns belong to the leprechauns? Why are they looking for them? Is all this happening in the real world where Alexander lives or does Alexander live in a magical place where leprechauns and evil kings and unicorns are pretty normal? – It'd be just like running away only better because he's promised an exciting adventure, fraught with danger. Unfortunately, leprechauns take that promise seriously. – Are these details all necessary? Alex’s motives for joining the quest are pretty obvious, and it seems obvious that the leprechauns are going to hold him to his promise. Instead, maybe include more about why this matters. Why did the evil King take the unicorns, who did he steal them from, and what are the consequences for whatever magical place he took them from? You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but this is where you can add some all important stakes, beyond stating simply that they want to get the unicorns back. – They get unexpected help from the evil King's daughter-- – use an em-dash here rather than two hyphens – a witch. While she helps Alexander escape one near-death experience after another, he is – contract: “he’s” – surprised to find himself on the King's most wanted list for helping her run away – How is this surprising? Perhaps all you really need is “he finds himself on the King’s most wanted list…” –. If Alexander fails to retrieve the unicorns, leprechauns and all they stand for will cease to exist. But if he succeeds, his own existence might come to an end. – You’ve got clear stakes here, but perhaps try to make them more compelling. If he fails, things will go badly for the leprechauns and all the nebulous, generic things they stand for. If he succeeds, he dies. Alexander better have a darned good reason to be risking his life to save the leprechauns. Clear, specific stakes: why does any of this matter to Alexander?
ALEXANDER – Perhaps it's best to use the whole title here – is a 40,000-word MG standalone fantasy novel, with sequel possibilities. – There’s nothing really wrong with “sequel possibilities,” but the typical phrase is “series potential.” Using the industry standard lingo shows you’ve done your homework. Could you also add something with comp. titles here? Such as "...that will appeal to fans of XXX and XXX"?
QUERY CRITIQUE OVERVIEW...
So in general, a solid query needs to answer 4 questions to work well and pique an agent’s interest. This technique might provide a different way of thinking about what you need to include in your query (and what you don’t).
Today's tip is for authors who have a hard time with dialogue. Which includes me! But the great thing about having been really bad at dialogue is that I've learned quite a few techniques make mine sound better, and I like sharing. (Knowledge, at least; chocolate is a different matter.) And if I can improve my dialogue, so can you.
One of the most important keys to interesting, authentic-sounding dialogue, is voice. So how do you find a character's speaking voice?
You have to try walking in their shoes. Step up to the mic, and imagine you're them, as it were. Consider everything you know about this character: what's their background, education level, age, gender, orientation, politics, wealth, religion, ethnicity, current emotional state, how they feel about the person they're talking to, motivation overall and within the scene.
It's a lot. But in real life, that's how our word choices and speech patterns are determined. Personally, I do a lot of profiling of my main and secondary characters. Once I develop a clear enough feeling for who this person is that I'm writing about, the voice begins to flow. For minor characters, I keep in mind simpler things: age, station, job, mood. Five year olds shouldn't sound like twenty year olds, and neither should sound like sixty year olds. A prison guard doesn't talk like a school teacher out on the prairie; a devout priest will sound different from a policeman. And you can use those contrasts to your advantage and create an extra layer of subtext and tension in your story.
Flat dialogue, or characters who all sound the same can distance your readers from the story. Giving everyone their own, slightly different voice in the chorus makes for a much more interesting read. Diving this deep into your characters' heads may sound like a lot of work, but it pays off in more ways than just better dialogue.
Today's tip is all about decision making - your characters', that is. You know that stereotype about how characters in horror movies always make really poor choices that they wouldn't make in real life? Unfortunately, this is something we see fairly often in manuscripts (and even query letters) that need some TLC. So ask yourself:
Are my characters' decisions realistic and true to their motivations?
If a character misses her older brother she doesn't get to see very often, she's not going to ignore the phone when he calls. If a character is a scaredy-cat, you'd better provide them with a good reason to go investigate that bump in the night. If a character is trying to get from point A to point B as fast as he can, he isn't likely to stop and smell the roses.
Too often we focus on what we as authors want to have happen next, and we force our characters to make bizarre choices that don't make sense. Doing this reminds the reader that the character is nothing more than a construct in a story. If you need a character to do something out of their normal, established behavior, then you have to give them a believable push in that direction. We're human beings; we're resistant to change at a fundamental level. Even if you're writing non-human characters, we expect internal consistency. Either you give your character a push, or you need to listen to your character and figure out what they would really do in that situation. Sometimes their natural reactions make for an even better story.
Today we'll be talking about how to punctuate around your dialogue. The rules are different depending on if you're using dialogue tags or blocking, and we see a lot of authors get mixed up by the differences. But never fear - we're here to help!
Let's start by reviewing the difference between a dialogue tag and blocking. Dialogue tags are things like he said, she asked, he shouted, she replied. They're like gift tags at the end of the sentence, to let the reader know who is speaking. Blocking is a description of the action of the person speaking. It's a sneaky way to let the reader know who's talking, how they feel by what they're doing, and what else might be going on in the setting.
So. If you're using a dialogue tag, it's still part of the dialogue sentence. That means the period doesn't go until after the dialogue tag, like so:
"I like to eat green eggs and ham," said Sam-I-am.
Notice how there's a comma instead of a period inside the dialogue, then the quotation marks; then a period after the dialogue tag.
If your character is asking a question, it looks like this:
"Would you eat them in a box?" asked Sam-I-am.
So in cases where you're using ! or ?, those go inside the quotation marks, followed by a period at the end of the sentence, even though the dialogue was a question or an exclamation.
Now, if you're using blocking, everything is simpler. You punctuate normally, with the dialogue and the blocking in separate sentences. It might look something like this:
"I like to eat green eggs and ham." Sam-I-am licked his lips as held out the plate to his friend.
"Hmph. I do not like green eggs and ham!"
Sam-I-am shook his head. "How do you know? Have you tried them? Try them! Try them, and you may."
Blame my kids' school for the fan-fiction, it was Dr. Seuss week. Hopefully it helped to illustrate how dialogue punctuation works!
Has your character ever wandered through the woods, wondering about what tomorrow will bring? Or let their thoughts wander off about the wonder that is this world?
Yes, it's confusing.
No, you're not the only one who gets it wrong from time to time. That's why we're here with today's editing tip.
Wandering is like WAlking. It's an Action word. So it's W-A.
Wonder is like saying "WOw!" or "Ohhh" as you think about something. So it's W-O.
(I don't know about the rest of you, but I use a lot of mnemonic devices to remember things like this. And I mean a LOT.)
So you use wander if your character or their thoughts are taking an indirect path.
You use wonder if your character is thinking about something, or is awestruck (i.e. wonderful!).
Wondering if you might need an editor? Wander through the rest of the site to find out more about our editing services!
Have you ever received the feedback from a critique partner or an agent that they "just didn't connect with the character"? It's something most of us have heard, but it can be hard to understand how to use that feedback to approach revisions.
If agents aren't connecting, try adding emotional depth.
When someone says they didn't connect, it's often a symptom of rushed pacing. You need to let readers into your main character's emotional state if you want them to form a connection. You do that by showing their reaction to what's happening around them, to what is (and isn't) being said. If you rush through all the intense action scenes without giving the MC a chance to show us how they feel, then all the reader gets out of the scene is the action without the emotional connection. The action is vital and fun, but the emotional resonance is what makes it stick. Make sure you have a good balance of both.
Today we're bringing you another tip on how to improve your dialogue writing skills.
Remember who you're talking to, and what they know.
Have you ever read a passage of dialogue that started with something like, "As you know, Bob, first we had to disentangle the fragmabobulator from the zorgatron..." and then the dialogue goes on, listing all the info that person A (let's call him Fred) has about the situation.
Do you see the problem, though?
Why is Fred telling this to Bob, if Bob already knows it?
Obviously, Fred is telling Bob so that the reader can find out. But it's usually pretty boring and transparent. It's too much of an info dump and it tends to turn into a monologue.
There's a slightly better version, the "Do you remember the time we did X?" "Oh, yeah, and then Y happened?" This can work, if it's done well. But it needs to come up naturally; something should spark the memory organically.
I remember seeing one famous author pull this off with a scientist character talking possibilities over with another character; when she realizes he has no idea how the science works, she stops to explain. In that case, it worked well because the worldbuilding had already established the second character would not have had access to scientific education, but was intelligent enough to understand. And they had a good enough rapport that the dialogue was interesting. It felt genuine, like two friends, not like a lesson.
Think about how dialogue progresses between two people who know each other in real life situations the next time you want to use dialogue to drop some important info on your readers. Dialogue is a great tool, but you have to take into account what the characters already know, and what they need to know, for the conversation to proceed, and not just what you want your readers to learn.
Fortnightly on Mondays, we live critique one writer's query letter or first 250 words of their manuscript. Every Wednesday & Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day!