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I stand by this series of tweets. But I may need to clarify something. Someone objected that it might be irresponsible to advise young writers to pretend the rules don’t apply to them, that some projects are just foolish to undertake and it’s better to say so.

Now. I can see where this person is coming from and I sorta kinda agree but not really.

Here’s the thing: yes, there are some projects that are fundamentally unsalable. If you are determined, for artistic reasons, to write a 500K word novel all in Sumerian, well, you know, the audience for that book is going to be very, very small and I’d bet most editors would pass it up no matter how brilliant it was. That’s kind of common sense, right?

A slightly less extreme example–most SF or Fantasy novels come in at around 100K words. Give or take ten or twenty. You’re probably going to have an easier time selling a manuscript that’s 100,000 words long as opposed to one that’s 300K.

But here’s the thing–that’s not really an ironclad rule. I know personally of at least one person who sold their first fantasy novel a couple years ago–it was in the neighborhood of 300K, and the subsequent volumes have also been that length, so far as I can tell. (Hi, Django! And y’all who aren’t Django, the books are great fun.)

See, that sort of thing is covered by my admission in the tweets that, yes, commercial considerations are a thing and you might want to keep them in mind. Or not, you know, because A)you, the writer, get to make the final call just what considerations you want to take into account and B)every one of them is a case-by-case thing. I can’t tell you “never ever write a first SFF novel that’s 200K-plus words, you’ll never sell it.” Because that isn’t necessarily true.

What I can tell you is that most first novels are going to be in that 100K range, and so maybe when you’re working you want to keep that in mind. But you have to balance that against your project. What are you trying to do? What will best serve the goal you have in mind for that particular work? It might well be that the answer is “ruthlessly cut down to 100K” or “ditch it and write something else in a different but related subgenre.” I don’t know, I can’t tell you that. Only you can tell you that. But “most first genre novels are 100K” is not a rule obligating you to stick to that length if you want to be published. It’s a piece of information about what’s mostly being published right now. There are, and will be, exceptions.

No, you can’t guarantee that your work will be one of those exceptions. But, some real talk: there is nothing you can do to guarantee that your ms that has all the characteristics of what’s being published right now–the right length, popular subgenre, whatever–none of that is any guarantee that ms will sell.

If you have a quirky project, and you, personally, feel compelled to see that project through in some way, shape, or form, then do that. Consider advice, certainly. If you can take the advice without harming your project, and it seems good to you, by all means do. I am absolutely not encouraging any writer to refuse to listen to any critique or advice at all in the name of their pure, unadulterated artistic vision.

Nor, by the way, do I consider writers who weigh commercial factors very heavily in their calculations to be sellouts. On the contrary, that is a valid choice to make. I can’t tell anyone reading this blog how or whether to weigh such concerns, because that’s a question of what a given project calls for, and what the writer feels is going to work for that project.

But if you’re going to tell writers never to write anything much longer than 100K, or that they should give up all hope of writing something in a mined-out (or currently popular, soon to be mined-out) genre, well. No. Be aware, if you’re setting out on your 500K vampire-elf novel, that you’re going to have to really impress an editor with it. You might want to consider another project for now. Maybe. Do you? I can’t tell you that, only you can. Think about it. I’d probably say it was maybe foolhardy. But you know, it’s your call, and I can’t tell you that your 80K Angel/Mermaid Romance is going to do any better. Will you get as much fun out of the Angel/Mermaid book? You might want to start there and work on the Vampire Elf next. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes your most ambitious project needs a skill level you don’t quite have yet. Sometimes you need to work up your confidence before you attempt it. It’s your call. Whatever choice you make will be good, it will be okay. There’s no rush, writing takes time, submitting takes time, just write. It’ll be all right. I’m just saying, don’t permanently scrap your cool project because someone said “but you can’t sell that kind of thing.”

And if folks in your writers group or message board or whatever are telling you things like “you have to have a POV character that’s like the reader so they can sympathize with them” or “don’t write in first person” or “editors won’t buy stories with queer main characters” well, frankly, no. “No infodumps.” Really? Take a look at the critically acclaimed books of the past couple years. I can think of at least two, just off the top of my head, that from all I can tell sell pretty well and have been nominated for or won major awards that are pretty infodump heavy. There are likely more, because actually some readers really enjoy the heck out of a good infodump, especially when it’s embedded in a story that hits their buttons in other ways as well.

My advice–don’t get your advice about what editors will or won’t buy from writers group members, many of whom may or may not have sold much themselves but are passing on second-hand, received wisdom that came from Mithras knows where. Take it from actual editors, and from observing what’s actually on the shelves at the bookstore. Always remembering that what’s on the shelves is just what’s being published right now, not a complete set of what will or won’t ever be published in the future. In fact, today’s hot subgenre is already on its way out, for writer purposes. There’s no predicting what tomorrow’s will be.

Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.

This is difficult to do, by the way. You need to have a weird sort of ambiguous attitude, at least in my experience. You have to be really pig-headed but also willing to bend when it’s called for. And only you can decide when it’s called for.

Weigh advice, think, and if, after thinking about it, you really feel passionate about the Vampire Elf, then go to it. Commit entirely to it. Don’t bar any holds, don’t just go overboard, dive enthusiastically over that rail. Worry about selling it later. Who knows, you might hit the right editor at the right time and spark a whole Vampire revival. (Actually I hope not, I’m pretty much over vampires (and zombies for that matter) but you don’t need to take my taste into account.)

Or not. Maybe the Mermaid is a better call. I know it’s frustrating, part of the reason these “rules” get passed around is because we would so much love to have at least some certainty, at least some indication that there’s a way to get where we’re trying to go, some black and white steps we need to take. But there’s no way anyone can give you that. The only sure thing I can tell you is, if you don’t write you won’t ever sell your writing. If you don’t finish what you work on, and submit it, you will never sell your writing. Everything else is a matter of “it depends what you’re trying to do.” So whatever project you decide to work on, it might as well be something you really do want to write.

8 Responses

  1. G
    Gardner

    One piece of advice I find to be applicable in all sorts of contexts, especially in creative ones like writing is ‘You have to be aware of the rules to break them’

    There’s a world of difference between someone pounding out 500k words because they don’t know any better, and someone writing a 500k+ word epic because that’s how many words they need to tell the story they want to tell.

    Once you learn the rules, then it’s up to you to decide how much weight to place on them. Whenever you break a rule, do it for a reason. It doesn’t even have to be a good reason, just as long as there’s some amount of intent and forethought.

    Same for following rules, whenever you follow a rule, do it for a reason. Maybe the reason is just ‘That’s the rule and I can’t think of a good enough reason to break it’.

    1. Ann Post author

      Well, I’ll be honest, I don’t think there are any actual rules, and thus don’t believe in the utility of learning how to “break” non-rules. I do think it’s important to learn techniques and effects before you plunge into ambitious work, though. Or else learn techniques and effects by doing, and by reading and analyzing what one reads, and talking to other writers. But honestly none of that involves actual rules. If nothing else, if you can break it and it still works, you never were dealing with a rule to start with.

      1. G
        Gardner

        ‘Rule’ is an imprecise/inaccurate term. Maybe better to consider it as short-hand for a ‘rule-of-thumb’ or a common practice. But now I’m being overly pedantic. Really, I’m agreeing with you, just using language that’s helped me not to get hung up when other people describe such ideas as ‘rules’.

  2. P
    Pat Bowne

    I think rather than ‘rules’ there are conventions and fads. Grammar is made up of conventions, but a lot of the rest is just current fads.

    I’m thinking, for instance, of the fad for tight third. For a while there it seemed as if every writers’ workshop was agreed in trying to stamp out omniscient, and as for head-hopping! People tried to paint that as the sign of a shambling illiterate.

    Now I read books in omniscient and that hop in and out of heads like so many frogs, and I enjoy the heck out of them. I wish some of the time I spent learning to straight-jacket my prose into tight third had been spent learning how to use omniscient, head hop, and do whatever it took to write the story. Better yet, learning to figure out what each of those *could* do for a story and how to decide which one to use.

    1. Ann Post author

      Yeah, this is part of why I hate hate hate it when these things are presented as “rules.” They aren’t they’re techniques you may or may not want to use in a given project to achieve or avoid a particular effect–phrasing it as “rules” leads exactly to what you describe, restricting the techniques available to the learning writer.

  3. B
    Bob J

    Yeah, I pretty much decided the only thing I can do is write the way I want to. Any other way and the writing feels dishonest.
    I made the mistake of asking a friend to read a first draft, and basically she seemed to want dumb it down – a freakin’ zombie apocalypse book needs dumbing down? I also find out she always reads the ending first. She’s just not comfortable having the story in control…
    A writer’s group I’m in, I ask what people think of prologues – my daughter seems to hate them, so I wonder do others?. I’m promptly told some editors immediately discard a first time author’s manuscript if it has a prologue. Apparently he or she hasn’t earned the right to them yet?
    The thing is, a book I’m writing focuses on three sisters, and deals with a multiverse. I think three different prologues would kind of set the stage for the whole book. I want it to feel off-balance and make readers wonder what the heck is going on. However, I worry that I might get away with 2 prologues, but 3 might get readers pissed – if most are like my daughter. Here’s the thing – I know I’ll end up doing what I think the story needs. Maybe there’s not that big of a difference between a prologue and a Chapter 1, and if that was the only thing in the way of getting a book deal then I’d cave. But damn it all, it would not sit well with me…

    1. Ann Post author

      Prologues are difficult. Three even more so. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, but yeah, I do personally feel three might be excessive.

      Here’s my thinking on prologues, and you can do whatever you want with it–sometimes, yeah, they serve a purpose. But what’s the point of yours? I think you’re right that three prologues might as well be three chapters. And I’ll tell you that, though I haven’t read your work, a common reason some writers (particularly not-yet-published writers) go for prologues is to get exposition in that they feel they have to cram into the reader all at once, when they’d be better off just starting the story and trusting the reader to follow, while they give out information as things go along. That, or they’re thinking of teaser openings to movies or TV shows. Nine times out of ten, there’s a better way to handle that exposition, and nine times out of ten the story works fine or better without that teaser opening.

      The problem, of course, is knowing if you’re looking at that tenth time, right? But the “editors put aside mss with prologues automatically” isn’t one hundred percent true (just look at how many novels on the shelves have prologues–the number is not zero), but it kind of is. Nine times out of ten that prologue is a sign that the writer hasn’t worked out their expositional techniques, and the ms ahead will have other problems as well. There are generally indications of this in the prologue’s writing as well, so it’s easy to set aside before you get much farther than the prologue itself. And the problems in the writing are difficult for the writer to see themself–if they saw them they wouldn’t have sent the ms out, after all. It’s just easier, in a rejection, to say “Yeah, it’s the prologue,” when it was the prologue plus a bunch of other things.

      Just personally I’m a believer in trusting and respecting my readers. So like you I’m wary of “dumbing down” work. On the other hand, making things clearer that need to be clear is important, and it can be hard to see which is which, especially if you don’t have much distance on the draft. But as for wanting to leave the reader off kilter–I can’t make this decision for you, but I would advise thinking about whether you really want that, and if so to what degree. Especially in SFF we ask our readers to accept a lot of confusing, odd, incomprehensible stuff at the beginning of a story, and as readers we enjoy that feeling when everything comes together and we figure out what’s going on. But what that means, I think, is that as writers we need to manage that puzzlement and off-kilterness fairly closely. Too many confusions of the wrong sort and the reader might well decide to read something else. Just enough, and they’re entranced. And of course every reader is going to have different preferred levels of off-kilter, different amounts of cognitive work, so there’s no single approach that definitely will or definitely won’t work.

      My rule of thumb, though, is that I want to try to make it so all the work the reader is doing is work I want them to do. If I’m going to hand them a huge load of packages, I want to be certain that the sidewalk is absolutely smooth, there’s no rain falling on them, no cars honking horns, no passing folks shouting demands at them. If I want them to feel confused and assaulted I might want rain and shouting folks but I sure as heck won’t hand them a big load of fragile china to carry on top of that because I want them thinking about the rain. Or whatever. This is not to say people can only think about one thing at a time, just that it’s worth considering what and how much disorientation you’re feeding your reader, and when.

      I would suggest that if your aim is to disorient the reader right from the start, there are more efficient ways to do this. That doesn’t mean I think you should ditch your three prologues, I haven’t read your work, but I do think “three prologues” is heading into the “foolhardy, might work but you want to think hard about it” end of the pool. Try a few other approaches just to be sure you don’t like them better. What do you lose by calling them chapters but keeping the material the same? What do you lose if you cut those prologues off and just don’t use them? What do you lose if you just present your characters and story and let the sf/f/horror do the off-kiltering work themselves? You can try all kinds of different things and it’s easy enough to go back to what you had, because you’ve saved that file to its own folder and made a new one to play with and you can restore everything, right? Maybe try and see. Maybe in the end you’ll decide on the three prologues, but at the very least you’ll have learned things by looking at other approaches.

      If you go ahead with it, consider your critiquer’s reactions. If several, or nearly all of them, have a bad reaction to the multiple prologues, that’s a thing to listen to. Not necessarily advice to lose them, but the fact they’re having problems getting through them is an indication that you might need to refine something about the prologues. What that is will be difficult to spot. I often take a day or two–or more–to let critiques settle in before I look at the ms again and think about changes. Sometimes someone will say “add more to this scene” which indicates a real problem, but adding isn’t the solution, cutting the scene is. Or things like that. It’s worth remembering that sometimes very small edits can have very large effects. But in the end, it’s your call what you want to change or not.

      Yeah, three prologues is going to be tough to pull off. I would advise thinking long and hard about why you’re doing it and if it’s really the best way to get what you’re after. But, you know, if you really feel it’s the best way to do what you’re doing, then go for it, right? The worst thing that can happen is you end up with a trunked ms and some valuable experience heading into the next project.

      1. B
        Bob J

        Heh. Yeah, pretty much what I’ve been mulling over.
        Basically, the reason for prologues in the story at all is a time shift of about 20-25 years. The sisters are young girls, roughly aged 12, 9 and 3. The middle sister’s story is what kicks us off, and while she’s confused and somewhat terrified, I trust the readers would know what’s happening to her. The next prologue would be the 3 year-old’story – from a different universe, much more SF oriented. That’s the “what the heck?” aspect I was aiming for.
        My gut tells me I might pull off 2 prologues, but not 3. Mostly because even now I don’t have an idea for the older sister’s prologue, and just want to start chapter 1 with her as late 30s-ish. I’m guessing if *I* don’t care about her alternate story, it will come across in the writing.
        As far as dumbing down being clearer story telling, yeah, I get that, but I guess I mean things like my title was “too arty” and she thought I should have “Dead Guy” in the title.
        No. Just, no.
        What I wrote wasn’t an anti-zombie novel, but I wanted to break from the 101 creative ways to take out a zombie format. To me, a good zombie book is never about the dead and gore, but how people handle the stress they’re under. She wanted me to action it up. Eh. My book wasn’t for her, I guess.
        Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful response – I truly appreciate it.
        I enjoyed meeting you at last year’s World Con – wish I could make it this year!