When I was querying my Russian novel and the first of my Atlantic City books about ten years ago, I never even included word count in my sparse queries. I didn’t know you were supposed to count words and let agents know how many there were. I can’t even remember if my queries included page numbers. I old-fashionedly assumed they just wanted to know what the story was about, since books come in all shapes and sizes. It would be silly to discriminate against a very long or short book, if the story called for an epic length or something shorter and sweeter. Besides, I don’t even remember if MacWriteII and ClarisWorks had word counting features. I’d have to guess by the old formula of multiplying a number (probably 300 or 350, since I write in Palatino, which fits more words on a page than that butt-ugly Courier) by the number of pages, until I translate all of those files into Word.
The first Atlantic City book, when transcribed and fleshed out a bit from the handwritten original (primarily to add the genesis of the forbidden, secret, and ultimately knowingly doomed interfaith love story between the agnostic Protestant Cinnimin and the slightly older Conservative Jewish Barry, her best friend’s favorite brother, which was never in the handwritten originals for any of my first drafts of the Atlantic City books I wrote prior to 1997), comes to 120 pages double-spaced, with two additional pages of a foreword. The second book I remember came to 99 pages double-spaced. The third book, about 1940, was by far the longest; I think it might have been in the vicinity of 300 pages, perhaps longer. The fourth book, whose subtitle indicated it was indeed written almost as an afterthought, was even shorter than the second book. I guess it just seemed longer originally since it was handwritten (the way I’ve written many of my Atlantic City books). Who knows, perhaps books one and two could be combined into one volume, and book four could be an addendum to book three.
It’s kind of disheartening to read on some agent blogs that any queries above a certain word count would get a form rejection. What about the actual story? I understand that in certain ways, it’s not just some arbitrary number, since paper and ink do cost money and there’s no guarantee a brand-new published writer will produce a best-seller. There are also certain genres, such as police procedurals and cozy mysteries, where I agree it would be eyebrow-raising to see a word count much above, say, 85,000. Those aren’t genres like historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, or literary, where you often do need lots and lots of words to fully develop worlds, characters, and complex storylines.
It never occurred to me in all of my years of writing to obsess over an arbitrary amount of words, thinking things like “Oh, no! I’ve gone way above 100,000 words and will need to slice this book in half!” or “This book is almost done and it’s only 50,000 words! I’ve got to add at least 30,000 more!” You write the story you need to write, at the length that is right for the story you set out to tell. I can’t fathom writing a book with only a handful of main characters and condensing years of storyline into only several hundred pages. I’m used to the older, longer books with casts of scores (or even hundreds) of characters. I’ve never had any problem keeping any of my characters straight. I remember their names, birthdates (if provided), and bios like the back of my hand, and even if it’s been awhile with a certain character, everything starts rushing back quickly once I do get back to dealing with him or her.
It’s not fair to look at a word count above a set number (like 85,000 or 120,000) as automatic evidence of overwriting or bad writing. Some lengthy books could indeed have benefitted from a significant paring-down, while some books (such as Ernest Hemingway’s) feel much longer in spite of only being in the range of 200 pages. But you won’t know if that word count reflects an epic, complex storyline containing fifty-plus characters and at least five main plotlines, or if it’s indeed full of unnecessary bloat, unless you give it a chance and start reading it. When you automatically reject something based solely on longer than average length, that does a huge disservice to those of us who enjoy literature and know that a real novel often doesn’t really get cooking till at least several hundred pages have passed. I also love just following the story of people’s lives instead of reading a book about a problem or mystery needing to be resolved and developed at a certain formulaic pace. But then again, I know that literary fiction isn’t the hottest style right now. Looking at the extensive notes I made for the second and third books in my Russian family saga, I know that both of them will easily run over 1,000 pages just like the first book did, and I’m not going to start sawing away at them after they’re both completed. The first book runs from 1917-24; book two covers 1924-30; and book three covers 1933-48. Since book one had 42 chapters, my outline is for the second book to also run 42 chapters. The chapters for book one were pretty damn long, often running 30 or 40 pages or more.
But then again, even if it never happens, my ultimate goal as a writer is to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobel Prize winners usually aren’t chosen for kowtowing to current trends and writing formulaic books that can be neatly wrapped up in 288 pages. (Seriously, what is up with so many modern books being 288 pages? That seems like such an arbitrary length!)