Word Counts: My Aha Moment
Lately I’ve been incorporating interval training into my workouts. When I’m at the gym, I use the interval setting on the treadmill. When I’m outside jogging with Reagan and my iPod, I alternate a faster and slower pace. Since it’s annoying to look at my watch, I use music to time my intervals. I might jog for two songs, run fast for one song. Or something like that.
So yesterday I was musing on the fact that it’s easy to use music to structure my run, since all the songs are roughly between three and four minutes. There are a few exceptions, but mostly, popular music consists of songs of a consistent length.
That’s when it hit me: Popular music consists of songs of a certain length. Popular movies fall within a certain range of lengths. TV shows have even stricter length guidelines, down to the second.
And I seriously doubt pop stars and screenwriters sit around bemoaning the strict “limits on their creativity” imposed by the entities that employ them.
The simple fact is, if you want to be part of a massive and well-established commercial system, you’ll create your art so that it fits into that system.
If you want to be creative without any limits whatsoever, you are absolutely free to do so. You can write all the 20-minute pop songs you want, you can create independent films of eight minutes or eight hours and nobody will stop you. But if you want to fit into a system, and expect that system to take risks on you and pay you, you need to offer them what they want.
I’ve written about word counts several times, and somehow, I always end up on the defensive as writers argue about their creative freedom to tell their stories in “as many words as it takes.” But I’m finished justifying established word counts in the publishing industry! I can’t see Joe Record Producer coddling songwriters who complain they can’t create songs in only four minutes, they need six. Joe Producer has 500 more songwriters lined up outside his door who will write the 3- and 4-minute songs.
If you want to be considered for commercial publication, you’ll need to start by fitting in with what the publishing industry needs, and you’ll need to give up the temptation to argue about it. As a brand-new writer, you have a choice: Do what it takes to publish commercially, or choose to remain independent and write on your own.
So here are my word count guidelines, once again:
Full-length fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 is ideal. I will look at manuscripts from 70,000 to 120,000 words, NOT outside of that.
Non-fiction: Usually about 50,000 to 70,000 words. I will look at proposals for books in the 45,000 to 80,000 range, rarely outside of that.
I’m not trying to be all hard-nosed and rigid. I’m just tired of trying to defend something that’s not within my power to control. When you try to get published for the first time, there are already enough hurdles to overcome. It’s rarely worth my time, with a first-time author, to try and overcome the word-count hurdle on top of everything else. So please, if you’re submitting your work to me, make sure it falls within the word-counts I represent. Thank you!
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.