One of the best aspects of the Best Australian Blogs competition run annually by the Sydney Writers’ Centre is that it showcases a wonderful variety of blogs. For me, the best discovery that I made this year was Katy McDevitt’s PublishEd Adelaide, a blog that specialises in the art of editing. Because, while I’m sure that the expertise that Katy generously shares on her blog is valued by editors and authors alike, for me as a reader, it demystifies aspects of books and writing that I have never understood.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Katy took up my tentative suggestion about writing a post about the gentle art of what my mother used to call ‘pruning’. ‘Get rid of all that padding!’ she used to say (brutally) to my father who wrote erudite articles for science journals.. They’re still happily married, but I bet many relationships have been strained when authors and editors have had to confront the vexed issue of ‘how much is enough’. How does it happen that Frank Moorhouse writes a novel of 690 pages and not a word too long, and yet Chi Vu’s novella is just the perfect length at 105 pages?
These mysteries are about to be revealed. I hope you enjoy this fascinating guest post from Katy:
How do you know when enough is enough?
Knowing when you’ve written the right amount is one of the toughest calls an author faces. How much content is enough for a book? And how do you deal with a publisher who is telling you in no uncertain terms to kill your darlings?
Cutting your own work can be excruciating (I experience it every week, writing for PublishEd Adelaide, and that’s only 1000 or so words!). The Talking Squid has this to say:
William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.” What he meant was: if you write something that you love beyond all reason, it is wrong and should be cut from the piece.
Length is, of course, intricately related to complexity – the longer the book, the greater the risk that the content has, somehow, spiralled during writing. Jason Pettus wrote about this recently at Authonomy:
And of course we all seem to know at least one person who once wrote what was probably a decent little first novel right after college, but who has now been “tinkering” with it for a decade, adding and adding to it every weekend like one would to a model train set, until creating a Proustian mess that would never stand a chance anymore of getting published.
So what are the rules of thumb? Well, talking only about print books, maybe 200-220 pages for a monograph, 250-280(ish) for a novel. How about roughly 600-800 pages for a college textbook (not including medical and law texts)? And that’s before you get into ebooks, with their reflowable text and content percentages, which may yet force – or enable – us all to reconceptualise what goes on a page.
You’ll have noticed that I qualified everything I just said, and I did that with a purpose. Because my view is that there is no such thing as enough. What I mean is, there is no single length at which your book is complete. There is only what someone (you, your critique group, your editor) or something (the market, the sales), tells you about its length.
Whose view of length holds sway?
Ideally, decisions about what length is right for a book are agreed in good faith between the author and publisher. My experience is that word count rarely becomes an issue in the early stages of a manuscript’s development. That’s partly because the publisher wants to sign you, and partly because, in those early stages, you’re both still, frankly, getting the measure of what you’re going to write. Fair enough. We can agree a rough figure and finesse it later.
Then, on with writing. The first person whose judgement counts is, of course, the author. Most importantly, the author decides ‘yes, that’s it’, and calls it a day. The author’s first interest (unless they’re a postmodernist), is creative. Have I done everything I wanted to do? Good. Now stop. And that’s fine as long as you’re either a self-published author, or a ‘big name’ who holds sway with a trad publisher.
But what if you’re working with a publisher who expresses concern about the amount you promised versus the amount you’ve delivered? Often, your creative plans for your book may feel at odds with what a publisher tells you. It’s understandably difficult to let go; the author may open up the material, thinking ‘just another few words, a couple of pages, one more chapter…’ – and before you know it, the book has expanded beyond the limits of a publisher’s tolerance. I think – hope! – that many publishers are generous about word limits, realising that writing can never be a boilerplate exercise. It’s organic. It grows in all sorts of ways when it’s developing, its length being only one measure of how far it’s come. Publishers know all of this is true. But they will inevitably have other things on their mind, more pragmatic than aesthetic.
The editor as gatekeeper
If you do have a serious problem meeting the agreed length and submit it without discussing the issue first, you’ll almost certainly get a query on short order from your editor. The commissioning editor is the gatekeeper of the works they have signed up – so, if the book comes in significantly north of its target word count, it may not even make it even to the copy-editing stage. It’s as simple and as serious as that. To business: no editor wants to overcommit their editorial, production, and print budget (an almost-always smaller pot than they first hoped for, honed through endless editorial committees) to extra pages that don’t earn their place. So, if you feel strongly – as you should – that the pages do earn their place, why not talk it through with your editor while you’re still drafting? He or she will appreciate the heads-up and may be more likely to push for the additional spending your book needs later, if it comes to it.
Incidentally, Jane Friedman discussed this issue recently on her blog: check it out. And Daniel Torday’s original, thought-provoking post about the novel/novella distinction (less clearly defined now) is also well worth a read.
What does the market tell you?
When it comes to how much content is right, your editor is likely to go on their personal judgement, but only so far. They may not use the ‘M word’ to you in conversation, since it’s a big switch-off, but what they are also thinking about when they talk about cutting length is the market.
Cuts may sound more reasonable when the publisher can back them up with unarguable information from the market: customer viewpoints, expert feedback, or past sales figures. So, if you know that your last book came in 100 pages too long and the publisher wasn’t thrilled with the resulting sales, you may be in for a repeat conversation this time around. But if your track record speaks for itself, if you’re a previously unpublished author, or if you simply feel that your book just isn’t complete without an extra chapter, a little more detail here, or some more exposition there, keep talking until you’ve put your case.
Don’t trip over the last-minute length issue
One more insider viewpoint, which authors may not factor in. Thankfully this doesn’t happen all the time – but it can and does happen. Books can be hamstrung by serious length issues even as they’re going to press. Final print-run approval rests with steely publishing directors and not your passionately committed book editor. When the director sees the financial paperwork for the last time, he or she decides the print run is extravagant and slashes it. If, at the same time, the production and print spending has blown out because the book is 25% longer than planned, what’s the result? I can only see one: the price of the book goes up. Unless the extra content you wrote genuinely has pushed the material into unassailable greatness, you’ll feel the effect of that price hike. Better to assess length with publisher’s spectacles on, if you can bear it; and if you can’t, feel free to ask him or her for thoughts.
Finally… have faith!
I see the job of publishers as helping authors to achieve a complete piece of work, where every word is in the right place. And, to be complete, the book may need to be longer (however you measure it) than anyone originally planned, just as your book idea grows during writing. Have faith. Your publisher believes enough in your work to have championed your work through all the ins and outs of editorial committees, sales and marketing meetings, and production planning sessions. They will, most likely, believe enough to go the extra pages. Good luck!
How nice it is hear about the ’passionately committed book editor’ steering the work towards the books that grace our shelves! Thank you so much for sharing this perspective with us, Katy:)
Dr Katy McDevitt is a publisher and editor with a decade of in-house and freelance experience in academic, educational, and professional publishing. Educated at the University of Oxford, where she earned first-class honours, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in English, Katy went on to commission books and resources at some of the world’s best-known publishers in their fields, including Cambridge University Press, Routledge, and Pearson Education. She now works as an editor in the South Australian public sector. Katy is a full member of the Society of Editors (South Australia), affiliated with the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd).
Kate blogs at PublishEd Adelaide and is a finalist in the 2012 Best Australian Blogs competition (Words category). You still have time to vote for her (and lots of other beaut blogs too), if you are quick. Click here for details.