I think I've written a novel of the right length, but worry that the word count will put off agents

If your first novel is Lonesome Dove good, you’ll be fine!!!

Oh dear Lord, yes! Have you read them? They are both mindblowingly amazing!


After 30 years as an acquiring editor–10 in books, 20 at a national magazine–I have never seen a manuscript from a first-time author that didn’t need its word-count cut by at least 10%. But cutting is hard bordering on traumatic, and most writers–even experienced writers–go about it in the most traumatic way, with a meat cleaver. But cutting is best done with a scalpel.

If scenes aren’t working, you’ve probably realized this and fixed them, or excised them, or moved them, or rewritten them to suit. As such, 114,000 words isn’t too far outside the bounds. But it’s a rare writer who can’t squeeze another 14,000 words out of a manuscript going paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, excising redundancies, replacing five flaccid descriptors with one that’s truly sharp, realizing that saying the same thing twice is exactly half as effective as saying it once, only better.

Make a fresh copy of your first chapter, print it out, and go through it word by word; if you didn’t lose 350 of 3500 words I’d be surprised. If you’ve got 32 chapters and lose 350 from each, you’re just lost 11,200 word, and antsy agents are much more likely to take a flyer on a first-timer. That’s how they make their money, after all.

And now for an aside: Hey Piggie; glad to see you’re still here with your feet on the fender. Were I still in books I’d probably acquire both GWTW and Dove, though I might mention to Ms. Mitchell that her adherence to the United Daughters of the Confederacy Myth-making might be past its sell-by date, and I’d point out to Mr. Murphy that when baking biscuits, you don’t build the fire inside the Dutch oven.


Don’t tell Ms Mitchell; tell Scarlett, Melly and Mammy!

And whoever in their right mind listened to ol’ Gus’ opinion on anything save perhaps which Comanches might be standing way off on the horizon, anyhow? :wink:

Good to see you here too!

@Ahab: thanks for the great response! hadn’t expected to hear from a pro editor (or, in your case a former one)…

my third draft revision consisted of the aforementioned scalpel edits. like I said, I know I have a slow opening but I couldn’t find a way to make it faster. (during the scalpel edit, I already trimmed that part.)

Well, I’ve been here since 2006, when Scrivener was just a bouncing baby Beta birthed in Keith Blount’s bedchamber. The forum was a lively community back then, where we talked about writing with this new cool new tool. Nowadays the talk goes mostly along how-to-format-my-mathematically-dense-dissertation lines, or how can I automate the writing process so I don’t have to spend so much time actually, you know, Writing. About which I have zilch to say.


Yup. Austen wrote with a quill. Hemingway used a typewriter. Aaron Sorkin scribbled away on cocktail napkins while working in a bar. Yet somehow, not being able to change the menu font colour in the most advanced writing programme ever devised from dark grey to light black seems to be a major impediment to some people.

//takes a moment to look at his own writing output for the past 10 years

Ah, well. :flushed: You see, in my case I was distracted by, you know, important things like… err, well…

//re-evaluates life
//comes up wanting
//descends into depression
//sees a jar of toffees
//cheers up immediately


@pigfender: well, as I said above, McMurty had published quite a few novels prior to Lonesome Dove. but I take your point!

All of whom are fictional characters, and therefore the author’s responsibility. GWTW has not aged well at all.

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Well, I was born and raised in the Apartheid South. My Maryland mother’s grandfather was a surgeon in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and my father’s grandfather was a private in the Union Army’s 5th Tennessee Infantry. My little East Tennessee town was similarly divided. One block away from our United Methodist Church was Trinity Methodist Church. Before the War they were one church, but half believed only in the Old Testament and half also in the New (as my paternal grandmother used to say). And a century after the war we still didn’t talk to Those People, as Gen. Lee described the Union Army.

As Faulkner said, in the South the past isn’t forgotten, it isn’t even past. Which is why when I came home from a tour in the navy in the late 1960s I lasted about a week before I headed north to New England, and I haven’t left since. I mean, those people!

Margaret Mitchell, like her characters, was frozen in her own mythical past, and her writing by today’s standards is problematic to say the very least. But then so is George Eliot, and Mark Twain, and Dickens, and Thackery, even Harriet Beecher Stowe and Virginia Woolf. Do we now erase their existence because we have evolved, or imagine that we have? Or do we just say GWTW was a ripping good yarn about two very flawed characters living very flawed lives in an indefensible society who pretty much got what was coming to them? And it was written by a very flawed human who was exactly emblematic of her time and place.


It’s an amazingly well told story, and to be clear doesn’t paint those two very flawed characters or their very flawed lives or the indefensible society that birthed them as anything other than flawed and indefensible.

I don’t know anything about whether this is true or not.

Certainly judging from the one and only book she wrote you can’t draw that conclusion; her characters in a book set in the 1800s use language that they would have used in that time. That’s good, not bad, writing and only serves to underline how people were viewed back then. You’ll have heard much worse said with far less respect in any Tarantino movie.

I don’t know anything about her time or editorial position when she worked as a journalist, but from what I glean from a limited glance it seems that the biggest controversy surrounding her seems to be that she wrote about strong women who didn’t fit into the accepted standards of femininity for her time.

But anyhow… the point is — it’s a book with a slower paced intro and with good reason. It has to draw you in and make you complicit with the pre-civil war south before it can show how much that world was turned on its head by the war and its aftermath. If you have a slower paced open in your book that’s fine — but have an equally good reason for doing so.

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A dangerous question to ask in the current year.

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@Ahab: I would like the idea of cultural relativism to stage a comeback.

specifically, I mean cultural relativism in terms of the past. when I grew up, I got exposed to at least two different cultures (American and English), with a smattering of others at a boarding school which I attended. also, I read lots of science fiction. it introduced me the idea that I saw as normative standards could change in the future given circumstances. best part of science fiction, for me. I read for a different perspective, not the pew-pew laser battles. later, I started reading anthropology and sociology, both of which inform by writing.

once upon a time, adults could understand that values change and that people in the past acted differently and thought differently. as opposed to having the same values as present-day people, except they dressed funny. this fallacy has a word: “presentism”.

not a comment on Gone With the Wind, BTW. I haven’t read the novel.


A gentle reminder that this thread is about a novel that the OP wrote and wishes to publish in the present. In depth discussion of how to view work that was written in and reflects the attitudes of the past should probably go in a different thread.

You’re the one that changed the subject!!!

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Much to my chagrin. Things got a little out of hand.


Well, y’know, in Ye Olden Days this forum almost never stayed on-topic. Kudos to kewms for being such a deft and judicious moderator over the years.


It was a thing here! The original post had no special importance just because it was older. The conversation went where it went, at least on “the lower decks”.

Arrrrr, t’lower decks were a rowdy place, back in t’olden days of Scrivener.

#Ria13 nails it with the problems of Presentism: expecting ancient literature to reflect today’s values. Twas ever thus, which is most visible in translations or “re-thinkings” of classics over time.

But circling back, in the way of the lower decks, to your original post–How to slip a 114,000-word novel past an agent: I’d simply not mention the word count at all. Moreover, I’d Google up one of those pernicious templates detailing Exactly What a Query Letter Must Say to tempt an overworked agent’s eye, and do the opposite of what it says.

Here’s me, Agent-Man, up to my ears in follow-ups to editors who never return calls and sifting through plans for embryo publicity campaigns and a sclerotic foreign rights deal and wondering where to go for lunch and with whom, and finding a few moments to open the daily trove of manuscripts, of which I might receive 1,000 per year. And here’s your query letter, exactly like all query letters “guaranteed to hook a literary agent” following the approved template du jour. Your genre, your hook, your word-count, your comp titles.

A quick scan, a yawn, and onto the next.

But agents aren’t looking just for a book. They’re looking for a salable talent that will earn them money over time. Why not start with something offbeat about yourself and why you chose this editor above all other editors, and what drove you to write books in general and this book specifically. One-page only, of course.

Maybe, because the letter stands out from all the other cookie-cutter submission, and your enthusiasm is infectious, I’ll ask for a partial. And if I’m drawn in by the first chapter, and see dollar-signs in my guileless eyes, I won’t care that the word-count, discretely relegated to the bottom of the title page, is above the approved measure.

Never underestimate what an excited agent can do with an editor.


@Ahab, thank you for your advice! yes, I believe I can write a query easily enough. I think that the same skills that go into a query apply to a query. tone, main character, voice and… umm, conciseness.

ironically, since I started this thread, I determined that the novel could use paring down to its more lean first draft. during the beginning, especially, while retaining all the plot changes I made in subsequent drafts. it’ll still end up pretty long, but, at least, less long. more importantly, it’ll improve the book.

(originally I had conceived the novel as literary YA but then decided to change course. when I wrote in YA mode, though, I concentrated more on the story and on pace.)

I have little hope that I would fit into the mainstream publishing world, for various reasons. at this stage,I think I plan on publishing the novel on Substack in installments, and I have another idea, too.

at any rate, I’ve gotten started on yet another draft to shorten it.

again, thank you!