Agents & Manuscript Word Counts: Is There An Optimal Number?

I recently got some interesting feedback from an agent about my query for a historical fiction novel. The manuscript is approximately 140,000 words. She noted “the high word count was a bit concerning.”

She also wrote “For a new client, going over 100k can be pushing it.” Apparently it’s a signal of potential overwriting that will require revisions.

I’ve gone back to manuscript to start trimming, but I’m not sure I want to cut 40,000 words on one agent’s advice.

Have other writers heard anything similar? Is there an industry benchmark on manuscript word counts for new authors?

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Analyzing Successful Book Pitches

I’ve been on a mission to refine my manuscript description for query letters and pitches. I want the tightest, most compelling (i.e. saleable) pitch possible in the fewest number of words.

Recently I pulled a couple of books off my shelf (Stephen King’s The Stand and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible) to see how the back cover blurbs were constructed.

These blurbs are the publisher’s equivalent of the query letter—a pitch to a potential reader that has to describe what’s inside and entice the reader into buying. The pitch has to be quick, sharp, and exciting.

These back cover pitches are built with similar parts, which I’ve categorized as the setting, the drama, and what’s at stake. I found it helpful to break these pitches into their component parts because I could use those parts in constructing my own query letter.

In addition to King and Kingsolver, I’ve posted a description of my own manuscript.

Let me know what you think of my analysis. Does it make sense? Does it seem like a useful model to use within a query?

I’d also love your feedback on my own manuscript description. My goal is to get a sharp, exciting description that makes the reader want more, but I feel like it needs some work. Suggestions are welcome.

The Stand (86 words)

June 16, 1985. That is when the terror began—the evil that started in a laboratory and took over America. [The setting and an event. It’s large-scale, so no individual character is emphasized]

Those who died quickly were the lucky ones. For the scattered survivors, wandering through a country turned into a gigantic graveyard, life has become a nightmare struggle. [This is the drama]

They escaped death, but now something even more terrifying is waiting to claim them—the most fiendish force ever to seek all humanity as slaves and victims. A strange, faceless, clairvoyant figure that is reaching for their very souls… [The last two sentences tell what’s at stake—that is, what’s the conflict, and what the protagonists stand to lose]

The Poisonwood Bible (93 words)

In 1959, Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist, takes his four young daughters, his wife, and his mission to the Belgian Congo—a place, he is sure, where he can save needy souls. [First sentence gives you the setting, a character with concise descriptors, the character’s action, and reason for the action. That’s a hell of a sentence!]

But the seeds they plant bloom in tragic ways within this complex culture. [That’s the drama]

Set against one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century—the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium and its devastating consequences—here is New York Times-bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable epic that chronicles the disintegration of a family and a nation. [The final sentence describes what’s at stake. However, this sentence forecasts the outcome rather than leave it unresolved. I think in part it’s because the novel is based on actual history, so some readers may know about the international machinations to destabilize the Congo’s nascent government. I also think the publisher figured they could get away with it because Kingsolver has a track record. With a less well-known author, this is probably where they would emphasize the conflict and leave it unresolved to entice the reader]

The Well of Atlantis (134 words)

James Rush, an ambitious young correspondent, doesn’t believe in the myth of Atlantis. But he accepts a curious assignment to seek evidence of the lost kingdom because it could make him the most renowned explorer of the 19th century. [The setting]

What Rush doesn’t know is that Atlantis is real. Powerful men want to recover Atlantis to resurrect an ancient practice that bestows immeasurably long life, but at a monstrous cost: children must be bred like cattle, their minds and souls obliterated, to serve as empty hosts for the masters of Atlantis. [The drama]

When Rush learns the truth, he turns on his masters. As he fights for his life in the ruins of a hidden city, he must choose between the glory he craves and the countless lives that would be devoured if the secrets of Atlantis are revealed. [What’s at stake]