Compiled by Jessica Strawser & Tyler Moss
In the September 2016 Writer’s Digest, a roundtable of four top agents in the speculative genre delves into a deep discussion about what makes great writing, what’s selling and why, and how to stand out. Here in this online exclusive companion we present a few uncut responses we didn’t have space to print.
Traditional word count rules don’t necessarily seem to apply here. What’s a useful benchmark for authors eyeing the tomes on their shelves at home and seeing their own unpublished pages near those lengths?
RUSSELL GALEN: If you’re talking about “tomes on shelves,” the traditional lengths most certainly do apply. The only change is that we’re seeing less of the extremely long epic fantasy. Certain authors can still get away with 300,000-word blockbusters, but publishers prefer a maximum of 125,000 to 150,000. If a story cries out to be longer, we’re most likely going to be talking about multiple volumes.
It was very different when you started a book and didn’t have anything else to read except maybe the newspaper. Now, you read a bit of your novel, then you go online and check email or Facebook before finally returning to the novel. With those interruptions, 300,000-word epics take twice as long to read as they used to, and that’s generally too much. Readers are avoiding them and we’re seeing much better sales at the shorter lengths.
That said, some books just fly by, and it’s not necessarily the supposedly fast-paced commercial ones. Some books you just can’t stop reading. I’d rather writers worry about that—about connecting with readers—than about length. Would you tell Patrick Rothfuss to write shorter or to chop his work into more volumes? Of course not.
I do tell my clients to try to think in 125,000- to 150,000-word installments, but it’s not a Procrustean bed (where you cut off the guy’s feet to fit the bed). If it can be shaped into more, shorter volumes, that’s better. If it can’t, we’ll live with it.
In short: Spread the story over shorter volumes if you can; if you can’t then don’t worry about it; and worry more about a gripping story and an accessible style than about length.
We all know about three-hour movies that seem to last for six, and others that seem to be over in 20 minutes. Length is ultimately a subjective thing.
A lot of sci-fi and fantasy authors start out with a full series in mind. How can writers tell if their idea has the legs to carry multiple books? And should a query for Book 1 mention series potential, or hold off on that discussion for later?
GALEN: I’m a huge fan of series both as a reader and as an agent. I look for books that have this potential. The problem is that everyone already knows that series are in demand, so when writers say their books have series potential, it seems pandering and obvious. I find it sleazy and calculating, like you’re crying “series potential” because you know that’s what everyone wants.
It’s OK to mention series potential because it is the dominant form of our time, but I would just as soon not see the actual phrase “series potential.” Don’t talk to me in marketspeak. Tell me about your characters and the crisis they are trapped in, and make it seem serious, big, epic. I will get the point that this is not going to end in one volume.
As for how to determine whether a story demands a series to begin with, the funny thing is that in science fiction and fantasy, they nearly always do. It’s hard for me to imagine an exception. The world is full of standalones that wound up having many future volumes (even written posthumously by collaborators) because readers wanted to return to the worlds the writers had built.
I pretty much assume there’s series potential if the book itself is any good. I’ve never had a science fiction or fantasy author say to me, “Future volumes? No, I’ve got no idea how I would go about doing that.”
If you’re wondering “OK, Russ, what exactly should series authors say in their queries to you,” I’m not going to answer that. My whole point is not to use rote phrases like “series potential.” You’re a writer: Write me a query that gets me lusting after future volumes that carry your protagonist forward beyond Volume 1, and find a fresh way to phrase it.
Remember that I see 50 queries per day. If 45 of them say “series potential,” imagine how sick of the phrase I’m going to be—especially if yours is the 45th one of the day and the day is Friday.
Writers are told not to write to trends, but the sci-fi/fantasy landscape seems to inspire the kinds of stories that do become trendsetters—from wizards to vampires to dystopian teens. What are you currently seeing a demand for? What do You have a demand for—or, on the flip side, want writers to be wary of?
MARK GOTTLIEB: I happen to think that it is far better to create trends than to merely follow them. Obviously once you hear that something is in style, you’re already late to the race. Everyone who follows in a trend is not seeing the most benefit from it by playing catchup. With that being said, we live in a post-modern society where most everything has already been done, so it’s really about how to spin something old in a new and interesting way. I enjoy working with authors that play with the status quo of genre conventions, while avoiding potential pitfalls of overcrowded genres or difficult genres. The difficult genres I’m finding in fantasy are high fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, cozy mysteries/ghost stories and horror. I’m seeing that soft sci-fi is struggling. Vampires and dystopian YA went out of style a while ago. That is, of course, until someone comes along and turns one of those genres, or another genre deemed dead, on its head.
To read the full roundtable discussion, with plenty more questions and plenty more answers from plenty more agents, view the full September 2016 Writer’s Digest now.