Wordcount, genre, ‘dumbing down’
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

One day a few years ago I started a blog post intending to answer for you the four questions I get asked most frequently: 1. Wordcount, genre, ‘dumbling down’: do I really have to? As well as 2. Identifying the best independent editors, 3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak and why do I keep speaking of it? and 4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?

I completely forgot I was going to write about what I’d intended to write about—which was a talk I’d just given to my local Writers Club. But it worked out okay, because instead I wrote about pickles, and within a few hours it was all over StumbleUpon and I had a Pickle Revolution on my hands.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot: forgetting what topic I was planning to discuss.

In fact, I was so sure it would happen that week when I gave my talk to the Writers Club that I sketched out notes and then downed a quick half-glass of wine about twenty minutes beforehand. For the record: it worked. Great fun!

Now I want to chat with you guys a little about the questions that my local writers asked after my talk, because everyone everywhere has the same questions, and they’re really good questions.

And you guys ought to be getting honest, straight-forward answers that make sense from industry professionals.

But only too often you do not.

However! I not only have too many questions to answer in a single blog post, but my answers are way too long. So I trimmed them down to Four Questions, and I’m answering one a week for the next four weeks.

Let’s start with number 1:

1. An agent told me to a) force my novel into a pre-set length, b) force my novel into a pre-defined genre, and/or c) “dumb down” my novel. What’s going on? Can’t I just write the best book I have in me?


This is such a terrible situation, and you poor guys are like that excruciating character in the J.D. Salinger story, “The Laughing Man,” with your heads in vices until you come out all squished and looking like you’re laughing when you’re really screaming, “What is wrong with you people?

The industry right now is a mess.

Particularly since Black Wednesday of December, 2009, when the publishing houses, in a desperate bid to unload ballast after the unexpected shift in the economy, laid off hordes of their in-house editors.

What do you suppose happens to publishers without enough editors to edit their authors?

That’s right!

They wind up relying on cookie-cutter marketing stats to try to determine what to buy, hoping against hope this will allow them to continue to make money without contributing the literary value they were once relied upon to contribute.

Generic numbers. Rigid classifications. Ignorance.

a) Yes, you must make certain wordcount milestones if you want a traditional publisher in these rocky times.

Tortilla Flats, The Postman Always Rings Twice, To the Lighthouse, Heart of Darkness, The Little Prince, all early Vonnegut and pretty much anything by Jean Rhys or Richard Brautigan or Camus—each and every one would be rejected out of hand as too short and therefore “unpublishable” by the number-dizzy of today’s agents.

Some of them are quite free with the information they won’t even respond to queries for novels under 70,000 words.

Imagine being the one to casually dismiss the chance to publish half the literary canon just because you don’t like their math!

But working within restrictions is part of the fun of craft, so this mostly means you just have to design your novels especially thoughtfully now.

Weave in vivid, illuminating subplots for greater length. Or (even better) cut and trim down to the lean, mean tendons of your novel, the part that’s always, always moving your characters inevitably forward toward their doom.

Thoughtful design has never hurt a novel.

And it never will.

b) Yes, you must play the genre game to put your story into some genre.

Again: Louise Erdrich, Judy Blume, Anne Rice, Robert Heinlen, Madeline L’Engle, Raymond Chandler, Ursula K. LeQuin, Dasheill Hammett, J.R.R. Tolkien—all automatic rejects for their day’s genres according to today’s genre-fixated agents.

So write what you want to write, make sure that it is the best-written novel it can possibly be, and then call it by whatever genre predominates. (If it’s mainstream commercial or literary fiction, call it that.)

Be really clear on this bit: make sure it’s the best-written novel it can possible be.

Will agents notice that you’re fudging?

Who knows?

At the very least they’ll see the other genres in it and say, “Hey, why don’t we market this as blah-blah-blah instead?”

At the very most you’ll discover you’ve serendipitously acquired one of the real agents—the ones who mean it when they say they’re looking for something “fresh and new,” something “challenging genre,” something “trendsetting.”

They will notice, and they will love it.

And you’ll do everything in your power to hang onto them, because they are the pros.

c) Make no mistake—aspiring writers are, indeed, being told by certain agents to “dumb down” their novels. In those words.

The bastards.

There is nothing we can do about this but stand shoulder-to-shoulder and refuse.

Those agents are not savvy long-time professionals who have weathered the storms of the industry for decades. They are mid- and entry-level grapplers on the sheer cliff-face of the business, buckling to mega-bookstore reps who don’t give a fig whether they sell books or T-shirts or cheap crap so long as they move merchandise off those Walmart shelves fast.

Those agents are welcome to foul their own nests scrambling mindlessly for loot, reducing modern traditionally-published fiction to an unsightly blot on the landscape.

But they’re not taking me down with them.

If I can’t make my living upholding the standards of this craft I love, I will go into some other line of work.

And I have the whole history of literature standing behind me on this one.

Update: If you’re wondering who’s behind the shift in American publishing since the 1980s from literature to cheap crap, it’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: Bertelsmann.

21 thoughts on “Wordcount, genre, ‘dumbing down’
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

  1. This is so excellent. Thanks for sharing it. I just tweeted it to all my writer friends.

    1. Victoria says:

      Good! Let’s start a revolution. >:)

  2. Dee White says:

    Great post.

    I must admit I’m not very good at the genre game – especially seeing as genre’s seem to vary depending on which country you come from.

    Disappointed to read that agents are asking writers to ‘dumb down’ their novels. I agree we need to fight this one.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yeah, the dumbing-down thing is really toxic. Extraordinary just to think about.

      1. Dee White says:

        I know what you mean.

        I write issues-based YA (don’t think that’s a proper genre LOL) and an adult told me yesterday that they were concerned about one of my books because it had themes of ‘mental illness’. Do they think this doesn’t exist in the world?

        I get a totally different response from most of my YA readers. They seem to want to know the truth about things and not be talked down to.

        1. Victoria says:

          The trick with writing for children is understanding the difference between how adults experience painful subjects and how kids do.

          Teens are in a tough position—they’re preparing themselves for adulthood. They’re old enough to get the point that adulthood involves a lot of scary, painful stuff. They don’t want to be thrown to the wolves unarmed, and they also (especially in this day and age) have a lot of anxiety about not looking ‘tough’ enough to their peers. Today’s teens carry a huge burden of fear of showing their soft insides.

          Whereas adults have had some time and experience to both strengthen their exteriors—for real rather than with just tough-guy posturing—AND to clarify for themselves the boundaries between their strong exteriors and their soft interiors.

          So a YA writer needs to be able to address teens’ fears honestly and in a way that both reassures them it’s okay to be who you are, clarifying the exterior/interior boundaries, at the same time that you’re giving them very real and important information about the adult world they’re preparing to enter, without overwhelming them.

          It’s a delicate balancing act, which makes it a complex audience to write for. But the rewards, as you say, in teen responsiveness are enormous. Teens are really such giving people.

  3. Dee White says:

    That’s true, Victoria,

    It is a delicate balancing act between addressing issues honestly but giving teens hope for the future.

    What surprised me about the adult’s comment was that they didn’t seem to be worried by the death of a teen in the story but were more concerned that one of the teens had a parent with a mental illness. This is a reality that some teens deal with daily – and some seem to want to read and talk about it.

    1. Victoria says:

      Mental illness can be fascinating to teens. A LOT of what they experience with hormone changes and imbalances and adjustments feels exactly like mental illness. When I was a teen, I read every single book on the psychology shelf of my high school library. These Are My Sisters. The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut. Riveting stuff.

      Teens need to know whether or not they are, in fact, mentally-ill. This is why books like Lisa Bright & Dark, Go Ask Alice and I Never Promised Your A Rose Garden made such a huge impact. It’s also why Judy Blume is the literary star she is—she wrote about kids’ fears instead of just terrifying them.

      Someone should write about teen hormones mimicking mental illness. Teens would be so grateful.

  4. Jeffrey Russell says:

    I still have to finish writing my book, and still have to make sure it’s the best book it can be (thank you for all you’ve done!), but you know what? The more I think about the industry in general, and agents in particular, the more I think I’ll just mount it in some sort of frame, then put it on the shelf with the pictures of my children…

    1. Victoria says:

      I know exactly how you feel, Jeffrey! I have four novels in various stage of undress on my desk and in its drawers. That doesn’t count the stories or the early novels that I’ve abandoned.

      I spent many, many years working in tech writing, studying fiction and writing fiction and poetry for my own entertainment, debating with myself and my husband whether or not publication was worth the hassle. I decided at the time it was not. And after I had a book published, I knew my suspicions had been correct.

      Now I’ve published my own book, partly for the fun of it and partly because this is my business. I’m working on sequels—again partly for the fun, and partly because readers are so darn NICE to me about the first one!

      But it is not my money-maker. It is my joy. It’s a very distinct different.

      1. Victoria says:

        P.S. People obsessed with the publishing hype hate it when I admit this in public. We’re all supposed to be maintaining the illusion that publishing success is the pinnacle of writing success.

        Yeah. Not really.

  5. *sigh* We literary classical people always seem to get a back rap nowadays. To think that most of the authors we read (and love) in college would be considered too stuffy by today’s agents and editors…and their original target audiences.

    How sad. I suppose this entire field is really just about learning on your feet and never giving up.

    Thanks for the post, Victoria. Great advice.

    1. Victoria says:

      The problem is they all know the classics are great literature. They’re sometimes Lit Majors themselves. But they don’t know what makes them great, and they don’t see the disconnect between that and what they’re trying to create out of literature today.

      Editors know what makes great literature great because that’s what we do—take okay first drafts and mentor the writers in their craft until those drafts are great.

  6. Ray Rhamey says:

    Hey, Victoria,

    I was checking out the guest post from Teri Walsh (I am a contributor on Writer Unboxed) and noticed your reference to the Mendocino Writers Club and want to say hi. I did my killer first page workshop at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in 2009 and wonder if we met. I loved it there, and will be submitting a new workshop proposal for the 2012 conference.



    1. Victoria says:

      Hi Ray! It’s nice to meet you. I keep a very low profile around here, but I really ought to be getting out in public more. Maybe I’ll submit one too. You’re setting me a good example.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Exactly what I needed to hear today. I felt like cheering. 🙂 Is there hope to be found in smaller presses, do you think? There always seem to be a few around trying to keep the fire of idealism alight (they do tend to have brief existences, unfortunately).

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, there is hope to be found in smaller presses, and micropublishers are springing up all over these days, due to the ease of publishing through POD and ebooks. However, there are pitfalls there, too.

      A client of mine was once on the verge of signing with a micropublisher when she learned they wanted unlimited rights to her work through POD. Well, nobody gets unlimited rights. Either after a certain time or when sales fall below a certain level, the book falls “out of print” and rights revert to the author. However, the micropublisher refused to budge, so my client finally walked away. She is now with a top Canadian agent.

      Things are changing so drastically so fast in the industry it’s really impossible to give generic advice anymore. But if you want to try your luck with a small press without an agent, be sure to join the National Writers Union and get their expert advice, before signing ANYTHING.

  8. Elisa Jaime says:

    Hi, Victoria.

    I’ve been reading a lot about how cut-throat the publishing business is nowadays and it’s kind of a downer but it’s also very encouraging to hear that, if writers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, as you so well put it, we can actually take a stand against such brazen money-making machines.


    1. Victoria says:

      It can be disheartening AND heck of confusing, I know.

      But technology is suddenly putting the power of the press back into the hands of readers and their writers—and that is a literary development well worth being here for!

  9. These points are exactly why I’m looking hard at not bothering with traditional publishing at all. Given the 2-3 years it can take just to get an answer on your MS, then to also get told you essentially have to cut out everything that might make your book worth a darn? No thanks.

    Running your book like a business and taking on the greater responsibility — and potential greater reward — of doing more yourself? And, to boot, you get to write and publish the book you think is best? That’s where I think I’ll put my time and energy.

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