Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Strange Case of "The Historian"

This weekend I picked up “The Historian” (Elizabeth Kostova’s mammoth debut magnum opus) and I wonder…since it clocked in at about 241k words…how the hell did something like this get published?!?! Don’t you literary agencies have an unwritten screed somewhere that no debut novel may be more than 100k unless it’s *really really* good and said wannabe novelist has first sacrificed a Muggle on the altar of JK Rowling? (Whose first Harry Potter book was considered quite long for the young’uns, and we hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet). I haven’t read the Kostova’s yet but obviously it’s at the top of my reading pile.

Do you have the inside scoop on whether whether Ms. Kostova bribed, threatened, wheedled, cajoled, slept with or otherwise followed a plan outside the customary novel submission process with her agent? And what did her agent think about trying to sell a mammoth tome like that by an unknown, untried novelist? Don’t editors involuntarily hurl up their last three meals if a debut novel ms comes to more than 120k? Were souls sold to a certain collector of errant same? Was the agent sleeping with the editor while Ms. Kostova was sleeping with her agent?

All right, I’m being a little silly here but…*this is supposed to be outside the realm of possibility!!!* Then again, the Red Sox finally won the Pennant so I guess *nothing* is impossible in this ol’ world…;)

Please, please enlighten us curious masses. I know I’m not the only one who wonders. ;)

So, [edit] The Historian is exceptionally long and actually is 241,021 words [/edit] Unlike Harry Potter, the publishing company doesn't make the page count longer by putting in big letters and a lot of white space (at least not in my hardcover copy).

There is some story behind The Historian that I don't happen to know off the top of my head. Elizabeth Kostova graduated with a middle-range MFA degree (in terms of prestige) from the University of Michigan. She won an award there but most MFA programs have elaborate award programs so that they can say their students have won awards. But with a 2 million dollar advance, there is some story there that I don't know. I remember reading about it in Newsweek. It may have been that the book was just considered that good.

There are two major genres for which we allow a higher word count: historical fiction and high fantasy. This is because traditionally high word count books of these types have done well commercially. They're generally involved and generation-spanning or extremely descriptive. They're not a like a mystery novel, which the reader might be inclined to just keep reading until the ending to find out the end, so the reader will be annoyed if this means staying up for three days. Mysteries and category romance are shorter. High fantasy is usually unbearably long or broken up into many books.

It is true that we get a little leery over 120,000, just because we know it's going to have that going against it when we go to sell it to a house. Also, it's going to be annoying to ship around and handle and copy-edit, because it's just going to be so large. That said, I've put many a 150k'er into the maybe pile because I thought it sounded good. Maybe one or two 200k's in my time. There was a 412,000 one, some old west saga, and we had to pass. But I don't see a reason to give up hope if you're a little over the number and you're in historical or fantasy. And remember: It's easier to trim than to pad. (Well, it's better for the story. Padding a story is something that you do because you have to and it always shows)

13 comments:

Katrina Stonoff said...

120,000? I thought it was 100,000!

Liz Holliday said...

This is my first time posting here and I hate to use it up quibbling but...

Surely 250 words per page is what you get in a double spaced manuscript page when using 12pt Courier - not what you get in a typeset page in a book? Or am I making a fool of myself?

Liz

The Rejecter said...

I knew it was either 250 or 500....Damn, you may be right. Is it 500? Rejector's brain isn't moving fast at this hour.

dan said...

Hey Rejecter, you can use Amazon's "text stats" feature to find the length of most books. This book's length is 241,021 words, according to that.

Also, hardcover books seem to have between 300 and 500 words per page, depending on the length. For example, Get Shorty's word count was, like, a little under 300 per page. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the other hand, clocked in at something like 500 per page, if I remember right.

My mom read The Historian and said it was just schmeh. I trust her over the entire book industry.

Eliza said...

Amazon says it's 241,021 words long. And it was a really long book, but I enjoyed it. Wasn't the best thing since Daphne du Maurier or anything, but a pleasant read. Ending sucked bigger than Vlad. All kinda fell apart around word 200,000 or something. ;-) I have issues with a chapter full of italicized text.

writtenwyrdd said...

I am glad to know what I thought I'd observed about debut fantasy novels being longer 120K was true.

Thanks for the clarification.

the_hollow said...

I also hate to quibble, but the question posed was not answered.

The Rejecter said...

The answer is: I don't know. Her book was really good, maybe.

Robin L. said...

I know not everyone agrees, but I thought it was really good. I don't generally read fantasy or historicals, but my mom bought it for me so I started it and couldn't put it down. I had the whole thing read in under a week (while working full time with two kids!) If I were an agent and read the first three chapters, I'd be sold.

mama said...

So what can we learn from these comments? What people's moms think is apparently pretty important!! :)

Anonymous said...

I was surprised that you called Michigan's MFA program "middle-range" in terms of prestige. It was my understanding (and the understanding of a lot of writers I know) that Michigan is right up there with Iowa and Irvine. Maybe in the top 3, depending on how you look at it, but likely in the Top 5, and definitely in the top 10. (Yeah, not that ranking MFA programs is based in any realm of logic, but you know what I mean. And we could probably go on about whether Iowa's still-godly status is even warranted at all anymore.)

I say this as someone who has never even been to Michigan, much less been a part of this program or dated someone's brother who went there, etc. I've also heard of the Hopwood Awards, though of course many MFA programs have awards and, to my knowledge, winning one does not come close to equaling a ridiculously high first book advance.

I guess I was just wondering if you know something about Michigan's program that we don't. :)

Anyway. Carry on.

The Rejecter said...

Oh, wait. Right. I didn't know it off the top of my head because I ruled out applying to Michigan because I didn't want to go to Michigan for 3 years. I'm more familiar with the other names (Iowa, Columbia, Indiana). Sorry.

Anonymous said...

True story. There is an author I know who sent her very first completed manuscript directly to a publisher. 200,000 words SINGLE spaced. She was very uninformed in manuscript format, but the publishing house sent it back and told her to double-space and then resubmit. She did. They bought the book, but split it up into two novels in a series...eventually this author wrote more books in the series.

There are always exceptions to the rule.