Friday, October 13, 2006

FAQ #4: How long can the chapters be in a chapter submission?

From a question by Elizabeth Boulware:

"A recent discussion began on the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Chat Board regarding the length of YA chapters, with the question specifically being is 72 pages for the first three chapters too long for a submission. The consensus of the published writers was that it was and what was more that a submission of that size would warrant an automatic rejection, regardless of the strength of the writing. . . . How long is too long?"

"Too long" is the point at which the editor decides to stop reading (which can happen as easily on page 7 as page 70). Enormously helpful, right? But it's true: The entire point of submitting chapters is to give the editor a taste of your writing and leave him or her wanting more -- wanting the whole manuscript, to be exact. Anything that causes us not to want that whole submission is not your friend, and "excessive length" is a definite candidate for the Enemies List.

Very few editors will reject a manuscript solely on the basis of length without even glancing at the writing: We're too trained to look for possibilities everywhere and in everything, too aware of what might grow from that first "You never know." That said, if I pull out a two-chapter submission that runs 50-odd pages, I'll think two things: (a) "Good lord, this final novel is going to be long," which could be wonderful but might also be exhausting; and more importantly (b) "The author better be able to justify the length of these chapters in the characters, action, and writing." If the author can justify it, I won't really care how long the chapters are, as I'll just want as much of the manuscript as I can get, period. And if the author can't -- well, again, I don't care how long the chapters are, as I'm turning it down anyway.

Sorry to be so cold-blooded about this, but I just went through my last month's submissions mail this week, and given that that required a whole valuable afternoon at work, I'm trying hard not to waste anyone's time -- my time in reading submissions that won't work for me, and the writer's time in requesting things I'm not truly and thoroughly excited about. Other editors, feel free to chime in with your own opinions.

In other news, I just finished The Sea of Monsters, Book Two of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" by Rick Riordan, and it was just as funny, action-filled, and cracktastically page-turning as the first book -- I haven't enjoyed a series this much since Hilary McKay's Casson novels. And it turns out I'll be attending the Rutgers One-on-One this year, as a replacement for Scholastic's Dianne Hess; if you read this and see me there, do say hello.


  1. Cheryl,

    Writers see recommended word counts for the age groups in children's lit. all the time, but I wonder if you would grace us with what YOU see as "typical" lengths (knowing that 'typical' numbers can be broken by something extraordinary, on occasion). For example, what would you say are the average lengths for picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult novels.

    It would be so helpful if you could give us a real editor's perspective on it.


  2. I haven't the faintest idea.

    I'm sorry to be difficult, Anonymous, but it's true: I really don't know what the average word counts are, nor do I care. I know a little bit about page counts: Picture books tend to run three to five pages (and I raise an eyebrow at more than six); middle-grades tend to run between 75 and 300 pages, depending upon where in the middle-grade audience they fall and subject matter; YAs between 150 and 400, again depending on subject matter.

    But why obsess over "typical" and "recommended"? Focus on your craft and making the story GOOD -- as long as it needs to be and no longer; and don't waste energy worrying about numbers. We editors all hated math anyway.

  3. Hi Cheryl-- We met at the SCBWI/Poconos conference last April. Glad to hear you'll be One on One-ing with us next week (and I hope D. Hess is well).


  4. Thanks, Cheryl. Page numbers work; they convert to word counts.

    I always hated it when teachers said about an essay assignment, "Make it as long as it takes to cover the subject," then assigned a topic like World War II. Well, that could take a paragraph or it could take a multi-volume set of books to 'cover the subject.' It's an unfair presumption to put on the writer, I would argue. Length requirements give a writer a sense of the scope expected--they then work their craft within that. Picture books that are 15-25 typed double-spaced pages long would be difficult to place with publishers, and I think it's only fair to let writers know things like that so they don't go off the deep end.

  5. Cheryl,
    You were my mentor at Rutgers last year. Your comments and insights were INVALUABLE. Wish I could go again this year!

    Have fun.

  6. Look for my buddy Kara at Rutger's. She's really looking forward to it but understandably nervous. I can't remember who she got paired up with, though.

    Is Julius Lester still out at Rutger's? Do look him up if you can. He's a hell of a scholar. Also lived in KCK for a while, which is also cool.

  7. Did you once write about editors only have one chance to read a book as a reader for the first time? Does that mean a synopsis should not tell too much, like endings etc. so the editor reads as a reader would? Also, how long of a synopsis would you prefer with a submission for a manuscript for a novel?