I said almost a month ago that I had completed the manuscript for my first fiction novel and that I had begun the search for a literary agent.
Finding a literary agent kicks off the first rewrite of a manuscript. That’s because the agent will know the intended target market, both in terms of publisher/editor and in terms of reader. While I haven’t obtained an agent yet, I have received suggestions about ways to rework the manuscript.
Some potential agents have requested the full text of the novel. I only sent the first chapter with my query letters, so this is a logical next step for anyone giving me more consideration than the trash can.
In an act of generosity, some agents have offered advice even if they aren’t taking new clients or aren’t interested in adding me to their clientele. And this is where things just got interesting.
There are fans and there are critics of my writing. I always say it depends on how I’m writing. As an avid linguist and writer, I choose from a basketful of voices depending on what I’m writing, how I feel, what I’m trying to communicate, who my target audience is, and so on. I can channel the pendantic, conversational, Melville-esqe, encyclopedic, Gibran-ish, poetic, or a vast number of other writing spirits. (You can read through this blog to see how I fly all over the field with regards to writing styles.)
When I began writing “Darkness Comes to Kingswell,” the blog-based short story that gave rise to Dreamdarkers, the novel, one thing I wanted to do, as my friend Wayne put it, was “dumb down” my writing. Obviously this makes sense if I want to reach a large audience, but it also makes sense when one considers the results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
According to the most recent testing, the average U.S. citizen reads at the 8th-grade level. College graduates tend to read at the 10th-grade level. And in terms of “highly successful novels” from the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, reading falls to the 7th-grade level.
All that leads to what one prospective literary agent sent back to me while requesting the entire manuscript. Having taken what was sent and run it through readability tests, I scored as follows. On the ubiquitous Flesch tests:
Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 8.91
Flesch Reading Ease: 63.21
These scales are inversely proportional: a higher grade level equals a lower reading ease score. For widest consumption, I estimate I need to score a grade level between seven and eight, and a reading ease somewhere between 65 and 75. (I don’t yet clearly understand the relationship between the two scores and might not have that last range exactly right.)
And the other test results:
Coleman Liau Index: 9.24
Gunning Fog Index: 11.05
Automated Readability Index: 8.37
Yes, those scores are relatively too high.
The agent included two considerations on these scores. First, they are based on the first chapter only, so they will change when the entire novel is tested. Second, the first chapter sets the tone and could alienate some readers if it scores too high.
I think my initial reaction was to say I couldn’t “dumb it down” more because that level is beyond me. But then I tested the original short story, which I wrote ad hoc each evening before posting, and realized it scored in the right range. Then again, it’s much shorter than the novel and about as long as the first chapter of the book (which might be overly long to begin with).
So where does this leave me? Well, part of me is waiting to see what the agent says about the entire manuscript as opposed to the first chapter. Again, the readability scores represent only one part of the consideration. But also a part of me is proud that it scored higher than intended, and that even after I intentionally sought to write at a lower level.
It doesn’t take much work for me to shift between writing voices. It’s as simple as finding my stride. Nevertheless, this experience provides some insight into what I face as I work on the second novel, one I chose to script in more complex language that now requires additional thought, as well as what I need to keep in mind for future works. That assuming I break into this market to some degree that makes me want to continue writing in the venue.
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For reference, I ran the above post through the tests to give you some comparison. Here are the scores.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 8.49
Flesch Reading Ease: 63.54
Coleman Liau Index: 8.92
Gunning Fog Index: 9.56
Automated Readability Index: 8.03