Sunday, August 1, 2010

Word count

Do a search on Google for “how long should a novel be,” and you’ll come up with some interesting answers: 200,000 is boring, 50,000 to 60,000 is for young adult, and “as long as it needs to be.” And while this last answer may be the most vague and accommodating, it may also be the most true.

In my mind, and in the minds of others I have read, the magic number tends to be in the 70,000 to 80,000 word range for a standard novel. Of course, for some writers, that’s just a decent start (eg, Diana Gabaldon, latter-day Stephen King [have you seen Under the Dome?…it’s ~336,000 words!], and even the late Steig Larsson). To a young writer, these sorts of tomes can be daunting. They are written by popular authors and glare up at you upon entrance to any Borders or Barnes & Noble. But, have heart…these are the exception, not the rule.

As a young writer, I was obsessed with word count. It didn’t matter what was going on the page, it just mattered that I was racking up the number of words. And, I counted often. In my first completed novel, I can remember being so proud of reaching the 40,000 word mark. But, then I lost all my momentum. I had been so concerned about how long the novel was, that I’d lost sight of what my story was trying to accomplish. Because of that, it took me another 3 years to finish that novel…and it was only 72,000 words in the end. Not exactly a good average (~10,000 words/year).

So, let’s tear down this insurmountable wall and see what it’s made of. 75,000 words. Sounds like a lot…and it is…if you think about writing 1 word at a time. But, we don’t do it that way…at least I know I don’t. I can average…when the mood is right and the stars are aligned…~1000 words/hour. This is when the juices are flowing and I’m loving life. Other times I agonize to get 250 words per hour. This is often when I know where I am and where I want to go, but not how to get there. But, what’s 250 words? It’s about a single page, double-spaced, in 12 size font…without dialogue. One page…250 words. No problem. In my mind, I set out to write ~2,000 words per chapter. If I go over, fantastic. If I’m short, I don’t worry about it. I’ve certainly read my fair share of small chapters. Every book has them…so can mine. It’s good to set small goals for yourself, but at the same time, don’t become obsessed by them. If you’re having trouble writing chapter 4 because all you can think about is chapter 5, guess what? Go ahead and write chapter 5. You can always go back later and finish chapter 4 (no one will yell at you for writing it backward…siht ekil ti od uoy sselnu). Strike while the iron is hot, right? The chapters will come…sometimes it will be slow, but string together enough of those words and you’ll find yourself there before you know it. If you really want a challenge, I suggest you check out National Novel Writing Month this November. The idea is to finish 50,000 words in 30 days. Sound daunting? It is. It requires a lot of dedication. 1666 words a day, to be exact. Which, depending on your present writing ability, doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s a tough month to dedicate every day to. Anyway, give it a shot. Even if you don’t “win,” you might be pleasantly at how many words you are able to churn out.

With my latest novel attempt, I have been less concerned about word count, and more focused on content, which has been extremely energizing. What allowed me to do that was my ability to see the overall structure of the story ahead of time. For the first time, I wrote out a brief synopsis of every chapter. Not in depth detail, but simply a little blurb or perhaps a line of dialogue I had played out in my head. Just enough to prompt me when I reached that point. Now, though I haven’t been entirely faithful to my original synopsis, it has allowed me to work outside of the word-count trap. Now, not everyone can do this. For me, it was certainly the first time I had ever been able to plot out the entire book in that manner. In the past, I simply let it come to me as I wrote. I no more knew what the next chapter contained than I knew how the book was to end. And, that’s ok. You may find that you can plot out 20 chapters, but still don’t know where you’re headed. Guess what? By the time you get there, you’ll have figured it out. Heck, even if you can only plot out 10…perhaps even 5, I bet that’s enough to get the ball rolling. Give it a shot.

Whatever you do, don’t let word count dominate your writing. It takes it down a notch. You are no longer writing for you, you’re writing to satisfy someone else’s idea of what makes a story. Short stories abound! Some stories are not meant to be novel length. Some are novellas (a dying breed methinks). And, sometimes, you just don’t have all the pieces in place the first time around. So, write it out. Get it out of your system, no matter the length. Then, when you’re done, take a good look. It may not be the novel you were hoping to churn out, but it may be the essential framework to something bigger and better.

No comments:

Post a Comment