When I was asked to write this post I was thrilled. Then I thought, what the hell am I going to write about? I was given the choice to write about anything I wanted which made it even more challenging to pick a topic. What I finally settled on was one of the challenges I faced while writing my first novel. Word count.
I’m sure some of you more experienced types are chuckling about this rookie problem. Maybe not. To better help everyone understand where I’m coming from let me give you a little bit of background so that you understand why word count was such a hurdle for me.
In my day job I work for a corporation, I mainly manage projects of various types and sizes. For those of you who don’t know, in the corporate world nobody likes a long read. Anyone that is in upper management wants it short and sweet. I called it Bullets and BS. They want all points succinctly fashioned to give them only what they need and then a little to make them feel warm and fuzzy about the state of things. If you’re successful you learn to do a lot of self editing, and always have someone read any major presentation to make certain it isn’t too unfocused or longwinded. You set goals to this end. It becomes part of who you are and you start doing it out of habit. What does this have to do with writing you ask? Let me tell you.
When I sat down to write my book, as I had never written anything more than short stories before, I researched formatting and word count and chapter size. I found a few different sources that gave estimates of how long books should be based on genre. So Garth The Project Manager said, GOAAAAAAAL! I set a word count of 80,000 and by all that is holy I was going to stick to it.
By then I had already found a quote attributed to Edgar Allen Poe that said, “A chapter should be as long as it needs to be.” I used this as my guiding principal for how long my chapters were. My gut, which I ignored, said that I should also apply this to some degree to the rest of the manuscript. So by the time I got about three quarters of the way through I wasn’t really pleased with how constricted the book was feeling. I wanted it to be more complex and wanted to explore a few more concepts. Still, I had a goal. I pushed to get to it. Sure enough, when I was done with the first draft it was 82,398 words. Not exactly on target but it was an acceptable deviation from the expected result. I was good to deploy. <— Oops Project Manager Speak.
After my editor, who is amazing and brutally honest, got a look at the manuscript she let fly. She liked the work in general and thought it was a good start, but then she mentioned everything I had worried about. Why are you constricting this? I want more of this subplot; I want to see more of this character. Garth The Project Manager was still in the driver’s seat at this point and he pushed back using the various posts, documents, and other professional writing sources that said 80,000 was good for a first time sci-fi author. My editor counter pushed, so did my wife (also an author), and so did one of my best friends (also an author). My gut was there too, just as it had been at the start, and without warning Garth The Project Manager was sent to timeout.
While he was busy standing in the corner thinking about what he had done wrong Garth The Writer climbed out of the trunk that Garth The Project Manager had stuffed him in. With support on his side Garth The Writer took over and hasn’t relinquished it yet. I stopped worrying about word count entirely and went back into the manuscript from page one and added to it, re-forging it using the materials from the first. I fleshed out things I had wanted to before, I added a subplot here, I went into more detail there. It felt like I was breathing fresh outdoor air instead of the stale gusts pushed into a hermetically sealed corporate building by a whirring AC unit.
When I was done with the second draft I was at 96,000+ words. It felt good. The book read well and my editor was pleased. When I read through it after letting it sit for a few days I saw a voice that hadn’t been there before. I could see Garth The Writer, not Garth The Project Manager with his Bullets and BS.
For anyone who is thinking of writing a novel, take it from this rookie. Write what comes out. Don’t edit yourself to a specific word count because it strangles you and doesn’t encourage you to run with ideas. Garth The Project Manager has some wisdom to drop as well. Don’t forget the end goal. Presumably you’re trying to write something entertaining, you’re trying to write something marketable. Yeah don’t go crazy and write a 200,000 word first book but know the boundaries and use them as a guideline vs. the letter of the law. Listen to your instincts.
Back to the quill,
Garth Reasby’s debut novel AWAKEN THE CHILDREN OF DIVINITY BOOK ONE. Is available in paperback and e-book formats.
- Gotta Start Prepping for NaNoWriMo! (tirelessthoughts.wordpress.com)
- NaNoWriMo 2011 (luckyxiiicreations.wordpress.com)