The Word Count?

Nothing counts like word counts. As a general rule, I am against generalities about word counts. But publishers and, more critically, the readers are not—they have preferences and expectations which we, as writers, would be fools to ignore!

My readers of 3 WISE MEN commented on how much they enjoyed the short chapters—ones that left them hanging and wanting more. Short chapters help a fast—paced thriller or suspense novel. For me, a very short chapter is around 400 words and the longest about 1400 words. That is, between two and five pages.

I have on my desk a copy of ‘The Icarus Agenda‘ by Robert Ludlum. At over 630pp, it weighs about the same as an iPad. You could use this hardback to defend yourself on a dark night! What’s more, the language is very descriptive, and the opening scene takes the reader around the whole compass in describing the Gulf of Oman. OK, Ludlum may have appealed to readers a few years ago, but modern readers have less patience? Publishers, et al, suggest that a book should be as long as the story requires, along with the following guidelines:

  • Literary and epic fantasy: 100-120K
  • Crime, Romance, Horror, Comedy etc: 70-90K
  • YA and Erotica: 50-70K
  • Novellas: 20-40K

So, what is the personal sweet spot for my two thrillers? The first draft of 3 WISE MEN was around 68000 words. The revisions upped this to 90000 words. Fierce editing dropped it back to around 75000 words and the final revision, with an added chapter, finished at 83000 words. By this time, I was very happy that the story had been told, and rounded off, in the way I wanted it to be.

With my new novel, I considered reader feedback and did the tough editing, etc. This process dropped the word count from around 76000–>74000, which I was happy with. Did I regret the loss of these 2000 words? Not at all. In fact I believe it is a better read now, with very few ‘fill’ words. My final edit included some additional material and finished at 78000 words. The extra material added interest to the plot and I felt happier with this final draft. Now I await a literary agent (puts smiley face here).

Will an editor want further changes? Of course, and that is the beauty and rigor of traditional publishing. More about self vs trad publishing in another post. Meawhile, I use the above word counts as a guide only. When a reader holds a 300pp book they do feel that it is a good length and will provide a read that is worth the investment. When I picked up Ludlum’s book, I got a workout!

 

The Math of Writing: subtract to add!

Here’s the scenario: a sentence in my paragraph doesn’t work, no matter how much I change it. When this happens, I use the subtract rule. That is, take out the problematic sentence and see if the shorter paragraph is any better without it. Most times, it is. I call this the “subtract to add rule“, and I have used it more than a few times during editing of my latest novel. I know what you may be thinking—such a move reduces the word count. Yes, it does, and thank goodness! Think of this sentence culling like the fruit picture. If you take some of the fruit away, do you still have a tree full of inviting fruit? If yes, take away the ones that don’t add. The power of a novel can be in the words and sentences taken out, not in the ones that are left in! Happy fruit picking.

John Grisham makes writing error, but does he need an online checker?

From my own experience, I have enjoyed using online grammatical aids, to a point! Here’s my humble take on them:

+ve: picks up repeated phrases, checks sentence length, and overuse of adverbs, etc. Psst, here’s where it would have helped John Grisham in “The Guardians”—on page 157, he writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Then, on page 159, John writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Well, software would pick that up.

-ve: does not help you develop your own writing style, nor flow or ‘voice’. There is often a cost.

Ask yourself this question: would Hemingway, et al, use an online writing tool? They might in their early days of writing, but I am convinced they would go up the wall after a while and stay their own course through the rough editing waters. Good writing and editing software are destined to call off their romance after just a few dates!

Good Judgment and Hard Work

I came across this quote during research for my new book:

“Putting a book together—really putting a book together—is a laborious, handcrafted process requiring years of experience, good judgment, and conscientious hard work” by Jonathan J. McCullough in ‘A Tale of Two Subs’.

How well put and a difficult target for any writer to aspire to. John Grisham echoes these sentiments when he talks about the discipline of his writing routine—three hours each morning, five days a week for six months. I wonder how many budding authors fail to appreciate the amount of hard work it takes to craft a novel? I am learning fast that it is a slow, painstaking process. Coffee helps!

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