The Right Number of Words

Up until the first novel I finished last year, the longest piece of writing I had ever completed was my doctoral dissertation. It presented evidence that the Internet was a poor place to conduct survey research. Too many people come to the survey and don’t start it. Of those that do start, too many people don’t finish, leading to suspicions about the representativeness of the sample. The study was short in comparison with most dissertations in the area, which is irrelevant if it gets through your committee, but the topic didn’t lend itself to long theoretical discussions and the methodology was simple and straightforward. The most creative part, the introduction, was less than ten pages. The entire paper was less than forty pages if I recall correctly.

So it was with a fine sense of satisfaction when I finished the last sentence of the novel I was working on during Nanowrimo in November of 2014. I made it just past the 50K mark I had set for myself as a goal. 50K is the default goal they use on their site, and it seemed a stretch but attainable. They weren’t asserting that my book should be that long, only that I should try to produce that many words in thirty days. On the other hand, and this could have been in my imagination, they did seem to imply I should be able to finish the book within the month.

As a beginning novel writer with no formal training, one of the first things that gave me any stress was that goal. How long should this book be? Ultimately, it’s an artificial distinction. The book should be long enough to tell the story, no more no less. Once you’ve done that, you count the number of words and then describe it as a novel, novelette, novella, short story, or whatever.

On the other hand, you can tell the story in the most spare way possible, hurtling toward the ending, or you can add material that is in service to the story, thus lengthening it. Sure, Jack Reacher can take on two guys in a fist fight, but he can also take on five if he thinks it through. No, we don’t need as much detail from Robert Langdon on the history the Catholic church to get to the conclusion, but it becomes more immersive when he gives it.

Is the story I wanted to tell in my first novel, currently in the trunk, tellable in 50K words? Yes. Would the story be better at 55K? At 45K? I’m not sure yet, and I know I can’t get that validation from anyone else. If I’ve told the story right, readers should be split down the middle in terms of their opinions on length, but can’t tell me how their opinions would change if I added an awesome car chase or had the killer take out someone famous, making the city panic.

The book I’m editing now, Bad Habits, started out with a goal of 80K words. Stephen King aims for 90K so he can edit out roughly 10K of material that doesn’t work. Given the length of some of his works, it appears he doesn’t have very good aim. I finished my first draft at just over 67K. I’m happy with how the story works at that length, but I know that won’t be the number at the end. My editor and I will cut what we can, but she is also asking questions about passages, sections, and chapters that make me realize I overlooked pieces of information and description that will pull the reader deeper into the story. It will be better, but it will not likely be 67K words.

Perhaps this is just a roundabout way of saying that you should trust the journey over the destination. Daily word counts are very useful. Write 2,000 words a day if you can, but don’t plan to write for only forty days. The first draft of A Farewell to Arms took forty two and Hemingway thought it was awful. The final draft took a lot longer, partly because of the thirty nine rewrites of the ending.

Trust the journey, both on the novel you’re working on and the career you’re working on. As you become a better writer, the world you create will become more real to you. The window into that world will become a door that you can pull the reader through. You’ll become a better tour guide.

The analogy I like best would be climbing a mountain in the Adirondacks. You can get a good idea of the difficulty from others who have climbed one, and you can learn most of what’s in store from a topographical map, but only when you get on the trail and start climbing do you get a real sense of what the experience is going to be like for you. The summit may look pretty from the parking lot, but you’ll lose it as soon as you get in the woods. The trail markers are important to follow, but make sure you look around too. Eventually, you’ll get a sense that you’re getting closer to the top, which builds and builds until you burst into a rocky clearing, giving you a view that makes you realize just what an accomplishment it was.

Use a final word count as a motivator if it works to get your butt in the chair. Know that if you hit it, you will be closer to done, but also avoid being restrained by it. Don’t let it demotivate you. If you only look up, it may start to seem too big a mountain.

And, lastly, remember that whatever number you pick at the beginning isn’t the true peak of that mountain. From far away it may look like 4,000 feet, but it may actually be 3,500 or 5,000. If it ends up being 10,000, congratulations, but you may need to get your glasses checked.

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