Monday, July 31, 2017

Writing to a Specific Length?

Terry Shames reporting on the topic: Do you write to a specific pre-determined manuscript length? Does your publisher require you to stay within a word-count range?

I recently got curious about how long my books were. It seemed to me that they had gotten longer as the series went on. I went through the six published books and found that in fact they had ballooned. I went from around 75,000 in the first book to almost 90,000 words in the most recent one. I don’t think I’ve gotten windier. I write spare prose without a lot of filler. I think two things have contributed to the growth. One, I write a series, so I like to check in with various ongoing characters to see what they are up to.

The second reason is a little harder to pinpoint. I think my secondary plots have gotten more complex. I like to write a theme, and exploring the theme properly can take the book on side trips. Book 7, just undergoing edits from my publisher, takes a look at the horrendous practice of dog fighting. It was a tough subject, and took some judicious writing to explore it. I had to bring in old characters to talk about it and to give their responses to it. That took space that I hope is worth the effort, both physical and psychological, that it took to write it,

My contracts stipulate that my books will be between 70,000 and 90,000 words, but I think more important to my editor is that the books tell the story they need to tell. If it takes longer than 90,000 words to get it right, I suspect they would be fine with him. He would probably look for a way to whittle it down, but I trust him not to pare it down just for the sake of space. He wants his authors’ books to be the best they can be, and if that takes extra words, so be it.

I sometimes read books that could have used a judicious editorial hand, and I wonder if the author was working toward a word goal, or if they simply didn’t have good editorial guidance. I read phrases that could be left off without the slightest change in meaning or in impact, and I wonder why the phrases weren’t cut. Ninety percent of the time the phrases, “He decided to,” “She saw that,” “It was clear that,” “It was obvious,” and a whole host of other “throwaway” phrases could be, well, thrown away.

In my writer’s group there is an editor, Robert Luhn, with twenty-five years’ experience in editing. He reads my manuscripts with a razor-sharp pencil. He’ll say, “Wow, these pages were terrific.” When I look at them, I see that he has slashed and burned—and he calls that terrific. I have found reason to challenge him maybe twice in four years. Every author should be so lucky. He has taught me a lot about sharpening my prose—and he still finds plenty to cut. Despite this, the books have gotten longer, and, I hope, better.

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