Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Counting on words

Do you write to a specific pre-determined manuscript length? Does your publisher require you to stay within a word-count range?

by Dietrich Kalteis

I don’t outline or plot out my novels, so I don’t really know when I start out where it will end up, or how many words or pages there will be. A novel is generally considered to be north of 50,000 words, and nowadays publishers seem to prefer the length to be in the 70,000 to 100,000 word range. My novels average toward the lower end of that, but that’s how long it takes me to tell a story.

Of all the things that my publisher and I have talked about, novel length has never come up. I’m sure if my stories ran too short or long, it would get mentioned. Generally, my style is spare, and I try to be economical with my words and selective with description, and I’m always looking to cut anything that tends to slow the pace. If an editor feels parts of a story need trimming or something needs to be added, they make those recommendations.

When I’m writing first drafts, they often run light, maybe less than two hundred pages. Then on a second pass I generally expand and add some new ideas. And sometimes on a third draft I might even trim some of what I added in the second draft, taking out what isn’t working. If there’s a fourth draft, that’s usually reserved for cleaning up grammar and catching anything I missed on the previous rounds.

Along the same lines as pre-determined manuscript length, it would also feel restrictive to set a word count for myself every day. I just start tapping on the keyboard, and sometimes if I get through a couple of pages, I’m okay with that as long as they’re good words on those pages. Other days I breeze through a couple thousand words. It depends on the chapter(s) I’m working on. It also hinges on which draft I’m working on. For instance, when I’m working on a second draft, I’m often reading a lot of the characters’ dialog out loud, making sure their words sound authentic for each of them. So that takes away from how many new words or pages I get typed that day. 

There are talented authors who live by daily word counts, and there are many who write detailed outlines and plot every inch of the story and have a good idea of the novel’s length before they get started. In the end, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, it’s whatever gets it done.

Outside of classics like Animal Farm that ran about 30,000 words, or War and Peace which was about 500,000 words, there are probably readers who perceive a value to the number of pages of a modern-day novel. If a novel of two hundred and fifty pages retails for the same as one with three hundred pages, it could be equated to value. And perhaps a longer novel could be taken more seriously and seen as having greater depth and a stronger story line. 

Sometimes I reach for a longer or shorter book just based on how much time I figure I’ll have to read it. If I’m going on a trip, I might grab a couple of paperbacks, guessing how long it will take me to get through them. I sure wouldn’t want to run out of reading material while traveling. Being old-school I prefer paper, but e-readers would be perfect for traveling, letting one bring as many books as one likes, but books versus e-readers, let’s save that topic for another time.

And for those interested, my publisher ECW Press has put some advance copies of my upcoming novel Zero Avenue up on Goodreads, for giveaway during August.


Paul D. Marks said...

It sounds like your and my methods are very similar, Dieter. Definitely pantsters. -- And good luck with the new book!

RJ Harlick said...

I'm with you on the pantster approach, Dieter. And I agree there is no wrong or right way to writing a book as long as it is a good one.

Unknown said...

I've never done a daily word count either, just write as long as possible!

Jack Getze said...

Word counts are for headline writers. :)