Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Word Count, Oh My

I've had some interesting discussions on Facebook and elsewhere since this came out saying the average book has 64,500 words. This news came on the heels of an author friend telling me her book had 98,000 words. I was amazed. I can't imagine writing 98,000 words. My longest novel, "Strange Bedfellows," is about 75,000 words. My shortest two novels, "Waiting" and "The Odd Couple," weigh in at 56,000ish words. Looks like my average follows the general average, eh? :-)

Anyway, I figured I'd do a quick post on word count for these authors fretting about word count.

Don't fret. Chill. (Unless you want in with a publisher who has particular word count requirements, then yeah, fret.)

My philosophy is that you use however many words necessary to tell your story AND NO MORE. This may mean 10,000 words or 100,000. Anything more than what the story needs is filler and causes plateaus, dragging action and unnecessary scenes. Of course, I realize one person's unnecessary scene may be another person's enjoyable bonus or necessary scene. I enjoy my fair share of long books such as "The Pillars of the Earth," but each word has to count and further the story somehow. Along these lines, look at descriptions that may be overly excessive. Do we really need to know this character's outfit every day down to the tiniest detail? Do we need three pages describing the beauty of a lake? (I usually skim over clothes and landscape scenes.)

If you want to work on telling stories more concisely, I recommend writing short stories. Set a limit for yourself, say, 2,000 words, and you'll see quickly just how unnecessary many scenes are.

I get my most fan mail (and my most diverse too, from gays, straight women, straight men, etc.). from a 5,000-word short story, "The Old Woman" (part of "The Old Woman and Other Lesbian Stories" short-story collection available for $2.99 anywhere). It's a nontraditional romance between a young white woman and a 75-year-old black woman. Could it have been longer? Sure. But its small size lends an oversized impact, I think. I've long been contemplating whether to expand it to a novel that would most likely have two parts, the second part picking up basically where the story as it is now ends. I've refrained from expanding thus far because I'm not sure the story needs expanding. The saying goes: "Don't fix it if it ain't broke." I do think there's room to add more depth and dimension to some of the characters if the time ever comes.

Bottom line: Chill. Let your story tell itself and decide its own word count.

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