Monday, May 12, 2008

Word Count

Jess has asked this question:

“In all your years of writing books, did you ever come up short in word count?”

Word count never came up until I signed with Ballantine about five years ago.  No one said anything about it.  I wrote until it was finished. Some books were longer than others.  I guess I went by feel.  Or to put it another way, the characters told me when it was time to get out of there.

Then when I got the Ballantine contract it said I had to turn in a book with 95,000 words.  I’d never seen anything like that in a contract before.  I’d spent my career paring down my writing.  My aim was to not have a wasted word. The joke was on me.

Years ago 65,000 words was the length of the average novel. Thomas Wolfe was an exception. I had no idea what word count I had in any novel I’d published.  But I felt that 95,000 words might be too many for a P.I. novel.  I got them to agree to 85,000, which I still thought might be too long, but I had to sign the contract with that word count. And my book came in around that length.

Still, I think dictating the amount of words a writer must punch out is destructive.  Sometimes a very long novel is self-indulgent.  I can think of quite a few.  On the other hand, very short novels might leave a reader feeling cheated. 

If you’re worried about getting a book up to a certain word count you’re bound to load it with filler. We’ve all read books like this and it’s a big bore.  Even if it lands on the bestseller list.  Boring.

A writer must do what he/she feels comfortable with.  Thinking about word counts might take the life out of the novel especially if you’re new at writing.  But times have changed and publishing houses have new rules. 

I think it’s sad that these rules and regulations have come into play.  Asking for a specific word count is as bad as asking a writer to write a book like Dan Brown or Mary Higgins Clark.  Or Virginia Wolfe.  But no one would ask you to write like her.

If getting published is more important to you than writing what you want to write then, by all means, do your word count.

I believe you have to write like you and you have to write until you come to the end.


pattinase (abbott) said...

So why do they want it long? Has data proved people prefer longer books? I always go for the short ones. Never know how much time I have left and would hate to go with an unfinished book on the floor next to my bed. Note to myself: next life get a bigger bedside table.

Jess said...

Thanks for answering, Sandra. Great response. I'm from the old school too, but these days--at least in the circle I travel in--almost every publisher offers writer's guidelines. I wrote my book specifically for one of Harlequin's lines -- it's category romance with some mystery. My agent wanted me to bump it up for some bigger houses.

My daughter just finished reading a series of vampire books. Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer. Twilight was her debut novel and it was almost 700 book pages. This was a young adult book. The others were just as long. I think Eclipse is on the best seller list.

I read a lot of books that are padded--horribly and I wonder how they ever get published. I don't want to be one of them.

I'm having to unlearn everything I learned a very long time ago.

Picks By Pat said...

I often see a suggested word count on the submission guidelines for publisher/agent websites. But I like to think of them as guidelines only.

I can't imagine a contract specifying a certain word count...a minimum, maybe. It just seems counter-productive to me.