Sunday, May 15, 2011
Lessons from a Siamese
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One of my favorite comics is 'Get Fuzzy' by Darby Conley in which Satchel, the compliant, gullible pooch, is abused by Bucky, the conniving, misguided Siamese. Bucky steals money from his owner's wallet to buy things on eBay and dabbles in writing.
Snoopy (Charles Schulz) was a struggling writer, too. I've clipped comics of his endless rejection letters and attempts at "It was a dark and stormy night." I often felt Snoopy's pain, but Bucky's forays into writing are strictly mercenary so he gets no sympathy from me.
On my fridge I have posted one panel in which Bucky reasons that if monkeys on typewriters could produce Shakespeare, then squirrels on word processors with Spellcheck would produce a script for Two and a Half Men. In today's comic, he has written a novel that falls woefully short of the word count, so Bucky adds a descriptive word (greenish) to make it longer. Today he struck a nerve.
Word count is a booger. Smart writers will do their research in advance to see which publishers (a) buy the types of novels they write, and (b) determine the word count the publisher requires. If life gets in the way of your writing (translation: work, family, illness, etc) it's possible that enough time can pass before you complete your manuscript so that publishers will either have changed their requirements or stopped publishing altogether. It's happened to me, and I don't think I'm the only one.
So, let's say you've been to a conference and met with an editor, and the great news is that they are interested! The bad news is that your manuscript is too short. They need 10,000 more words. Yikes. You, of course, agree. You can do it. Then you go home scratching your head. The story is done - finis. It's tight and polished. You've said everything that needed saying. Do you really have to 'pad' it to meet the publisher's guidelines? You could insist that the story is complete as written, but you would most certainly not receive a contract.
By the time you present your manuscript to an editor, you've completed the editing process many times over. You've macro and micro edited, performed search-and-destroy on unnecessary words, cut stagnant scenes filled with description. The last thing you want is to fill the story with fluff and look like an amateur.
Besides, wouldn't it be a betrayal of your art to pad it for the sake of a sale? You could view it that way, or you could see it as an opportunity. Here's your chance to develop some minor plot points or delve more deeply into a specific character trait important to the story. You can insert some of those scenes you cut during the editing phase, or come up with some more definitive, compelling ones. You have the freedom to strengthen any part of the story without word count consideration, as long as those words survive the ensuing editing gauntlet.
Ten thousand words is really a gift, when you look at it this way. That's about 300 words per page, or 3.5 pages per ten-chapter manuscript, give or take a few pages. Not as big as it seems. Once you feel the wind in your hair, you may actually have to reign in your word count, instead of struggling to fill it.
What are your challenges with word count? Do you struggle to fill it or end up chopping volumes in the final draft? We'd love to hear!