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!


Megan Sayer said...

This was really interesting! It's something I'm aware of, although don't know much about specifics. It's never occurred to me to look up publishers and research their word count needs - thanks for that tip.

I do know some numbers...I read a memoir for a friend recently who said he'd written 90k but was still only about 2/3 through...that alone gave me a heads-up that he needed to do a lot of cutting.

Story and Logic Media Group said...

Today's post struck a nerve alright. I wrote my first novel eons ago with Writers Digest Correspondence Course.

Recommended word count 60,000 words. I finished the novel quickly. My next lesson ready and waiting as soon as I got feed back from the instructor on the last one.

The problem, as I saw it, is I didn't send my corrected work to the instructor. So I had no confidence that I had done the job satisfactorily.

So I wondered if I should retake the course, not necessarily with this same instructor. But she said, no send it out.

I knew better. I spent years re-writing. I even sent it to David King for his advice (for a price) and worked on his suggestions.

Then I found ACFW. And I had an Editor approach me. (True) And she was interested in my story. But it was much too short. Minimum for this house was 75,000 words.

Write, write, write. Crystal Laine Miller help me with a sub plot that made the story even more interesting and added word count.

Next ACFW conference the first editor was not there, so I talked to another one. "Oh, honey," she said, "we need at least 90,000 words.

Go home, write, write, write.
Next ACFW conference.
Another Editor."Yes, that seems to fit our new line. But we need 80,000 words. Max of 85,000."

Edit, edit, edit, a more polished manuscript, 97,000 words.


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I'm in the latter category. Always too many words. I'm in the middle of a big edit/re-write at the moment because at the 2/3 mark I was up to 120,000. So I stopped and chopped off the first half of the story and started over.

Still wondering how I'm going to pull it off within an acceptable word count. It's such a big sprawling beast of a thing. What I want to know is - are ANY publishers open to slightly longer manuscripts? I'm taking a chainsaw to my ms, don't get me wrong, but It's never going to be a 100,000 word book. (*sigh*)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I thought I’d take this moment to share an embarrassing truth. When I first started, I had no idea how long a novel should be. Before it clicked that there were hundreds of blogs and websites to help me with this, I took some of my favorite novels down from the shelf and counted words on the page and did a little fancy math to come up with an estimated word count. Ha! Sometimes it’s really important to celebrate how far we’ve come!
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Great post, Debbie. My novels are usually around the 100,000 mark, but I'm thinking with publishers' needs to cut production et al that they might want shorter manuscripts. Just wondering out loud.

Also, with self-publishing, word count isn't the criteria for a good story. It's as you've all mentioned...when the story is finely crafted, tight and complete.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

For me, word count is more of an ebb and flow. First draft produces way too many words. First edit takes a whole bunch away. Second draft builds back up...and on and on and on.

During the editing process I view it as a game. It makes it a little more fun!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, ladies, for your observations and candidness. Looks like we're all navigating the word count maze.

I tend to write more sparingly and my rewrites ebb and flow, too. Publishers are usually flexible, plus or minus a certain percentage, but I hesitate to give a number because it probably varies.

My biggest challenge was when I pitched juvenile fiction and was told the publisher would be interested if it had an adult perspective. I ended up more than doubling the word count, but was glad that I did.

Debra L. Butterfield said...

This was my first visit to Novel Matters and I found it very interesting. I haven't yet written a novel, but plan to develop a short story into a novel this summer. I'm glad to be forewarned that word count flucuates as much as the economy.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Welcome, Debra. And good luck with your novel!

l said...

I'm usually in the latter category--too many words. But my current wip ended with the 2nd draft at 62K. But that's all right! I'm identifying scenes to flesh out and places to add a new twist. This was great encouragement to enjoy that process!
(And I love Snoopy too. My favorite clipping: when Lucy tels him to write about a hero, and he types: "There was a dark and stormy knight...") :)

Kathleen Popa said...

When I edit I tend to cut a lot, which gets me into word-count trouble sometimes. But you're right: there's a certain luxury in being able to expand plot points and characters. If I'm rested and seeing things right.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

H. A.: That's a good one...knight. You probably have pure gold in your 62k now that the dross is gone.

Katy: Thanks for catching my faux pas :)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Enter the pure artist. I have no care for word count as long as the story is served. I despise the idea that any story is leashed to a publisher who cannot afford the paper or electronic file space for those few 1000 words.
The more I read about the industry the more convinced I am that my story won't be heard. That won't stop me from working to polish it and myself to the highest level. God will look after the rest, like changing the parameters or finding an editor to translate me. It's art I'm after, not money.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, Rick cut out a Snoopy cartoon for me several years ago that I have on my computer. It says, "Gentleman, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, I am not even going to send it to you ... Why don't you just come and get it?" I love it! Someday it might just happen! Right.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Henrietta, I hear you. The struggle between creating art and trying to make a living is centuries old. But you gotta do what you gotta do, whether it's staying true to the art or (dare I say) compromising. :-)

Marti Pieper said...

Hmm, not sure I'm qualified to answer, either, since I'm not yet a novelist. But for my nonfiction submissions, I tend to exceed the proposed word count by a few thousand words.

I identify with Wendy. As a novice ghostwriter, I contacted the author's agent, concerned because my finished manuscript was 7,000 over the proposed (and standard) 50,000 words for a nonfiction trade book. He laughed and said I could feel free to submit another 10,000 if I wanted. Imagine my relief.

I do notice that with experience, my writing is tighter and I sometimes struggle to make my required word counts. But I try my best not to pad. I walk away from the chapter when I can, pray, and return with fresh ideas about its completion.

I hope to do the same with fiction one day. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Debbie.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Marti, I've also found that the longer you write, the tighter and the slimmer the word count. This makes it all the more challenging. And I know I'm dating myself, but I've also counted the words on a page and done the math - before computers could do it for us.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

In my last thoughts before sleep I wondered about my beloved Amplified Bible. It is written as though word counts did not matter. It is rich and luxurious and difficult for some to read.

Marji Clubine said...

Great post! I find myself dealing with the issue of word count as well. Thanks for your insight!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

M.E., thanks for dropping by!

P.S.Prakash said...

Great one! I am just 2 days old in here and already find the posts extremely useful and captivating. Keep up the good work!!

Kathleen Popa said...

Debbie, now you've got me hooked on Get Fuzzy.

P.S.Prakash, welcome! We're glad you're here.