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YMMV: Write to a Word Count

πŸ“ˆ It's a Competitive World...

In the early teens, I started what would become a two-year writing project called Friday Flash Fiction, in which I committed to posting a new original 600-word story every week. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer; I learned a number of invaluable skills. Most of those I'll get into in more detail in a future post, but the most important by far was how to...

Write to a Word Count

It's funny how all of this came about. You see, circa 2012 I had a pretty serious SEO problem. The first search result for "Kurt Pankau" linked to my personal page on a now-defunct social media platform called Atheist Nexus. I'd joined it in a fit of pique, gotten immediately bored of it, and deleted my account. Several years later, it was still my top google hit for some ungodly (ahem) reason. This was a problem, because I live in the Midwest and I was getting ready to go job-hunting. While I make no apologies for or attempts to hide my a-religiosity, it's not something I necessarily want to lead with. I don't meet a stranger and immediately announce it to them like it was CrossFit. Because, let's face it, some of y'all have some very disturbing ideas about what we're like, so it's best for you to find out after I've received an offer letter.

To deal with this SEO problem, I made use of an old blog of mine that had fallen into disrepair. (Reader: it's this very blog!) I bought the url for my name, pointed it at that site, and then all I needed to do was generate some content. Essays are fine, but I was trying to make more of a name for myself as a fiction writer, and I'd heard about this new thing called flash fiction. Though it's widely accepted now that flash is anything more than 100 but less than 1000 words, the definition was a lot squishier a decade ago. The one I'd heard put the upper limit at 600 words, and that felt like something I could do in a week. Of course, I'd never written flash fiction before, and didn't have the first clue about how to tell a complete story in that little space. So I committed publicly to doing it weekly for a year!

And if you've met me, then you probably understand how well this tracks with my personality. What can I say--I like a challenge.

(Incidentally, I've since taken all of these stories down. Maybe I'll make the ones I can still stand to read available in some capacity or other in the future.)

It was a formative experience, for reasons that--again--I'm going to go into in more detail next week. But more than anything else, it was fantastic practice at writing to a very specific word count. My cap was 600, but I made an effort to to come within three or four words of it, and I almost always succeeded. I don't know if writing over 100 individual stories in the range of 596-600 words, essentially on a dare, is the most ADHD thing I've ever done... but it's up there. And again, this was an invaluable skill, because the ability to write to a word count is one of the best tools you can have in your writerly toolbox. Because word counts are too important to leave to chance.

This may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you that it's not--especially if you want to sell your writing. You will be hard-pressed as a debut novelist to sell a manuscript that is more than 120,000 words. Publishers just don't want to risk the time and materials of anything longer on someone who's unproven. This is not to say that it can't be done. After all, Brandon Sanderson's debut Elantris was just over 200,000 words, but you are not Brandon Sanderson (unless you are, in which case... call me). Certain genres demand very specific word counts. Cozy mysteries and beach-read romances tend to be around 65,000 words or fewer. Young adult novels are going to be on the shorter side, and Middle-Grade even shorter than that.

The strictures get even stricter in short story markets. There are markets specifically for drabbles (100 words) and flash (1000 and under). Between 1000 and 2000 words is extremely hard to sell. 2000-5000 is the boundary for most short story markets, but what they really want is 3000-4000. Some will take up to 10,000 but good luck with anything over 5K. And once you're over 10,000 you're into novelette territory, which is a format you probably didn't know existed before I mentioned it just now. And there just aren't a lot of markets for long-form short fiction.

This applies to chapters as well. A very typical chapter length is 3,000 words. That's about twenty minutes worth of reading time for a median-speed reader. It's a very consumable amount of story but you still have enough space to give it a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whenever someone asks me how long a chapter should be--which happens more often than you'd think--that's the number I give them. But it's also a starting point. The length of the chapter is tied to the perceived depth of the chapter. A beach-read will go shorter because that way it feels like you're going through it more quickly, which makes it feel like a light, breezy read. A lot of my longer-form work is this kind of highly-quaffable book. It's a popcorn read, the kind of thing you sit down to check out and then accidentally finish in an afternoon. And for those kinds of stories, I target a chapter length of 2,500 words to start, and it usually tightens up to around 2,000 towards the end of the book, because you want your ending to feel faster.

Epic fantasy novels, by contrast, tend to have much longer chapters, sometimes 5,000 or 7,000 words. When you sit down to read the next leg of A Song of Ice and Fire, you're looking at an hour or so to finish a chapter. As a rule, these books feel slower, but they also feel much more immersive. And that's what the extra length buys you, and that's one of the reasons epic fantasy novels tend to have more detailed descriptions about the clothing and the food. Fans of this genre want to feel like they're losing themselves in the world, and longer chapters with a lot of detailed texture go a long way towards making that happen.

Word count is also tied to the scale of the ending. There are exceptions, but as a rule, the larger the scale and scope of your ending, the longer the work needs to be. This goes the other way as well. You can't have a small and comparatively low-stakes finale if it takes six hundred pages to get there. This is all tied in to audience expectation. You might say that the length of a work is an implicit promise to the reader about what kind of a conclusion they're in for.

All of this is to say that, yeah, word count is really important. Ergo, it's not the kind of thing that should emerge organically as you write. It's something you should be making deliberate choices about in the planning and execution of your story. And that means you need to have the skill to consistently hit a target word count to within about 10% of its projected length.

So how do you do that?

Unfortunately, the best way to do it is by doing it. That is, practice. You have to get a feel for it, and be able to gauge where you are in the flow of the chapter or scene or story against where you are in the length. Which means you need to be checking on your word count regularly as you write. Most of the modern apps that are geared towards writing fiction will give you a live word count for your scene or chapter as you go. But even if you're using Google Docs, it's something you can get to very quickly via a keyboard shortcut--assuming you're putting your chapters in individual documents rather than trying to write the whole thing in one file. Seriously, do this, your future editing self with thank you for it.

What you'll find yourself doing is making a lot of micro-adjustments as you go. Are you running short, maybe you add in a minor complication to draw things out. If you're running long, you may find that you need to speed things up or skip over something. The sooner you can recognize this and start making adjustments, the more natural it will feel; we've all read stories or books that felt like they rushed the ending in order to keep it at a salable length, and it's very noticeable. Instead, you're going to want to incorporate it into the natural pacing of the chapter or story. Your work is going to have big, exciting moments and quiet, personal moments. If you want to add length, it's pretty easy to find a quiet moment and work in a paragraph of deeper introspection.

Cutting length is a bit trickier, and that's where word-economy comes in. This is especially true in short stories, where you're looking at more of a hard cap on word limits. How much world-building do you need to do, or should you lean on recognizable archetypes? Do you give a detailed description or do you just hint at things through actions, like we discussed in last week's post. You can look for backstory that could be cut. You can make structural decisions around this too--if you have a lot going on in a story, maybe you start it farther into the plot and summarize what came before as it becomes pertinent. Or even at a sentence-level, you can look for places where you've repeated yourself or where you can say things more efficiently without sacrificing clarity.

What you don't want to do is end up splitting your chapter into two because it's running long. This is always a temptation, but don't do it. For one, it breaks up the flow of your chapter. A chapter is not just a collection of scenes that add up to the right length--it has an arc and a pace of its own, and putting an arbitrary cliffhanger in the middle disrupts that. It also causes bloat. If you have a 3000-word chapter that's running closer to 4000, you're not going to turn it into two 2000-word chapters, you're going to turn it into two 2,500-worders because otherwise they feel too short, and then you're adding a lot of filler.

All of these things go more smoothly if you can recognize potential problems early and adjust appropriately. And this means you need to develop a good gauge for how much stuff can happen in a specific word allotment. New characters and new locations add more length than you think they do. Lengthy actions sequences take fewer words than you expect. You also need to have a good idea of how much your word counts change in the edit. A 3000-word story is great until you realize that you're going to cut 800 words on an editing pass. Remember, a word count target is for the finished draft. This is yet another reason why I edit as I'm writing. But you are not me. (Unless you are, in which case... call... myself... errr... it may be time to abandon this joke.)

This sounds like a lot, I know. But the good news is that it is a skill that can be picked up. All you have to do is make a conscious effort to start trying. Don't misunderstand, you're gonna suck at it, but it will get easier with every new piece that you draft. Even if you don't have a specific market in mind, identify a word count you want to hit and aim for it. After enough practice, you'll find yourself doing these things intuitively.

And speaking of practice...

Next week I'm going to tell you why you should be writing more flash fiction...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.