Questionable: What’s With Your Obsession Over Word Counts?

Andrea asked:
I am wondering where the word count requirements originate. Is that an industry standard? Is it what you yourself have developed as the best structure? A mix of the two?

A mix of the two.

Word count is usually stipulated in the contract. In this case, my contract says 100,000 words, which is my natural length anyway. Legally I can go 10,000 words either side of that, so 90,000 to 110,000, although as I remember Fast Women was 116,000.

The act counts are mine because I write in acts to arc the plot. And because I want the plot to escalate, I try to make sure each act is shorter than the last one so that the turning points/big moments come faster together as the plot progresses. That’s just my thing, nothing contractural.

However, I think shortening the narrative units as I get closer to the end is important (for me, not necessarily for anybody else). So when I break down an act into scene sequences, I try to have the same thing happen: sequences getting shorter so the pace picks up. It’s not as crucial as I think it is in the acts, some sequences are longer than the ones that came before, some sequences are a short punch in the middle of a longer arc, but in general, I don’t want any 7,000 words sequences in Act Four. Act One, maybe, but Act Four has to hit hard and get out the door.

The other benefit is that you can see pretty clearly where the flab in a scene is. I have managed to cut Act One down to 35,000 words which is close to normal for me. Since most of you have been reading iterations of that act for four years here, here’s the scene sequence breakdown for Act One:

1-1 Intros (Nita in Car, Nick in Bar) 4928 words
1-2 First Meet (Extended Bar Sequence) 6059 words
1-3 Aftermath (Nita/Chloe, Nick/Boys) 5451 words
1-4 Breakfast 4869
1-5 Working 7181
1-6 Crisis (Nita Motel/Nick Hell) 3408
1-7 Climax (Smite) 3502

The Intros section is short because it’s set-up, both Nita and Nick in trouble because of the antagonist, foreshadowing conflict. After that it’s a 6000, 5500, 5000, 7000, 3500, 3500. Which of these sequences needs trimmed?

So I look at 1-5 which is too long for many reasons, not the least of which is Nita and Nick aren’t together for it and I can do one of two things:

• I can divide it into two sequences and put a turning point at the end of the first one. This will help the pacing but won’t solve the “I’m reading to see Nick and Nita together, why aren’t they?” problem.

• I can cut around 3000 words (twelve pages) from 1-5 which will also conveniently put this act at about 33,000 words, which is my usual Act One length (one third of the book). I’ve got to hack my way through Act Two first, but I’ll definitely come back to look at that.

Now fast forward to Act Four:

4-1 Final Push (Nick gets kidnapped, Nita kicks ass) 3462 words
4-2 Go to Hell (Nick kicks ass, Nita kicks more ass) 4099 words
4-3 Happy Ending 1151 words

I’m still looking at the end of Act Three because I think I might have put the turning point in the wrong place, so that 4-1 sequence could end up longer. Also this act is only 9000 words and usually my fourth acts are about 15000, so I may be rushing this one. That wouldn’t mean I’d add more scenes, it’d mean I’d put the turning point in the wrong place and some of Act Three belongs here, which I think might be the case. Act Three is 28,000 words which is entirely legit, but shifting about 3000 of them here would make that 33,000, ?, 25,000, 12,000 for the book (yes, Act Two is still being a bastard and fighting back) and that’s all pretty normal. I think mine usually come out around 33/28/25/15 so if I can wrestle Act Two to the ground, I’m in good shape here.

And that’s why I obsess about word counts.

Please note: I do this because I cannot plot. Some people are natural storytellers. I am not one. So after I complete a real mess of a first draft, I have to go back and plot the damn thing and that’s where acts and scene sequences and turning points and word counts save my plotless little butt. This is in no way “the right way to write a novel.” This is “Jenny is hopeless at plotting and this is her cheat sheet to fix the nightmares that are her discovery narratives.” If this process does not appeal to you, it’s probably because you don’t need it.

11 thoughts on “Questionable: What’s With Your Obsession Over Word Counts?

  1. Thanks for the clear explanation, it was really helpful to understand.

    One question though…as I recall you mentioned one house (St Martin‘s?) didn’t like/want Nita, but your explanation mentions contractual word count. Is this anticipated or have you got a publisher now? (Did I sleep through something…entirely possible!)

    Looking forward to Nita coming out, finally!

    1. 100,000 words is pretty much boilerplate for most novels. Mysteries are sometimes shorter, and fantasy sagas can be doorstops, but 100,000 seems to be the sweet spot for print books. It also seems to be the best length for readers who want a developed story but don’t want to be hefting a 200 pound book for weeks. It’s a good reading length.

      Having said all of that, there’s no real standard length for a novel by publishing house; Outlander is way longer than 100K I think.

      1. And each sequel got longer as she went along. Written In My Own Heart’s Blood is 814 pages, not including notes.

  2. When I actively wrote, I never worried about word count except for those stories in the category flash fiction, which is 100 – 1,000 words. Most of my stuff is either flash or short stories. Also, I was lately widowered and writing not for sale, but for mental health.

    I did, however, obsess over what lengths fell into which category, because it fell to me for a few years to administer an “award” program, and those categories mattered there. Best Flash, Best Short Story, Best Novellette, Best Novel, Best Series, all fan-selected.

    There is, for instance, an article, Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post By Chuck Sambuchino dated October 24, 2016. His opinion would put Jenny’s range at the high end, but let me emphasize that a contract beats hell out of an opinion – and beating Hell seems so appropriate here.

    If you want opinions – professional opinions from agents, editors and authors – Google is your frenemy. We have here what amounts to a Master’s Workshop on A Method To Write A Novel. I don’t plan to ever write another, but I’m taking notes, anyway.

    Thanks, Jenny! 🙂

  3. I really like the fact that you have figured out ways to see what’s happening in your writing. And that you can then figure out what to do to fix things. Also and especially, you don’t follow other people’s rules.

    1. Not very (g). It’s more fun writing blog posts. Plus I’m still cogitating on how to do it. I pretty much have the organization down, but the presentation is something I have to think about. Most people do not read writing books from the beginning to the end, they drop in to the section they’re interested in. So I’m writing it in parts, as if each were a short book on its own. Then there’s how to present the info. I’m a big believer in different teaching approaches: written, visual, hands on, etc. Plus writing exercises that can break open a problem/troubleshooting. So there are a lot of different threads. It’s going to be a kind of buffet, I think. Each section with essays (like these posts) and diagrams and exercises and analyses of movies and books to see what went right and wrong. I think.

      First Nita and then the next novel proposals and then the next novel. I’m looking at the writing book in between all of that.

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