21 June 2016

Your novel's word count

Today I'd like to talk about a four-letter word: word count. (Okay, I know that's not literally a four-letter word. I'm being metaphorical.)
"I just hate how I 'come off as' as a debut writer with a super high WC, even when I'm doing a genre that has higher WC. I don't like agents to think of me as ignorant or judge my story because it is a longer work. And I hate that they just reject it on the spot without even reading sample pages or trying to have a discussion surrounding it." - Nicole Evans, fantasy & scifi author
Can you relate? Then this post is for you.

Thing is, you believe that your high word count is warranted. And maybe it is! But I saw a lot of submissions during this year's contests with word counts over 100K (one was even over 200K), and I came to see some patterns. Here are four factors that might be driving your word count up unnecessarily and how to check for them.

1. Starting in the wrong place.
Hands down, this is the most common issue I've seen in debut novels. Most of them start too soon, in a scene that lacks goals or stakes and isn't close enough to the catalyst that's going to make the MC(s) take their first steps on that road leading to the primary conflict, and thus adding unnecessary length to the book. I wrote "Your first five pages" to help with this one.

2. Too much backstory and/or world building unrelated to what's happening in the scene.
I won't go so far as to say that you should only include details that are necessary to understanding the scene at hand - there are definitely times when a well-placed sentence or two of backstory sets up something important without trying readers' patience - but it's quite common for authors to front-load their books with too much information under the mistaken assumption that readers actually need it all.

Try this: highlight everything in an early scene/chapter that's actually in-scene: physical descriptions that help us see the scene; actions and feelings that occur in the moment; dialogue. When you're done, at least 80% of your scene should be highlighted. If it's less, try taking out everything that's not highlighted, give your pages to someone who hasn't read them before, and let their questions guide you as to what needs to go back in. I bet you'll be surprised by how well they follow without all that stuff you took out. As for whatever you *do* need to put back in, I urge you to consider whether there's a way to show us rather than tell us.

P.S. If your character's thoughts stray from the scene at hand (into memory or musings on the governmental structure of your world, for example) for more than a paragraph or two at a time, know that you're fooling no one and I'm going to lose patience.

3. Too much story.
"Must include ALL the subplots! And have seven POVs because all these characters are wonderful and deserve to be heard!" I don't doubt that your characters and subplots are fascinating, but when you've got a ton of that going on, it means you haven't yet decided who and/or what this book is about. All that work you're doing to explore the characters' whereabouts, actions, motivations? Absolutely necessary. But it's not absolutely necessary for the reader to know all those details, and oftentimes the story is better when told from a limited point of view because that way there's mystery. Plus, let's not forget that we as human beings only have part of the picture of our lives. We're used to it. It's okay.

What is your book about? Identify the primary external conflict. Now identify all the subplots. Do all the subplots tie into the main conflict? If not, axe them. Example: a romantic subplot that doesn't affect how the characters approach the external conflict doesn't need to be there. Be gone!

Who is your book about? Looking at your Darkest Moment and the resolution of the external conflict will give you important clues. If you're choosing to tell your story from multiple POVs, then ALL those characters need to not only be involved in resolving the conflict but also to overcome some kind of internal conflict or character flaw in order to do so.

4. Scenes that don't move the plot forward.
They're there because they have important things to say about character and world, but the primary goal of each scene should be to move the story forward, and if it's not doing that, you need to figure out either how to get that information into a different scene or how to get *this* scene to do more work. You can check for this by doing a reverse outline on each scene: note what new information or action it contains that's directly related to the primary external conflict of the book.

Word Count Ninja's gonna hack it down.

You may have noticed that "wordiness" is not on my list. While on rare occasion I have come across a project wherein repetition of information or using ten words where one would do (i.e. wordiness) is a major problem, it's the least frequent problem I see. If you believe that wordiness might be an issue in your novel, I recommend a substantive edit to help you pare down.

I'd love to hear whether this post is helpful in thinking about your novel's word count. Is there something I'm forgetting? A question you have? Please let me know in the comments below!


  1. Oh hey, a page that was almost assuredly targeted at me. Sorry about redirecting some of my frustration toward you during that contest some months back.

    I have attacked my story and gotten it down to 100k on the nose, but I feel like I've done some real harm to my characters and my world-building in the process. I don't look back on those edits and feel good and think, "gee, I'm really glad this story feels tighter." And not just in the can't-let-go-of-my-darlings sense. I think I've genuinely weakened my novel purely in the Holy Grail pursuit of word count.

    I wasn't a criminal offender of any of these four points. Guilty of 3 and 4 a little, yes, absolutely. But my problem is that there's a lot of actual *story*, and it takes time for each of those scenes to develop naturally. Plus, in SFF, some space has to be dedicated to explaining why this world isn't precisely like ours...even when it's a UF set on contemporary Earth.

    So I'm down to 100k, but I'm not happy about it. At all.

    1. Stephen, I think it's wonderful that you gave cutting your word count down a shot to see if it worked. Since you're not happy with the results, one thing you might consider is debuting with a different novel that doesn't suffer from the 100K max and then selling this novel at the length it needs to be after that. Best of luck to you!