Category Archives: General

910 Words About Word Count

Okay, let’s do the math. (Approximate word counts noted.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling – 257,000 words.

The Stand, Stephen King – 464,000 words.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy – 560,000 words.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – 68,000  words.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,000 words.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker – 67,000 words.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 108,000 words.

Your Novel, Your Name – ???

If you’ve finished a novel, you know how much ink, sweat and tears goes into the process of putting all those words to paper. So just how many words do you have in that book, anyway? If you’re like a lot of unpublished authors, you may have more words than you ought. (Or in rare cases, too few.)

Now, before I go one step further, I need to tell you my philosophy on word count. I believe a novel ought to include exactly as many words as necessary to tell the tale well.

No more. No less.

However, if you’re seeking publishing through traditional methods, you will soon discover that there is a generally-accepted word count for the book you just finished. Yup. That women’s lit masterpiece you just did a word-count check on? If it doesn’t fall within the 80,000-100,000 range, you may soon be experiencing that familiar writer-pang called rejection. I say may be because there’s a slim chance your 150,000-word novel is the perfect length. But unless it’s excellent, and I mean The Time Traveler’s Wife excellent, edigents (see yesterday’s post for definition of that word) will likely pass simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable range. The same is true for your 50K word novel (which most publishers would qualify as a novella).*

I hear you. I really do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you based on word count alone that your novel isn’t worth publishing. The list above includes a few rather spectacular novels – and every one of them falls outside the “sweet spot” publishers have informally adopted (for a variety of reasons, including market acceptance, printing cost, and even a little thing called “postage”). But if you want to avoid the “easy pass” from edigents, your best bet is to submit a novel that falls somewhere in that sweet spot.

So, what do you do with that 150,000-word novel you love so dearly? Well, you have two choices: cut 50,000 words, or set it aside. Cutting that many words from a novel isn’t easy. But it can be done.

I am working with two contracted novelists right now. One is writing his first full-length novel (his first published book was a novella – he was allowed outside of the sweet spot because his story had a compelling premise and offered a fresh take on the genre – so right there is living proof that there are exceptions). His first delivered draft for this new novel was over 140,000 words. I’m working away on his second draft and it’s already down to about 104,000 words. In my line edit, I probably will cut another 5,000 words or so. And here’s the best news: the novel is much stronger at 100,000 words than it was at 140,000.

Another previously-published author recently turned in his after-my-editorial-notes second draft. His task was a bit more daunting. The first version came in at a whopping 200,000 words. This is not that unusual for the genre he’s writing (fantasy), but his contract asked for a 100,000-word book, so he had work to do. Could we have convinced the publisher to increase the size of the book? Maybe. (And we did get approval to land closer to 120,000 words.) But to do that would require an increase in the cover price for the book (paper ain’t cheap). And that means (potentially) fewer sales. It’s all a balancing act, to be sure, but guess what? The author trimmed 80,000 words! Yes, you read that right. I’m reading and doing the line edit on the novel now. And as I am, I’m discovering it is…wait for it…better than it was (and it was already quite good). It’s dense – as fantasy novels often are – but in a good way. Like a fine wine reduction. (What? You’re surprised I know about wine reductions? Hey, I cook sometimes. Actual meals that don’t utilize the microwave.)

So my point is – it is possible to cut words from your hefty tome without killing it. I have two vivid examples right here in front of me. And out west there are two happy authors who like the result of their (admittedly painful and difficult) trimming work.

As I said above, though, you don’t have to trim your word count if you don’t want to. Set that novel aside. Or self-publish it. But if you want to improve your chances of getting published? Write a novel in the 80,000-100,000 word range and submit that. Then someday when you’re uber-successful, you can send your extra-long novel in for consideration. Just be prepared… even then, your editor might suggest trimming a few thousand words.

It’s what we do best.

Have a nice day.

*The word count range for Young Adult novels tends to be lower, in the 50,000-80,000 word range. Fantasies can sometimes tip the scales at 120,000 words. And historical fiction (not historical romance so much) may even go higher, upwards of 140,000 words. These are all estimates and please keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rule. The problem is…everyone thinks their book is the exception. This is not the case, otherwise it would be the rule, not the exception. Got it?

More Friday Miscellany

Welcome to another weekend edition of Noveldoctor.com. Today? Five random things.

Item the First – Tomorrow evening, the Christy Award ceremonies will be held in Denver. The Christy Awards are given to celebrate and promote the best of Christian fiction. A novel I edited, Safe at Home, by Richard Doster, is one of three nominees for best “First Novel.” I won’t be at the ceremony (I don’t have anything to wear and I sincerely mean that because I work out of my home and in my home I don’t maintain a dress code apart from “wear something when you go to Starbucks”), and so I won’t be able to practice my “it doesn’t matter who wins, it’s just an honor to be nominated” expression for the non-existent cameras. Richard’s a great writer, so it really doesn’t matter what happens after people have stuffed themselves with cheesecake or whatever they’re serving. You should read this novel. It’s about the 1950’s and family and minor league baseball and the cultural stirrings that swelled into the civil rights movement (which Richard explores even further in his second novel, Crossing the Lines).

Two – I’m thinking about my next contest. It’s going to be fun. It has a name. The name is “First and Last” There will be lovely prizes, including some Really Cool Stuff From a Box in My Closet. You will want to enter. Look for it in…two weeks. Meanwhile, keep stopping by so I can teach you all kinds of things about writing and editing and not taking yourself too seriously.

Third – Do you write YA or MG? (That’s “young adult” or “middle grade” for the uninitiated.) Middle grade author Adrienne Kress recently wrote a blog post about “The New YA” and if you write either (or think you do), you should read it. Click here to go directly to the blogpost, then add your comments to the thread. Be sure to say something nice to Adrienne, too. She’s not only a writer, she’s also an actress and therefore is doubly in need of the occasional kind word.

For Fore Four – So I’m watching David Letterman as I type this and that young whippersnapper Daniel Radcliffe (you know, the actor who was naked on stage in Equus and also is in movies about a wizard or some such thing) is on and he just used the following phrase while describing a method for improving your microwaved pasta experience: “bookended by condiments.” If you weren’t a fan of Radcliffe before, surely you are now. In totally unrelated news, I have discovered the spell to make myself 30 years younger and will soon be courting Emma Watson.

The Fifth Element – If you missed it earlier, now would be the time to correct your error. Kilt-wearing literary agent Chip MacGregor recently featured a series of posts answering a whole bunch of basic publishing questions. Click here for the first post, here for the second, and here for the third installment. But be warned, if you read all of these posts, you’ll have no excuse for making stupid mistakes as you work toward your goal of publication.

10 Reasons Writing Fiction Is the Best. Thing. Ever.

  1. You can explain away talking to yourself as “trying out a conversation between characters in my novel.”
  2. Your much-used acronym for “work in progress” is alarmingly similar to the acronym for “rest in peace” and this adds an air of clever mystery to your role when casually mentioning it among non-writers. (Plus, you only have to change one letter to appropriately re-categorize any book that’s going nowhere.)
  3. You can overindulge in any of the three “C”s with impunity: Coffee, Chocolate, Cocktails.
  4. You can do your job almost anywhere. While still stuck in bed, or at your desk in a chair. You can write in a car, you can write in a bar. You can write on a train or in the air on a plane. You can write on a yacht, in a full parking lot, and (though you prob’ly ought not), while sat on the pot. You can write Way Out West, or wherever works best. That’s the thing about writing that makes it so fun. (Now I just need a laptop I can read in the sun.)
  5. You can do mean (or wonderful) things to real life friends, family members and enemies simply by putting them in your novel and changing their names.
  6. You can write new friends, family members and enemies into existence when the real-life ones shun you after seeing what mean (or wonderful) things you’ve done to their alter egos in your novel.
  7. You have a ready and reasonable excuse for why you’re reading a novel when you’re supposed to be doing the dishes, cleaning the garage, or picking up your mother-in-law from the airport: “I’m working.”
  8. You can refer to Ernest Hemingway, Nick Hornby, Marilynne Robinson and Jane Austen as your “co-workers.”
  9. Eavesdropping = Research.
  10. And finally, you get to answer the question “What do you do?” with, “I’m a writer.”

Got any more to add? Leave ‘em in the comments.

What Do You Mean by “Editing”?

what-boxThis is the first in a series of “what do you mean by…” posts. I want to tailor this series according to your interests. So…queue up your questions and then send ‘em along so I can make this as helpful as possible.

I thought it would be appropriate to start with “editing,” since that’s kind of an important topic on this blog. So what do I mean by editing?

Let’s start with a little quiz.

When you tell a friend that you’re “editing” your novel, which of the following best describes what you’re doing:

  • I’m going through the novel and making sure there are no misspellings or missing words.
  • I’m reviewing the entire manuscript and considering whether or not I should give up my dream of being a published writer.
  • I’m looking at plot and characters and overall writing quality and attempting to improve all of these things.
  • I’m re-arranging commas and adding lots of semi-colons.
  • I’m copying-and-pasting sections of The Time Traveler’s Wife into my novel so I can have a better chance of getting a seven-figure advance. (Which I’ll need in order to pay legal bills for that little “plagiarism” thing).

Depending on who you talk to, or what stage of the writing process you’re in, the word can mean all kinds of different things. Here’s a quick rundown of the basics. Keep in mind, this is based on my experience with editing. There is no universal standard to define these roles, so you may hear a different definition from someone else. If you’ve decided to work with an editor, be sure to ask what he or she means by “editing” so you know what you’re getting … especially if you’re paying for it.

Developmental (or macro or substantive) editing is the first sort you’d run into if you’ve just signed a contract to publish your novel. The editor assigned to your book (whether an in-house editor or a freelancer assigned by the acquiring editor) will read your book cover to cover and suggest all kinds of changes and improvements – from structure to plot points to character development to writing style. Remember the lighthearted editorial note post I wrote a couple weeks ago? Editorial notes are the practical result of substantive editing. A dev editor is tasked with making your novel better in as many ways as possible, but is primarily focused on the “big picture.” Dotting i’s is secondary to getting the story, the characters and the tone or voice just right.

A line edit (or micro edit) comes after the writer and dev editor have ironed out all of the bigger issues and the writer has re-submitted an acceptable manuscript. Sometimes the line editor and the dev editor are one and the same (I typically work with authors on both rounds of edits), and sometimes it’s another editor altogether. Some publishers choose the former approach to streamline the process, maintain the integrity of the relationship between editor and writer, and…to save money. The advantage of the latter is the opportunity for another set of eyes to (potentially) catch things the dev editor and author missed. Line editors get into the nitty-gritty of the writing – fixing grammar and cleaning up the writing wherever necessary. Line editors are responsible for making sure the dev editor’s requests were met and that the book is in great shape for publishing.

Copyediting comes next. Copyeditors are responsible for making sure the writing is clear and correct (according to the style determined both by a publisher’s in-house style sheet and any specific style notes for the individual book). Copyeditors also check facts and work with the typographers to assure consistency in presentation. Good copyeditors also serve as a sort of “first reader” for the edited work and sometimes save the day for publishers by identifying potentially risky legal issues or – in cases where the previous editors all wore the same blinders – catching big-picture problems with the story’s continuity – or even (gasp) quality.

Proofreaders go through a typeset manuscript and identify any remaining errors (or new ones introduced by any of the changes made throughout the process). They are the very last line of defense before a book goes to press. While I’m pretty good at noticing typos in menus, this is a job that would quickly send me to the padded room. It takes a special kind of person to be a proofreader. And by special I mean someone with X-ray vision who grunts in frustration upon discovering an em dash where a hyphen should be. I salute you, proofreaders.

Think of the roles this way: the writer is the woodcarver. The dev editor helps shape the wood into a more beautiful thing. Line editors smooth the edges with files and rough sandpaper. Copyeditors use the fine-grain sandpaper. And proofreaders point out the imperfections everyone else missed.

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but the oven timer just went off and I think I need to eat some food today so I’m just going to call this post “done.”

If you find a typo in the above and it makes you physically sick…you might just make a good proofreader.

Tomorrow I will divulge the long-hidden secrets to publishing success. Am I being serious or will this just be a silly post? Does it really matter?

Peace.

Finding Stories

Where do you get ideas for your stories? If you’re like lots of writers, you probably draw from your own life experience. Someone once said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. I happen to think that every novel a writer writes is at least somewhat autobiographical. (What this says about Dean Koontz, I’m not quite sure.) But what if you have a boring life? Where do you find your ideas for non-boring novels?

Start by coming up with a compelling protagonist. The really good ones write their own stories.

But where are they? you ask.

Well, they’re all around you. You know that quiet man down the street who compulsively washes his car every afternoon at three fifteen? He’s a murderer who was never caught but now regrets his actions and wants to make amends. And your quirky Uncle Ken? He’s a millionaire inventor who keeps his money in pickle jars stashed in secret locations around the city. And what about your best friend Jenny? She’s actually a former child actor who’s just about to be re-discovered for the role of a lifetime.

Another good way to spark a story idea is to listen creatively to the conversations around you.

Go to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop or grocery store or bus station. Observe. Listen, but not too closely (it’s more fun to fill in the blanks with made-up stuff). Before you know it you’ve got an idea for a novel about a Starbucks barista who falls in love with every man who walks in the door and orders a soy latte with light whipped cream. Or a novel about three angry moms who plot to take over a poorly-run daycare center, by force if necessary. Or a novel about a teenager who is taking his feeble, nearly-blind grandfather cross-country to meet his first love after more than 50 years apart.

Of course, compelling characters and interesting conversations are just the beginning place for fully-realized novels. But you’ll be surprised how a story can grow from something so simple.

What if your compelling character or interesting conversation seems to go nowhere? Start over. Or, try combining some of your discoveries and see what happens. Maybe that nearly-blind man being escorted cross-country is the former child actor and his grandson only discovers this as they trek together. Maybe the three angry moms learn about the man who hides the money-filled pickle jars and try to find them all so they can afford to buy the poorly-run daycare center from a suspected murderer.

I think you get the point.

And as you can probably tell, I’m sorta tired tonight. I think I’ll turn this post over to you now.

So…where do you get your best story ideas?