How to Increase Your Novel’s Word Count

Word count is the devil you have to love, or at the very least, respect.

This is a true statement if your goal is to be published (through traditional methods) someday. Those of you who don’t care about traditional publishing can leave the room now. Go play cricket or bake a souffle or save the whales. Then write about it. Use as many words as you like.

The rest of you, please select an abacus from the abacus cabinet and have a seat.

Unless you’ve already had significant publishing success or your last name is Rowling or King, you’re going to have to pay close attention to The Count. You’re picturing that vampiric puppet from Sesame Street, aren’t you? Now you’re thinking about vampires. Now you’re thinking about Edward Cullen. Now you’re either drooling glitter or you just threw up a little in your mouth. Can we get back on topic now? Thank you. (Go team Lestat!)

If you’re like most new writers, your manuscript is too long. You never intended it to grow to 150,000 words, but it just sort of took on a life of its own. Like a garden of beautiful wildflowers!

No, like a plague.

Well, if you’re one of these sorts of writers, you’re in the wrong classroom. Overlong Novels and How to Trim Them Like a Bad Mullet is in room 242 down the hall. Don’t forget to put your abacus back in the abacus cabinet on your way out.

The three of you who remain? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: you suffer from Anorexia Novelosa. You missed your goal of 80,000 words by 25,000, didn’t you?

There, there. No reason to cry. Well, there might be a reason to cry, but we won’t know that until after you try some of these ideas for increasing your novel’s word count:

Introduce a Brand New Character. Not just any character, but someone who is significant enough to throw your protagonist’s plans a little out of whack. Some stories come up short because they’re a bit too linear. Good guy pursues a goal. Bad guy interrupts good guy’s plans. Good guy overcomes bad guy. The end. But what if there’s another good guy pursuing the same (or a conflicting) goal? Or another bad guy who wants the joy of ruining the good guy’s day? Or someone who could be either good or bad depending on the way the wind is blowing? Yes, adding a significant character to a “fully operational Death Star”…er…I mean a “complete” first draft can really mess with the plot you so carefully worked out. One change on page 45 could have an impact on every page that follows. And some that precede it. But a brand new character can also add depth and texture (and words) to your story.

Give a Minor Character More Lines. You know that neighbor who appears once or twice because it gives your main character someone to talk to on the way out of his apartment? What if she had a bigger role? Look at each of your minor characters. Perhaps a couple of them are just begging for more ink on the page. Give it to them. Let the crazy uncle be even crazier. Follow the mother and her daughter into the train station instead of just observing them from a distance. Cross the street to find out why the dog is barking every night at eleven. Every character in your story has a full, complex life, even if all you see of them in your current draft is captured by a single sentence.

Fill in the Calendar. I’ll bet you have more than a few places in your novel where you write something like “three days later” or “later that night.” Sometimes there’s an entire chapter just begging to be written about the “three days” or the space between now and “later that night.” Note: I said sometimes. We don’t need to know what’s happening every minute. Choose these new scenes carefully. And be aware that any additions to your story will affect not only the plot, but also the pacing and rhythm. If an addition “feels” off, it probably is.

Further Develop a Subplot. Subplots are “sub” for a reason. They are meant to enhance, not compete with the main storyline. But some of your subplots might benefit from a few more words. Perhaps the rainstorm that never seems to end not only threatens the dam, but also floods a local school, forcing teachers and students to hold classes in a nearby abandoned train station. Maybe the grocery store clerk who is always singing to customers decides to try out for American Idol.

Beef Up Your Description. Let me give you the caveat first: don’t just add description for description’s sake. There’s nothing worse than having to slog through page after page of details that add little or nothing to the story. That said, there might be places where the story would be enhanced by more detail. Don’t just mention the fading color of the baseboard paint in the haunted house, tell me that the room smells like mold and dead mice and how the floorboards seem to cough with every step. Don’t just tell me there are wind chimes hanging on the back porch, tell me the song the protagonist hears when the breeze blows. Provide details that increase tension or reveal more about a character.

Find a Better Ending. I know, you already have the perfect ending. Or do you? What if the ending you have now is just a pause before the actual ending? What else could go wrong that might send the story in a (logical) new direction? Think about it. Or maybe there’s a “false” ending you forgot to write – one that fits rather perfectly in the timeline just before the actual ending.

What if you consider all these ideas and nothing seems to work? It’s possible your novel is un-expandable. Perhaps 55,000 words is exactly the right length for your manuscript. If so? Confidently shop it around to agents and editors. A great story is a great story is a great story. If it’s really just right at 55,000 words, a savvy agent or editor will realize this. I’ve seen more than a few novels get picked up for publication because they were “just right,” even though they fell outside the word count guidelines.

Okay. That’s all for today.

Class dismissed. Don’t forget to return your abacus to the abacus cabinet. I know you didn’t use them. I just wanted to write “abacus cabinet.”

Have a nice day.

[This post is 1103 words long. On purpose.]

Sorting Through the Noise

So you sit down to write, and that’s when you hear it. (Okay, maybe you stand to write, but…really? Are you one of those standing desk people? I’ll bet you have great calves and a resting pulse under 60, but you’re making those of us who would rather write from the horizontal office* look bad. So stop it. At the very least, sit down. At a desk.)

The noise.

No, not your character’s voices. Well, they’re in the mix somewhere, but it’s hard to hear them above the literary agent screaming about why it’s critically important to make your first page shine and the writing expert who keeps repeating the mysterious phrase “economy of words” and the blogger who is whispering something about the evils of adverbs.

All that noise leaves you paralyzed. Frozen. Stuck. And other similar words you can find in a thesaurus. But not because you don’t have good ideas for your novel. You have a bunch of ’em. And you thought you were ready to lay down a few thousand words.

Well, maybe you were and maybe you weren’t.

If you sat down because you were truly inspired or determined to write, write, write, tell the voices to shut up. Be blunt. Be decisive. They’re good voices (mostly) and they want you to be a better writer, but inspired or determined writing moments are rare and you should really obey this one. Right now it’s not time to listen to writing advice. Put away the how-to books, close the web browser and focus on your novel. Write as well or as badly as you naturally write until you run out of words.

But if you sat down because you were ready to improve your novel, because you wanted to become a better writer, then open your ears to the noisy writing advice. And…give yourself permission not to write thousands of words during this session.

It’s craft time.

Here’s an important tip: When you sort through writing advice, it’s important to measure each bit of apparent wisdom against what you know instinctively (and from experience) about your writer’s voice. Maybe your voice is adverb-friendly. If so, go ahead and use your adverbs, but not before first understanding why writing teachers and experts preach against it. Or consider your wordiness. It could be that you have a verbose voice. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer. There are plenty of successful writers who use a hundred words to say what might have been said in twenty. But again, examine the reason behind the advice.

Consider all advice this same way, always looking for the core truth that sits under the wisdom, then measuring it against your evolving writer’s voice.

Use your craft time to discover what needs improvement and to work on revisions, but also to be reminded what you already do well. Then walk away from the computer and do something else.

The next time you’re ready to write – I mean really write, write, write – all that craft time will pay dividends as the wisdom you gleaned quietly and organically begins to inform your natural writing style.

Or you could just do what I do and ping-pong back and forth between craft time and write, write, write time until you get so frustrated you put aside your novel and choose to write a blogpost instead.

Yeah.

*The horizontal office is also known as a bed. It’s probably the least ergonomically-friendly working environment. But it also happens to be the most sleep-friendly working environment. And that matters more.

The Beauty of Things Unsaid (Advice for the 2nd Draft)

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

~Anton Chekhov

Words are a writer’s currency. But too many words – or the wrong ones – will devalue a written work faster than an oil spill devalues an oil company’s stock.

This isn’t news to you. You know all too well the struggle to find the right words to tell your story. (Put down the thesaurus. That’s not what I mean. Have you even been reading this blog?) And so you write. And write. And write some more. And you finally finish your first draft.

And yet when you go back to read what you’ve written, it just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s not like you’re missing any key ingredients. The characters are believable. The plot is moving along just fine. There’s plenty of lovely description to set the scene.

But something’s wrong.

Now, it could just be that your writing sucks. (This is where you look around the room to see who else I might be talking to, because surely it isn’t you. I mean, your crit partners loved your short story about the fruit fly that preferred vegetables. “It’s a work of literary genius,” “a powerful metaphor about love and loss,” “like Animal Farm, but with insects,” they told you. Well, their actual words were, “it didn’t make me want to vomit,” but that’s essentially the same thing, right?)

Or it could be that you’re simply saying too much.

There are lots of ways “too many words” can steal the power from a story. Here are the three most common that I run into:

The Telling

I love the Chekhov quote at the top of this post. I haven’t found a better one to describe the difference between “telling” and “showing.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You already know why showing is generally better than telling. So why, then, do you have an entire paragraph dedicated to telling us what the protagonist is anticipating immediately preceding paragraphs that so beautifully show us exactly what happens?

There’s nothing wrong with some internal thoughts here and there. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional telling. But there’s rarely a need to have both the telling and the showing. I bet you can find at least a dozen places in your first draft where you do this. Yes, showing usually takes more words than telling (not always). But the showing words aren’t the problem. Trim the redundant telling. Your readers will thank you. (In their hearts.)

The Describing

There are very few writers who can do detailed description well. I’m talking about the sort of detail that reveals every shadow and wrinkle on a bruised white rose lit by twilight, or the font (and foundry it came from) that graces the title page of the book buried beneath a pile of similarly dust-deviled tomes that the protagonist reaches for with paint-stained fingers (Sherwin-Williams Rookwood Amber). (See? I’m not one of those writers. I’m okay with that.)

But just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean we don’t attempt it. What happens, though, is we end up with wordy descriptions that tell us stuff we don’t really care to know (or need to know). For example, if you simply tell me that a bowling ball rolls off the top shelf and lands on your hero’s head, that paints a clear enough picture for me to see it happen. Do I need to know that it was a 15 pound red and black Brunswick Evil Siege bowling ball? Well, maybe I do. Does the specific brand/weight/color play into the story elsewhere? Or are you being intentionally over-descriptive because it makes the scene funnier? In those cases, fine. But otherwise? I’ll paint the bowling ball black (or green if I actually owned one of my own that happened to be green) and assume it’s heavy enough to do the necessary damage.

I know what you’re thinking. All those writing books tell you to be specific. Hell, I’ll tell you that right here, too. Be specific. But…learn when to leave the rest of the picture to the reader’s imagination. If it’s not critical to the story (or the writer’s voice) that the character uses a Rachael Ray blue porcelain 10-inch skillet to kill the spider, just let the character use a plain ol’ skillet.

The Dialoging

I love this one. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write (and edit). Let’s start here: Take a minute to listen to real-life dialogue. Now, imagine transcribing that verbatim. It doesn’t quite look right, does it. One reason for this is the fact that you can’t actually layer multiple conversations on top of each other. If two people are talking at the same time, you can say so in your novel, but you’ll still have to run their words one sentence after another because you can’t stamp them on top of each other. (Well, you could, but that would look like a printer error.) Because of this, if you include every actual spoken word, dialogue that only takes a moment to speak in real time can stretch on for pages when written. Think of your written dialogue as spoken dialogue that’s been edited not only for content, but also for clarity and rhythm.

Also, real conversation has lots of non-words and repeated-ad-nauseum words in it, things like ums and ers and likes and plenty of unintelligible grunts and groans. Put all of them on the page and your readers will wonder what sorts of drugs you abuse.

But I still haven’t gotten to the biggest wordiness problem with dialogue: hijacking the character to deliver information readers should get elsewhere. You’ll recognize this dialogue by the way your character suddenly appears to be a puppet for the plot rather than a real human being.

“Is the sword shaped like a cross with a sharp dagger end that’s dangling over your head making you nervous, Edward?”

“No, Jacob. But you should be scared because I’m baring my fangs right now and they’re really menacing because they’re sharp and I’m smiling at the same time which is ironic and therefore underscores my obvious lack of fear.”

Please. Don’t. Go. There.

Instead, establish the scene so we know Edward is standing under the cross with the sharp dagger end. Then all you have to write is this:

“Nervous?”

Edward looks up at the cross then back to Jacob. He smiles, then bares his fangs.

“Not even a little.”

I know, my example is over the top. I did that on purpose. But you get the idea. If you need to deliver information to the reader about something in a scene, only use dialogue if it’s the sort of information the character would organically include in the course of the conversation.

Well, that’s all the questionable wisdom I have for you today, friends. Now get back to that second draft and start chopping.