Bolstering Your Word Count


Today’s post comes courtesy of an exchange of emails with Faith.

We have written about book length and word count before (here’s one of my posts on the subject), and usually those posts take the form of “How can we reach our target word count?” or “How do we go about cutting our novels down to an acceptable length?” or even “How do we get over the intimidating prospect of beginning a project that we expect will be over 100,000 words long?”  Today’s question is a little different.

What do we do when we realize with absolute certainty that our book is going to come in too short?

Now, as the writer of several Chihuahua killing fantasies [CKFs — for those of you who weren’t at my Epic Fantasy panel at World Fantasy this year, a CKF is a book that, if dropped from shoulder height on a Chihuahua, will, in fact, kill said dog; it’s a well-known industry term….] I have to admit that I never thought I would encounter this problem, particularly not with a book that was supposed to come in at a mere 100,000 to 110,000 words.  But times have changed, and my second Thieftaker book seems to be coming in a bit thin.  I’m writing my final chapters — I think I should be finished in the next week or two — and the book is coming in at closer to 90,000- to 95,000 words.  This is not at all where I want it to be. Why does this matter?  Because just as today’s market is not friendly to books that are too long, neither is it friendly to books that feel too short, that leave readers saying “That’s it?  That’s all there is?”  I’m 10,000 words short — that’s 40 manuscript pages and perhaps 30 book pages.  This is a problem.  So what can I do?

This is probably a good time to remind you of another old post — this one on developing your internal editor.  Fixing this problem — really, fixing any structural, thematic, or content-related problem in a manuscript — demands a level of comfort with editing our own work.  We need to be able to approach our writing with fresh eyes and without sentimentality.  Falling in love with turns of phrase or certain moments in a story is quite natural, but if that affection for the little things gets in the way of our editing, it becomes problematic.  The goal is not to have great moments, but rather to produce a great book.

So, let’s begin with a few things I don’t want to do in fixing this problem.  I don’t want to pad what I’ve written already with unnecessary words.  Stuart has written several terrific posts in the past year about making our prose leaner, about avoiding tautologies, and about generally tightening up our stories and books.  I may be 10,000 words short, but I’m not about to undo all that I’ve done so far to follow his advice.  My book as written is lean; the prose flows well.  I don’t want to mess that up.  Padding sentences is NOT the way to fix this problem.  Nor is coming up with scenes that are superfluous to the plot, or that provide action for action’s sake — what Faith would call “Apple-Cart Scenes.”  We don’t want add scenes that aren’t necessary and thus clutter up our plot with extra stuff that doesn’t belong.

But that’s where this gets tricky.  Because I have what soon will be a finished novel of 92,000 words or so, and it is complete as far as it goes.  That’s how I ran into this problem in the first place.  I planned the book out, I wrote it, and the book as written tells a whole story.  It just does so too quickly.  So, in a way, anything that I add at this point will, almost by definition, be superfluous.

Analogy time:  You’re cooking a meal for guests.  It’ll be you and your partner, plus two other couples.  You have a main course, a vegetable, some potatoes, and a fresh loaf of bread.  But when you look at the food you realize that while it’s a balanced meal, there’s just not enough food for all six people.  How do you decide what to supplement?  Well, your main is good as it is, and you have two starches, but maybe, since there’s only one veggie dish, you need to add a salad.  The meal might have been complete, but since you needed more food, you looked for the thinnest part of the meal, and that turned out to be the greens.

That’s how you handle it with the word count problem, too.  My second Thieftaker book has lots of plot twists, there’s a good deal of action and magic, but the book also has a historical theme, and that seems to be the thinnest component of what I’ve got right now.  I’ve used a historical event as the backdrop for the story, but I haven’t done enough with it, so that’s the part of the book that I’m going to expand.  Faith in her email (remember, that’s how all of this started) mentioned to me that her WIP was coming in a little bit thin, too.  She went in a different direction.  Given what she told me, her book might have been a little short on plot twists — maybe it was a bit too linear — and so she threw in a new mystery element to complicate matters a bit and ratchet up the tension.  Maybe you’re writing a high fantasy and you see that you’re a bit thin on magical elements.  Or perhaps you’ve got an urban fantasy going, and your plotting is working fine but the book needs one more scene showing your Big Bad doing his/her thing, so that the danger as perceived by your readers is that much more palpable.

The point is to add to your book in a way that a) ups the word count to a more acceptable level, and b) does so in a way that enhances what you hope to accomplish with your various story elements.  No story or book is perfect as written initially.  We try to balance the various elements of our work — the magic, the narrative twists and turns, the character development, the background work.  But finding that perfect balance the first time through is nearly impossible.  In a way, my low word count has been a blessing in disguise, because it has forced me to ask myself where that balance is off.  And finding the answer to that question has given me the solution to the word count problem.  Not only will my book wind up being the right length after I do this additional work, it will also be more balanced and therefore more effective.

So where is your work in progress headed?  Is it too long?  Just right?  Or do you need to add a chapter or two?  And if so, what elements need more pages?

David B. Coe

34 comments to Bolstering Your Word Count

  • Mikaela

    Great post, David!

    My drafts are always too short. 😀 So I am used to it! I usually add 5-20 k in the second draft. Sometimes I leaves the plot alone. Other times, I go wild and add new POV’s and subplots! 🙂

  • Thanks, Mikaela. Since you have some experience with this, can you tell us how you go about splicing your newer material into the original draft? Do you find it hard to mix in the newer POVs and plotlines with the old? Again, thanks!

  • Mikaela

    David, I rarely have any problem splicing in new material. Often it is already there, but in a very concise way. The source of new subplots, and POVs also already exists, I am just not aware that they are needed in the first draft.

    One thing I learned during the revision of Scherezade is to make good notes! I have a feeling that the third draft will be as extensive as the second draft. That can wait until next year.

  • Must be something in the water. I, too, found my latest coming in short. I’m in the process of typing in my revisions (I handwrite revisions), and I’m sure I’ve added at least 5k. For me, it turned out my ending was too convenient, so I’ve brought a character back much earlier and had to go through making sure his existence was recognized from that point onward, then rewrite the entire ending. It works much better now, I think.

    Here’s a question I’m sure some readers are wondering (and I know we’ve covered it before). What is the appropriate length right now for a fantasy? I believe, if it’s not epic fantasy, you’re looking at somewhere between 80-100k. Is that still correct?

  • Excellent post David!

    When I finished my latest WIP (an epic fantasy around 125k words) something didn’t feel quite right. I realized I didn’t have a face on the evil, it was a more nebulous evil. I had to go back to the beginning and insert a new POV character to act as the face of evil. The problem now is that the WIP ballooned up closer to 150k with the insertion of the new POV.

    Right now I’m deciding whether to cut one of my POVs and move it to the next book as I don’t think it’ll change this story much, or I could simply go through each page and try to cut maybe 10% per page. At least that would make the prose more lean. I’m really undecided at this point, but thank you for the thought provoking post!

  • Hey David,

    This was a very insightful post! The analogy was perfect and it helped solidify your point. I’ll be using this technique in the future, that’s for sure. Thanks!

  • Yeah, as David said, I just kill off a character or toss in a dead body and I can add in word count and tension. Sigh… I’m so predictable. 🙂

  • Great post, David. I always have the opposite problem, and I’m so used to trying to cut stuff down that I neverr eally considered the problem of a book being too short. I understand that you don’t want to pass a novella off as a novel, but why the anxiety over what seems to me a perfectly respectable 92,000 words? Is something longer mandated in your contract? Are there industry trends towards shorter (adult) books that you feel are particularly compelling? I’ve heard editors in other genres suggest that they actually prefer shorter books. Is this specifically a fantasy issue?

  • Mikaela, thanks for the follow up. It sounds as though you’ve gotten very good at this. For me, the splicing is a little trickier, and I find myself repeatedly, going over those places where I’m connecting the beginnings and endings of my additions to the original text. I imagine it’s like inlaying a piece of wood, and then sanding the edges until it’s perfectly aligned with the existing surface. Another analogy….

    Stuart, I actually wonder if I’ll wind up adding as I revise. I usually do. But I’m rarely this far below my word target, which is why I’m considering adding a scene or two. To your question: I think it largely depends on the subgenre of fantasy. For epic, I would shoot for 120,000 in today’s market. Urban or dark, closer to 100,000. Since I’ve written something that straddles a couple of subgenres — elements of urban mixed in with historical — I was shooting for something in between. But it may be (as A.J. implies in his comment below) that at 92,000 or so, I’m actually in the right range. It just feels short to me.

    Alistair, thanks. Yes, at 150,000 words, you’re a bit high for today’s market. My inclination, were I in your position, would be to see how much I can do by tightening prose before I start attacking the actual structure of my book. With 30,000 words or so to cut, you might have to resort to that eventually. But first see if there is stuff in there that is superfluous to your plotting or that is too wordy. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a better notion of what story elements you might need to cut.

    Lancer, thank you. Glad you found the post helpful (and the analogy illuminating).

    Faith, you’re not predictable, and I hope that what I wrote didn’t seem to imply that you were. It’s simply a matter of diagnosing the problem, and it sounded from your email that you had done just that. I’m sure that if the book was already littered with corpses, you’d have found another way.

    A.J., thanks. As I say, usually brevity is NOT my problem. As for why I’m concerned about this book, I think part of it is that I come from the CKF tradition and am used to writing longer books. Anything under 100K feels like flash fiction to me…. Really, I think it’s a matter of having in mind a length for this book that closely mirrored the length of the first volume in the series. I don’t want there to be a big difference between the two, and with this coming in shorter than any book I’ve ever written before, I feel that I need to raise the word count. The contract, I believe, specifies 100K, and I’d like to get as close to that figure as I can. Mostly, it’s just personal preference. As a reader, I tend to enjoy longer books, and would feel cheated if a book seemed too short. I’m guarding against that, I suppose.

  • AJ, I don’t know about the subgenre David writes, but my UF contract specifies 100,000 words. I write very dense prose so I can usually squeeze in 110,000 or more into the same page count. Now I’m curious. I wonder what everyone else’s mandated word count is? Is anyone willing to share?

  • Thieftaker books = 100,000 each. My previous epic fantasy contracts specified 120,000 each.

  • I’m used to 100,000 as a target though my thrillers often got longer and a recent book got as high as 140,000. My editors have sometimes suggested triming down which has as much to do with the shape/movement of the book and I’ve never had a mandatory limit which I’ve felt hedl to contractually. My children’s/YA book ran about 90,000 and my editor told me their target was usually closer to 75,000. The editing process reduced the book some but added other elements and the finished book wound up being just under 87,000 words. I didn’t know if they’d want a further cut, but they went with it at that.

  • My mysteries and thrillers were specified at 120,000.

    And no, David, I wasn’t feeling slighted when I said I was predictable. We all play to our strengths and I do dead bodies very well. Which sounds all wrong, but you know what I mean.

  • Deb S

    Agent Colleen Lindsay did a post on wordcount broken down by subgenre. I bookmarked it for reference. The date on the link says 2008, but the post was updated in Sept 2010, so it should be pretty accurate.

  • Thank you for the advice! I think I will look at it exactly how you suggested.

  • A.J., thanks for the info. I’ve had similar experiences — editors have recommended that I cut, but then the book has grown in rewrites, offsetting the trimming.

    Faith, glad to hear it. And yeah, that sounded just a little weird.

    Deb, thanks very much for the link. Very helpful stuff. I recommend that everyone check it out.

    Alistair, glad to help!

  • Yedra

    I have a newbie question related to word counts. I’m working on the first draft of my first book (told you I was a newbie). What’s the general rule for the number of words on a page for a printed book? I’m trying to figure out if my chapters are the appropriate length, and I haven’t run across a word-processor-page-to-printed-page conversion.

    Love the site, I’ve been following for months and always find it helpful.

  • All this talk of word count brings to mind the key question — How are you counting your words? Do you go simply by what your word processor tells you, or do you use the traditional method of 250 x # of pages = total word count? The difference can be huge. As I stated in my earlier comment, I’m coming in a bit light, but that’s going by my word processor’s count. Using the traditional method (I use a Courier font which is a true font with each character taking up the same amount of space), I’m actually just nearing a perfect 100k.

  • Mikaela

    Whoa! According to Word, my current word count is 43 000 words. I multiplied 250 x 221, and according to that my wordcount is 55000! Why is the difference so big?

  • Stuart, I’m using my word processor’s word count, because I believe that’s the most accurate count. Mikaela, your “250x” count is entirely dependent on your font size. I tend to use Courier New 11 pitch, because the 12 pitch leaves me with page counts that tend to be too long with respect to word count. That 250 per page count that Stuart mentions is an ideal, but one that I find my computer rarely achieves. Courier New 11 gives me closer to 260-270 words per page, whereas 12 pitch gives me about 230-240. I like the look of the slightly smaller font. Going by Stuart’s method, my word count as a factor of pages would actually be only about 2500 words higher than it actually is. But if you write a lot of dialogue, the page system will tend to exaggerate your word count; on the other hand, a lot of exposition will leave you with a lower page-based count than you’d otherwise expect.

  • Mikaela

    I think I’ll focus on finishing the revision before thinking more about final wordcount! 🙂

  • Yedra, sorry to have missed your comment earlier. It posted after my last comment. Not too be too glib, but the answer to your question, as is so often the case, is “It depends.” Mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks, and hardcovers all have different word-per-page standards, and even those standards are affected by the size of the print. I have had books of similar lengths print to quite different page counts because my publisher, for one reason or another, used different font sizes. But just as a for instance, my book THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, one of my most recent fantasies, was right around 140,000 words long. That would be about 560 manuscript pages (double-spaced, one inch margins, using an 11 or 12 point font). The hardcover was 360 pages or so. The mass market paperback was 450 pages. It never came out in trade paperback. All that said, your chapter lengths are really not something to worry about too much. I’ve seen books with all lengths of chapters. For instance, on my shelf right now I have two books by the same SF author. Both are about 500 pages long (they’re paperbacks). One has 34 chapters. The other has 66. You probably don’t want your chapters running to 8,000 or 10,000 words, but other than having them be way too long, I don’t think you can really get in trouble with chapter lengths. Write your chapters to the length that feels right and you’ll probably be fine.

  • Tom G

    Coming in under projected word count is never my problem. My Urban Fantasy 1st draft was 165K. I trimmed it down to 107K. I wrote only epic fantasies prior to this effort, so I come by my “problem” honestly. I’m learning.

  • Tom G

    Dear Abby,
    I used Times New Roman, 12. I’m also confused by how to measure word count. Words per page can vary between 220 to 280. If I used the 250 words per page rule, that adds another 10k to my manuscript, and they puts me over target (again).
    Color Me Confused

  • Educational post, David (as always). I don’t think the comments on this one are going to come up short by anyone’s word-count though, so I’ll leave it at that… 😉

  • Tom, I’m usually in the same position. Low word counts are rarely an issue for me. As to the Dear Abby, this is why I prefer to use the actual word count as calculated by my word processing software. It takes out the guess work.

    Ed, thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Young_Writer

    Low word counts are always an issue for me. I think it’s because I’m such a vicious editor I cut out nearly all of the adjectives and some descriptive paragraphs. I usually have to add subplots or a new scene that’ll bring out my characters.

  • Unicorn

    Sorry for commenting late again. Someday this list of comments will become a CKF 🙂 I love the term, by the way, even if I am attached to dogs.
    My WIP is zooming up to 120 000 words already, my longest yet, and I’m just getting closer to the climax, a couple of chapters away. And now I have two questions.
    The story is nearly 120 000 words long, but only 33 chapters. Is it better to split some of the longer chapters in two, which could result in many chapters ending on a cliffhanger? Or is it better to shorten the overall word count?
    Question two, and sorry it’s a little off topic: Can you have too many action/combat scenes? If they all influence the actual story, can there be too many? Do they become a bore for the reader if there are too many? And how to avoid an anticlimax?
    Thanks for the post… I was pretty ignorant of average word counts for fantasy and began to worry when my WIP shot over 100 000 words.

  • Alexa, each of us has a writing voice — some are sparser than others — and it sounds as though you have found a style and an approach that suits your tastes and your work. That’s a good thing, even if it does leave you with word count issues now and again.

    Unicorn, I’m a dog lover, too. Though, generally I like the bigger breeds…. To your questions: As I mentioned in a comment above, chapter length is almost entirely a matter of personal preference. I actually like to end my chapters on cliffhangers, and so I don’t see a problem with splitting some of your longer chapters, so long as those cliffhanger endings work stylistically and from a narrative perspective. But it sounds like you’ll also need to cut your word count. You seem to be headed for 140-150K, and that’s long for today’s market, particularly for a first-time author. Yes, it is possible to have too many action scenes for a couple of reasons. 1) After a while, unless they’re all truly unique, they can begin to blur in the reader’s mind and thus lose their distinctiveness. 2) Having too many can blunt the emotional power of all, and if your main characters keep on entering battles and winning, or at least surviving, that sense of peril that should accompany the reader as he/she steps into the new battle begins to fade. 3) As your questions suggest, these battles can start to become ho-hum affairs, and they can make it harder for you to top them all when you write your climactic scenes. It may be that you need to combine a few of your battles, so that there are fewer of them but each is more memorable and more compelling. That said, I could be totally wrong. You know your book better than anyone, and so if each battle feels absolutely necessary to you, if each has an important role to play in developing your broad narrative goals, and if each seems unique and therefore interesting to your readers, then by all means, keep them all. I hope that’s somewhat helpful.

  • Ack! Getting my response in before we cross the Threshold Of Relevance … 😉

    I really like the meal analogy, David. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, because while I work on the rewrite of my WIP, I have to deal with it in two parts: splitting a 100K story into a 3-story arc, which means cutting it apart, and then bulking up each part with more plot and description and … well, everything, so that I wind up with 3 60-70K stories. I have avoided apple-cart scenes so far. But I have had to deepen the entire story.

    Honestly, it gets a bit draining at times, because the rewrite is taking far longer than I want it to, but that’s more a function of Real Life intruding. It’s nearing containment.

  • That sounds like quite a challenge, Moira. I take it you’re working on a YA, and that’s why you’re shooting for 60-70K? Because otherwise it seems to me that 100K is where you want to be. Best of luck with the work.

  • Yes, I meant to add that. The story is YA. But it was a skeleton at 100K, and I’ve been warned not to shoot that high with YA manuscripts. So splitting it up made sense. Thanks!

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the advice. It’s rather marvellous to have professionals to run to with my troubles. I know I say this a lot but thanks again for Magical Words.

  • Moira, Unicorn, glad to help! And U, we never get tired of hearing people tell us that we’ve helped. That’s what the site is all about.