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