I’ve come to a point in the writing process where I’m starting to have concerns about word length. The old adage goes: quality, not quantity, but there are other matters concerning me besides whether or not my novel is a big thick brick of complete dribble.
After many hours toiling away, I am approaching the completion of the first part of the book. This part constitutes, by my estimation, about forty percent of the storyline. So far, I have written just under 270 pages and approximately 70,000 words – that’s a lot of pages and I’m quite proud of the output.
But here’s the thing: doing the quick calculations based on work performed thus far, my trusty calculator suggests that, by the time I’ve completed my first draft of the novel, it will be 675 pages and 175,000 words long.
The average length of a novel is between 80,000 and 120,000 words and even after inevitable cuts on subsequent drafts (using Stuart MacBride’s stated estimate of 25% cut as a guide – it’s in his blog somewhere but god damned if I can find it), I end up with 131,000 words – i.e. over 500 pages.
Even if I wield my pen like a Kurosawa samurai, taking down words with little prejudice, I will still end up with a novel on the high end of the average length scale.
What’s the problem, I pretend to hear you ask?
Well, the decision on length (cough), unfortunately, comes down to marketing. Will agents and publishers look favourably upon an unknown writer who has delivered a tomb of a book, weighing in at 500 plus pages? Will readers, picking up my novel for the first time, think, “I haven’t heard of this guy before, it looks interesting, but it also looks like a bitch to get through, and my arthritis has been acting up lately, I don’t think I will be able to hold this book for the required amount of time without sustaining some serious damage to my wrists” or something like that?
My story isn’t a broad sweeping epic, although it does contain women doing housework. However, it probably needs to be in the upper echelons of the word count scale for the story to be properly told.
So I have a dilemma. What to do about an escalating word count, if anything?
One of the options I have toyed with is to cut out a sizeable chunk from the book. It’s a hard decision to make, not one that rests easily with me. Without this chunk, the story could probably hold its head above water and be a reasonably entertaining read. With it, my novel will have deeper layers and intricate plot lines and will do more than hold its head above water - it will be setting records at the Olympic pool. More importantly, with this section of the book intact, the novel will remain as I originally intended it to be.
The dilemma remains: do I drop out a good portion of my novel to reduce the word count? At this stage, I’m finding it difficult to make this decision, to lose so much of my original vision for the sake of meeting some market determined word length. They say sometimes you have to kill your babies (i.e. cut out some of the best bits or characters that you have written), but I don’t think I have it in me to murder so many innocent children. Not at this stage anyway.
My decision for now is to soldier on with the intention of writing the complete novel in all its original glory, i.e. including Mr Sizeable Chunk. To hell with marketing. After the second and third drafts are complete, after the 25% has been taken out and the book reads like a well oiled machine with pages flying by faster than you can read them, where quantity has been replaced with quality, where Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing have all been adopted, only at that point will I look at the word count and make a decision.
Then, I may well have to start sharpening me knives.