May 9, 2012

It's How You Use It

If you're familiar with National Novel Writing Month, you'll know that the event revolves around word count and that the goal is to write a novel of 50,000 words. You may also be aware that 50,000 words is much shorter than most novels published for adults these days. The type of book I'm writing could be twice that, or more. (Speaking very, very roughly, a published book has around 300 words per page.)

Since the beginning, I've been expecting this novel to be on the long side -- and no, for those of you out there snickering, it's not because I have an embarrassing history of producing ridiculously lengthy manuscripts. THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE contains three distinct stories, so it needs a good amount of space for all the plots to unfold. I've put a lot of attention into deciding what belongs on the page and what doesn't, and at this point I feel confident that the book will be the correct length to tell the story, with no excess.

I wrote the first draft of DAMAGE during NaNoWriMo in 2007, so I was keeping careful track of the word count. It came in around 80,000 words, and I was pleased to know that I'd have plenty of room to add more to the story. When I wrote the second draft from scratch two years later, I also kept track of my daily word count (though I'd forgotten about that until I found the spreadsheet today). The second version of the book was 110,000 words, a size that seemed appropriate for the story, with even a some leeway to expand.

During this revision, I haven't focused much on word count. I'm rewriting within an existing document, doing a combination of adding new material and removing old text, so tracking words is a less useful metric. Instead, I've been keeping track of hours worked. I've also been thinking about the number of pages in each chapter and noticing the page count that's always visible at the bottom of the window.

Obviously, there's a relationship between page count and word count. They increase and decrease together, and you can estimate one from the other. But I hadn't been making those estimates, and I hadn't been running the word count feature. And more importantly, I wasn't doing any of the math about how many of the pages in the document (which contains all the novel's chapters) had been added in the course of working on this storyline.

So I was surprised when I finished the second storyline (yay!) and discovered that it's significantly longer than the first one I revised. This isn't a disaster, and I was aware that the second plot was turning out larger than planned, but the actual numbers were unexpected.

See, the story that takes place chronologically last, which is the one I revised first (sorry, this is complicated), serves as a sort of frame for the other two storylines. For structural reasons, the frame story has more chapters than the other two. I also intended to add the most new material to the frame (it's really more than a frame) while keeping the other two plots fairly stable. Therefore, I concluded that the frame would be longer than the other two.

When I revised that first storyline, the chapters tended toward a consistent length. I started the second storyline and was a bit alarmed to find that the chapters were all turning out longer. I decided that was fine, and I guessed that as a result, the two stories might be about the same size. At no point did I do any actual math on this to see how far off my guess was. In hindsight, the page and chapter discrepancies clearly meant I was creating far more words and pages for the second story.

As I said, this is not a disaster, and I'm continuing to stand behind the length of the manuscript. The third storyline will have the same number of chapters as the second and is supposed to be around the same length -- but I guess we'll see how it goes.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent talks about how to build complexity into texts without undercutting the integrity of the story: "complexity is built up in small moments, but each of those moments must be clear in and of themselves. If the contradictions in your narrative aren't presented in a clear way, in a way that allows the reader to easily grasp them, then you're not building complexity into the text."


Anna Scott Graham said...

Funny you bring this up; I'm revising the second of a trilogy, and it's probably going to come in at a svelte 75K or so, while the first currently sits at 88K. The third, ahem, is going to end up over 125K. Sometimes it's difficult to equally distribute plot; it sort of falls where it does. I'm not going to worry about it; plenty occurs in the second novel, all necessary to set the third book in motion. Just one of those little ironies, I suppose. :)))

Lisa Eckstein said...

Anna, I guess what we can conclude is that stories take as long as they take! I agree it's not worth worrying about. And for a trilogy, if one of the books is going to be longer, it seems like it makes sense for it to be the final one, so your counts sound good to me!

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