I’ve just finished the third draft of my new book ‘Cruel Tide’, and the last thing I needed to do before I sent it off to the Editor for the first stage of its journey to publication was to count the final word total. It’s a bit of a chore and half way through I wondered, why am I doing this?
There are probably several reasons for counting words, both as you go along and as a total. I’ve always believed, for example, that a full-length novel had to have a minimum number of words so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Below 80,000 or so wouldn’t be enough. Where that number came from I’m not sure: I must have heard it on one of the writing courses I’ve been on and it stuck. Many of the novels you see on the shelves are much longer than that, and are usually commented upon for their length. I recall ‘A Suitable Boy’ when it first came out bring described admiringly in terms of its staggering length, and more recently ‘The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I read all of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, and loved it even though I skipped through some of the political background pretty fast, but didn’t get past the first few pages of ‘The Goldfinch’ before I ran out of sympathy for the main characters and gave up. At present I’m reading the first volume of a two-part biography of Charles Darwin, but at 540 pages it’s so big and heavy that it’s very difficult to read in bed, and the weight when travelling is enough to drive you back to Kindle.
When I wrote my first novel I was obsessed with making sure it had enough words. As a consequence I rambled on far too much and in the final painful edit, having been advised to cut, cut, and cut again, I excised nearly 40,000 words, including entire characters, sub-plots and yards of riveting description, and the book was better for it, although still not as tight as it needed to be, looking back. The second and third books of the trilogy all worked out about the same, around 90,000, and that seemed to me to be about right. Each chapter was between three and five thousand, and that felt about right too, to keep the story chugging along. Every chapter had to have a point and a contribution to make, and should leave the reader wanting to read on.
The fourth one, just completed, is a bit different as I’ve switched genre from ‘local family saga’ to ‘crime fiction’, and have tried to adopt the three-act structure that I learned from Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan at their splendid workshop a year or so ago. Hall started as a screen writer I think, and he was particularly clear about the necessity of the three acts, each with its own purpose and dynamic, and the parallel internal and external dramas. Maybe that’s why this one has turned out to be somewhat longer than the previous ones. The word count just completed came to nearly 114,000, which was a surprise. This time I’ve been editing quite severely as I went along, to avoid the intimidating sprawl that requires a post-facto hatchet and all the perils of continuity that may ensue.
This longer length is curiously satisfying. It makes me feel like a real grown-up writer, which is rather sad for a woman in her sixties who’s been writing in one form or another all her life. As I have read the ms closely over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reasonably happy about the development of the characters, they way they look and especially the way they speak, and the whorls and twists of the plot. It tells a readable tale without the pace slowing down too much in some places. And I have tried to avoid the research information that so irritates me in some of the books I read, where the writer seems bent on squeezing in far more detail than is necessary, however authentic it might be.
What really matters, of course, is not the number of words but the choice of them – their meaning and imagery and stimulus and sound and balance and poetry. I wish I were more of a poet.