How long is long enough?

Last week’s issue was the business of ‘murdering darlings’. This week I’m looking at the carnage and wondering – to use yet another metaphor – whether I’ve thrown the baby out with the

The main victim of last week’s murderous rampage through the third draft was the opening of the new story, where I took four chapters to get to the first real tension, although I thought the discerning reader would see the story’s inexorable decline into noir and be prepared to wait. There was merit in some of those early scenes, but in the end they just weren’t justifiable and out they went.

There’s no doubt that the 4th draft now gets going faster and rattles along, but when I sliced away at the rather turgid middle section as well I noticed that the final word count had shrunk by an astonishing 15,000 words, from 99,000 down to 83,000, and I began to wonder whether I’d been too enthusiastic.

I checked around. How long is too short for a thriller/crime story? My previous two had been over 100,000 words, which is probably why this one felt a little thin. But other opinions were reassuring : anything between 70,000 to 100,000, said someone whose experience I respect.

What I need to do now is step away from the text for a day or two and go back to it with fresher eyes. Have I thrown the baby away? Which fragments of the erstwhile opening chapters need to be included, to add depth without length? Sometimes all it takes is a remark or a look or a thought to enrich the reader’s view of the scene, and that will be my task for the next re-write. I also need to look out for anywhere further on in the story where reference are made to passages that are now lying on the ‘cutting room floor’.

I suspect that by the the time I’ve added in one or two potentially dramatic and useful scenes and fleshed out the cuttingroomfloor-300x300opening details just a little more I’ll be up to the 85,000 word mark, exactly midway between the parameters suggested by expert colleague. Let’s hope so. I’m getting to the stage now when I never want to see this manuscript ever again.

Apart from any other considerations, a slightly shorter book will make for faster and thereby cheaper production, especially proof-reading. After the embarrassment of inadequate proof-reading in one of my previous books, I’ll be doing whatever it takes this time to get that the stage of the process properly covered, even it costs a lot.

Audiobooks: can I do it all myself?

headphones-with-microphone-on-white-backgr-clip-artIt’s amazing what a relief it is to have decided already that I won’t have a new book out until mid-2018. For the first time in five years I feel I can step back a little and not be plunged immediately into the research and planning of a new book, while simultaneously up to my ears in promotion of the last one. This time I can do the usual round of WI meetings and library groups and still let my mind roam freely around ideas for the next project.

The new book will be a project, of course, but before I get deep into it I’m thinking in greater detail about a new way of presenting at least some of the books on my growing backlist. I’ve done the paperback and the ebook for each book in my original trilogy – Between the Mountains and the Sea – and now I want to do them as audiobooks. It’s been on my mind for a while, but hitherto discounted as too difficult, or too expensive and risky. Now I have the time to break down the audiobook challenge into its component parts and see if I could actually manage it.

The first step came from a casual conversation at our weekly coffee catchup about some very popular local slide shows and where the voiceovers are recorded. A phone call and a few emails later I visited the studio just twenty minutes from my home, to meet the man who owns and runs it. It was a really impressive set-up, and I had the chance to discuss the detailed practicalities of abridging and reading the books myself, to make each one – if possible – fall within the number of minutes on a disc. And would CDs be the best option, given the recent advances in the technology? I have to be careful that in going for the latest technology I don’t put the product beyond the reach of many of my potential audience.

If I take the CD route, each disc has a maximum running time of 80 minutes: how many discs would I need for each book? If it’s more than three, it gets cumbersome and more expensive, but could I abridge sufficiently to manage a running time of 240 minutes without sacrificing the integrity of the storyGoodLiar_COVER.inddI’ve already tried abridging the first book ‘A Good Liar’ and the first cut is relatively easy: there are some sentences and even the odd paragraph that can be cut with too much damage to the story, but after that it gets really tricky. On the first attempt I managed to cut a fair chunk of the text, mainly descriptive details of setting and some extended dialogue, but would that be enough to achieve the time limit overall? Very hard to judge: the only thing to do is to ‘edit/abridge’ the whole book, check how many and what proportion of the words have been removed relative to the whole word count, do some basic sums and see whether it would fit in the 3 CD target. Abridging is always a wrench, and could be annoying for the reader, but at least if my text is abridged it will be done by the author, who is in the best position to know how it should work.

The next decision I needed to make was about whether I could read it myself, and here again the only answer is to try it and see. So I went into the studio, put on the headphones, took my cue from the man at the console and read for five minutes from the abridged copy of ‘A Good Liar’ that I’d already worked on. I managed the reading – although the wonderful microphone picked the rustle of turning pages – and enjoyed it, and was given the demo disc to take home. There are many more practical hurdles to be considered: costs, time, how many to produce, where and how, packaging, promotion, distribution. It’s all pretty outfacing. It would help for a start that I could find the courage to listen critically to the demo disc, but I haven’t found the courage to do that yet! When I finally take that plunge, I hope I feel I can do this job, because I really want to. If I can sort out all the decisions and embrace the adventure of the audiobooks, it could be so much fun!


Counting words

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.


From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.

How long is a piece of string…or a novel?

There was an interesting piece from Cath Staincliffe recently on the usefulness, or not, of word counting. I hadn’t realised that some writers do this constantly, to regulate their writing, or to reward or chastise themselves for their workrate. Cath’s view was that it was a fruitless and potentially damaging exercise, and I’ve been thinking about it.

I don’t think a poet would judge the quality of her work by the number of words, as one of the goals is to distill rather than to expand, in pursuit of the essence of meaning. Similarly, the best editing for me is when I cut rather than add: unnecessary adverbs, cliched adjectives, they all have to go, ‘decluttering’ the text. In my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, started to celebrate my 60th birthday, my fear was that I would not have enough to say and I wrote initially far than necessary, leaving myself with a massive ‘slaughter of the darlings’ in the final edit. It was a better book for the cuts, but how much better it would have been if I’d been more sparing, more discriminating, from the very start. That first book was written ‘from the outside in’ from a rambling ill-considered structure through cuts and re-writes to the final product. The process was difficult and frustrating and I vowed I would never try it again.

Book 2 ‘Forgiven’ was approached with a much firmer structure, holding back on the first draft until I was clear what I was doing. Much more satisfying, in terms of both process and product. Book 3 ‘Fallout’ is underway: no prizes for guessing how I am setting about it. I’ve learned that going from the inside out, from the core to a gradual expansion of the draft, works for me, and word count doesn’t really matter at all.

Which raises the next question: how long should a novel be? My first writing course, succinctly entitled ‘How to write a novel’, suggested 80,000 – 90,000 words, which has felt about right in my two efforts so far. But Julian Barnes has won prizes with far fewer than that, and I’m just embarking on 800 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ with no thought that this will be ‘too long’. In fact the first few pages promise so much that I’ll spread out my reading as slowly as the library will permit.

No easy answers to the word count issue. As with most things, the best – if banal – advice is to do what suits you, and aim for quality rather than quantity.