Tag Archives: word count

Numbers and Words

21 Nov

The first time I wrote something that was more than a couple thousand words, I really thought, “Wow, I could be a writer.” I’m sure it was high school and when I broke through that multi-page barrier, it probably felt like a major breakthrough. It’s hard to put that into context now. On a regular basis these days, I will write a few thousand words and just abandon them – or at the very least, just put them aside, in perpetuity.

When I wrote a story that broke the five thousand word limit, it kind of blew my mind. It was double digits in page count and I couldn’t believe it. There was such a sense of empowerment in the work that I totally ignored how terrible it was. I kept going, and every artificial milepost impressed the hell out of me. About the time I hit 30,000 words my storytelling muscles had been completely exhausted. I’d written myself in circles and had no plan for moving forward.

I stuck to short stories for a while after that, and loved carving out tiny pieces of madness. I could embrace the fire for a brief time, but not get burned. And then I wrote a gigantic mess of a novel, hammering out thousands of words a day – writing in the morning, at night, anytime I could find to work. In a couple of weeks I had blown past the fifty thousand word mark and sailed higher and higher. It was a good feeling. Unfortunately, there was nothing in that steaming pile of crazy that could be salvaged. It sat there, mocking me with how terrible it was – goading me to knock it off its smug perch. And when I set out to surpass that record, I hit 60,000 – then 70,000 – on a new project. It was awful too, but in a much different way. There was all the structure and story elements a book needed to be a living thing.

My current and most recent record is just a hair over 110,000 words in length. I know it can be trimmed down – in fact, I’m counting on it. But the size of the work isn’t what matters. This time around, I know better how to put a story together, and what order the bits and pieces need to be in. Whether you think of it as building an engine of interlocking pieces, or sewing up body parts to build a new Frankenstein’s monster, if the gears and guts and motors and organs aren’t where they need to be it is going to be a messy failure. And although I have plenty of bad things to say about my latest/greatest work (so far), I know that it a complete thing, all on its own. I can see how it works, and I’m proud of it.

When I think of works that I’ve read and enjoyed – or fallen in love with – the size of it doesn’t matter so much. Of Mice and Men, or The Old Man and the Sea are incredibly short and packed with power. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are impossibly huge by comparison, but couldn’t be done with less. The range in size of the most famous books, or my favorite books, is vast. In my attempts to tell a story, the hardest part is not figuring out how many words to use, but which words to use. When I look at infographics, like the one below, my brain doesn’t know how to process it. Which is partly why I enjoy this particular one so much. There is a lot of information, but very little commentary on it.

Like so many other things in life, it is easy to get caught up in looking at the wrong criteria. The price, or color, or perceived value of a thing can be misleading. As a writer – and especially as an editor! – my best work comes through when I can cut away the crap, and focus on the utility. Does this work? What doesn’t work? Did I say what I needed to say? How can I make it better? It’s a messy process, it’s a deeply personal affair, and there is no guarantee of success. What do you do? What can you do? You go to work. You write. That is the only way to make things better.

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Word? Words.

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Counting Words

13 Oct
Mm hm.

Mm hm.

I have written a lot of words. That reads a little funny when I write it – I imagine it would sound funny if I said it aloud – but it is accurate. It would be interesting if I could have a magical, floating counter that told me what my lifetime word count was, at any given moment. I can almost picture it, at the edge of my vision, the manual dials clicking up as I type these words. What would the count be? If it included everything, starting from the first time I scrawled my name on the kitchen wall with a greasy crayon? I cannot conceive of it. In the sixth grade alone, I probably wrote more than in the next ten years combined.

Somehow, I don’t think it would be encouraging. It might have the opposite effect – after all, these particular words in front of me are special. They exist right now, as I create them, and put them together. If they aren’t special, does that just make them part of an indiscriminate mass? I suppose that it is the destiny of all our words, no? At some point in the future, everything you have written becomes just another statistic – another pile of characters, data, digits.

Uh oh. I think I may have dropped the existential soap again. Quick, gotta spin this away from the metaphorical abyss of navel-gazing doom…

So, I wrote a book. It’s a pretty big book too – at least, for me it’s big. It weighs in right about one hundred and ten thousand words. Since I was aiming for around ninety thousand (give or take), I’m pretty damn happy. If even ten percent of it needs to get cropped, the book is still in the proper range. Which is a funny way of looking at it.

We don’t talk about most other art this way, do we? Do you know how small the Mona Lisa is? Or how big your God’s finger is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Does anybody really measure the success of statue on how many tons it might be? It strikes me as peculiar that stories are counted, and measured, and judged on their length and girth.

The Stranger is a powerful piece of literature, and no less daunting to read just because it is (relatively) short. On the other hand, Infinite Jest is so dense and impenetrable that it would still feel thick if it were one-tenth the page count. I fundamentally don’t believe the size of a piece will determine its quality or efficacy in delivering a story. More pages equal more words, and more words equal a larger canvas to tell your story. And often, the stories don’t need that much room to move. Maybe I’m blind, or too narrow in my focus, but that is how I see it.

Of course, there is the commercial aspect. And some would say it is all-important. Who cares what your story is, if there’s no one there to read it, right? And to a large extent, that is true. For me, these words – just over a hundred thousand of them – represent my latest obsession. I still can’t think about it in those terms. I still have to cool off, let myself decompress, gain just a little bit of editorial distance. Otherwise, it may just end up another set of meaningless numbers – an anonymous jumble of funny shapes in a file somewhere.

Many years ago – when I first decided to be a ‘writer’ – a friend asked me if I was going to work on a novel. I replied something to the effect of, “I don’t hate myself that much.” Well, I’ve written a couple of novels now. And precious few of my words have ever seen the light of day. I wonder what that says about me and my precious words?