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  • Dave Butler

Size Matters

By Dave Butler

Does size matter? Ah yes, the eternal question.

Now that I have your attention, I’m fascinated by how many times I’m asked about the number of words in a novel. It’s as common a question as how long it takes to write one.

Word counts follow standard rules-of-thumb, although they’re commonly described as a range rather than a single number. For example, short stories are between 1500 and 30, 000 words, novellas are 30,000 – 50,000, while full novels range from 50,000 – 110,000 words.

For novels, that range is surprisingly wide, but much depends on the genre. For example, each category of child/youth books has its own standard, from 300 – 800 words for picture books, to 200 – 3500 words for early readers, to as much as 25,000 – 40,000 words for middle grades. Thriller/mystery/crime novels typically average between 70,000 and 90,000 words, romances from 70,000 to 100,000, while science fiction and fantasy are often the granddaddies of word count, climbing to as high as 150,000.

For non- or even rookie writers, these word counts are either meaningless, or utterly daunting.

I find it’s easier to think about pages or chapters. Knowing that a typical page of double-spaced writing (12 font) is about 250 words, writing a novel of 100,000 words translates to 400 pages.

If each chapter averages 2500 words, then a full novel is 40 chapters.

Some writers I know try for 1,000 words each day; that means a novel takes them 100 days to complete if they do that each time they sit down to write. At 500 words per day, or 2500 words per day, well, you can do the math.

For every author I know, writing a novel happens one word at a time, once sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time.

While writing, I don’t keep my eye on the word count on the lower left of the Word tool-bar. However, I admit I do occasionally check to gauge my progress. It is certainly satisfying to see the number grow, although on the toughest days of writing, a slow pace can be frustrating. Only 250 words today?

If they are good words, however, if they flow and are tight and concise and contribute to the story, that’s fine.

On good days and bad, I love that feeling of building a story, one word at a time.

Because I am more of a pantser than a plotter, I often reach the half-way point of a story and feel an energy ebb, a slowing of the creative juices. That’s when it’s time to take a break, or to pull out the magic recipe cards I use to record ideas for future chapters – what needs to happen, and in what order – then spread them out on a large table or kitchen island. That process of gazing ahead is often enough to get me moving again.

Most of all, I love the feeling of finishing a first full draft. For my mysteries and thrillers, that first manuscript – as bad as it is likely to be – can be anywhere from 110,000 or 120,000 words.

I always print that first draft, punch three holes in each page, place it all in a binder, then hide it in a closet for a month or more.

When I come back to it, when I crack open the binder with red pen and sticky notes in hand, the fun (and hard work) begins. I’m full of expectation; it’s like exploring mountain trails both familiar and new, reconnecting with new friends and old. I vividly remember some of the writing, usually the pieces that most challenged me when I first created them. Other parts, often written in early morning before my brain awakes, are like reading someone else’s work for the first time.

Once I’ve worked through the manuscript from start to finish, it’s no longer pristine. Hundreds of words are scratched out, entire paragraphs removed. Question marks and scribbled notes and angry arrows fill the margins. This makes no sense. This doesn’t match with the last chapter. Didn’t that character have red hair early in the book? Green post-its line the outer edges of pages as if framing a kindergarten arts-and-crafts project.

Once I’ve done that, I return to the computer, save the manuscript with a new date, then begin editing.

This is where I feel a new form of progress, very different from first putting words to paper. Here, words disappear, sentences tighten, become more succinct. In each sentence, I take a strange sense of pride at finding ways to remove words while maintaining its purpose.

As I edit, one part of me laments the loss of words, as if I’m disparaging my own hard work. After watching the word count climb earlier in the process, it can be tough to see the number drop from 110,000, to 105,000, then below 100,000.

But with each drop in the word count, I know the story is improving (or at least, it should be…). It’s punchier, it flows better, it makes more sense.

With each incision, each deletion, I move toward the essence of the story. In some ways, editing a manuscript is like a natural wildfire in a forest, removing dead-wood, returning nutrients to the soil, and opening the stand to sunlight -- a smoky but necessary rejuvenation.

In writing as in ecosystems, that is a good thing.

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