On Wordcounts and Madness

You know those little aha! moments when a problem you’ve been struggling with suddenly becomes clear? And then you can’t understand why it was such a problem originally?

I received a passing comment on my writing while I was querying TIC that at first frustrated me. I’d mentioned my word count to another writing friend – 130k – and she’d responded with concern.

Isn’t that a bit… high?

What? No – if anything it could be longer. But her comment wiggled in my mind, refusing to leave. I had done my due-diligence and researched word count ranges… once or twice. Back in the day. I recalled that 130k was acceptable. Just look that those fantasy tomes bricking the shelves. Besides, my novel couldn’t be too long. My writing style was to add layers and layers upon the thin skeleton of a first draft – rewriting, tweaking, fleshing out, never concerned about too much.

I googled what the acceptable ranges were not so much to prove her wrong, but to make myself feel better (never a good sign). The results were consistent: again and again and again, 120k was quoted at the limit, and 130k was right out.

There are exceptions, of course. Life wouldn’t be interesting without exceptions. Did I consider TIC an exception? …for a while, yes. (Palm, meet forehead.)

Then another passing comment popped my bubble. My writing was overburdened, said the email. I failed to parse this, handed my first ten pages to my wife, and said: can you show me how this is overburdened?

And my wife, with her phd and her years of tight, frivolous scientific writing honed by the unmerciful hand of her PI, easily removed 200 words. When I reread those pages, nothing was missing. I understood.

We writers get caught up in our words and our worlds. We can see the room our MC is standing in and we’re convinced that the reader must also see it as we do – down to the color of the curtains. Fantasy writers especially are prone to over description. But are those curtains important? Unless the MC’s planning to rip them off the rod and make a dress out of them, no.

I had a moment of complete and absolute DUH. And then I got to work.

Everywhere I saw a word or a phrase or a sentence that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It might help set the mood – but so did the sentence before it. Or it might explain more about the world – but was that necessary to the plot? I asked each word if it served the story and if it didn’t – chop, chop.

From cutting mostly words and phrases (and rephrasing so it’s tighter), I’m down 7k. I didn’t think it would be possible. Now, it’s a game. How much can I cut on this page?

5k words to go!

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