The first thing most publishers, editors, and agents will ask is "how long is your piece?" or "what is your word count?" Now, what they mean is (for books) did you research enough to know general fiction shouldn't be 100,000 words, but historical romance or fantasy can be? For articles, they really want to know, "will it fit on the page?" and for short stories "will it fit in the room allotted for the cover design?"

Sorry, but it's true

No matter what they want to know they make you focus on this. Here's the simple truth: don't ever pay attention to word count until you're done. Do research your genre and know what to expect, and you should find your finished product should never be more than 10% over or under your target. Hence why in Category fiction the range is 60,000-100,000 words, so you should aim for 80,000 in the back of your mind, or any number in that range if you have a damn good reason. Always remember editing will drastically change the numbers, as it should, so at the end of that is when you should first really look at the total.

Like most of my posts this will be equal ranting about bad published authors and an attempt to give writers tips. Just know that if you ever write with word count in mind, you're failing. The only exception is a limit for a short story contest, but in the world of novels, this is not paint by numbers.

Paint-by-numbers gives you generic templates, and begets this farce

For example, the common adage is that chapters should be 20-25 pages long. When was the last time you read one that long? Also, unless you self-publish (in which case you get a template for formatting to a book size page) you will never know how your story will change from your MS Word window to the finished product until you get your proof copy. So aiming for that goal is like planning your vacation around Bigfoot sightings.

What happens to people who finish with a word count vastly over or under their goal? Say the goal was 80,000, the minimum is 60,000 and you wrote 42,391? have two choices. if you're lazy and don't give a shit, go back and add filler. Make scenes longer. Give more POV scenes from secondary characters. Use 30 adjectives to describe everything...and done. 

This works just as well

If you do give a shit about a product bearing your name that will outlive you, you have to go back to the beginning. You have to go to your summary and outline. You made a mistake, and here's how you find it: you fucked up the pacing, buck-o, the conflict. Conflict is the pacing tool you need most. It won't stand alone, but it's your Excalibur. The job ain't getting done without it.

Here's where the awful workload of editing gets to you. You need to tick off (if you didn't already) the conflicts in your outline (remember the summary is the 3 page summation and the outline is the 10-20 page detailed guide). Have them marked as the various types of conflict and then go back and read your story. At each conflict as it arises, note on the outline the corresponding page and chapter number, or for you zen word processing masters, create bookmarks at the conflict that link to your outline.

Now the bad, lazy writers could do this, and their solution would be to put more filler between the conflict. NO! That is NOT right. You need to put in MORE CONFLICT. Now look at the numbers, how many pages elapse between conflicts? Let's say 10 pages, and you need to write 40,000 more words. Now look at any full page and calculate the word count on it. Let's say each page has 400 words. So you need 100 more pages. Ten pages elapse between conflicts, ergo, to get that you need to add 10 more conflicts.

This can be done by giving characters larger parts, adding new characters, writing new scenes, adding new dimensions to scenes. If you're adding something major like a new sub-plot or character, check it against your summary for coherence. Does the new dimension fit into the summary? If yes go with it. If no, back to the drawing board. There's a reason you should write your summary and outline, you will likely need them. If you're just deepening scenes, adding new conflicts to the same arc, unless they are major they need not be noted in your summary, but they do belong in your outline.

Bored yet? The good stuff is coming up soon, by which I mean SEX!!! 

This seems daunting but can be done.The first Marly Jackson mystery started as a 40,000 word novella and to make it a novel I did the process above. Oh, it took 2 months, then more to edit and so forth, but it was worth it. I get a lot of fan letters praising the twists and turns. Conflict, baby, that's the magic of that tool. 

Now before you say "fuck that shit, writing the first 40,000 was hard enough" you need to know why it's worth it. I pick on Angela Knight a lot, and it's actually because I respect her. As a modern short story erotica author I think there's none better and whenever she writes a short story to be packaged in a collection, I'm the first in line to buy it. I bought the first several of her "Master" novel series and recently I've been re-reading them, I couldn't remember why I disliked them. You might have an idea by now.

And the reason is...she wrote a dynamic short story and had to extend it, and used filler. It's like stretching meatloaf with flour, something my Polish grandmother used to do (feeding 6 kids, their spouses, and a nearly 2 dozen grandchildren is trying on the budget). The culinary result was nearly inedible and the literary result is equally unpalatable. I just re-finished "Master of Wolves" and never has anything pissed me off so much. If I had to read one more page about the good vampires & witches who were not in any way, shape, or form, necessary to the plot (nor Arthur & Guinevere's sex life) I would scream.

I promised there'd be sex, and saying the word twice DOES count

Now she did the wrong thing: her word count was woefully shy so she went for filler. Again, as a short story author, she is fucking amazing. Her characters are rounded, the dialogue is snappy, the sex sizzles, and you laugh. Erotica that makes you laugh is incredibly hard to write, and she deserves props. It's the novels that fail to live up to sky-high potential that frustrate me so.

Category fiction (such as romance, paranormal, science fiction, fantasy) is littered with people like this. Part of it is that prior to the self-publishing revolution writing short stories was the best way to get notice and garner contracts in category fiction, so many people perfected the craft of short story writing, but when it came to novels they were a bit lost. 

There's a failing of genius: when the probability is low enough you completely discount it. That's right, geniuses are more likely to confuse low probability and impossibility, while others equate low probability with a fair chance, such as a lotto ticket. This is what caused Chernobyl. The probabilities of leaks were so low the geniuses in charge didn't bother to create hazard backup systems. Genius writers do the same: the probability that they have to change or adapt their style to a longer format is so low, they don't bother to learn how.

There are no do-overs in nuclear science or good writing

One good thing about the self publishing revolution is that if you discover you can only write novellas well, go ahead and publish them, just charge less. Remember the sneaky back door: once you write 4 in a series you can publish volumes of 2 bound together and charge full novel price...or more. But for those of you more concerned with quality than profit, do it right. Remember the formula is you come up short:

  • Note conflict in your outline
  • Note corresponding page numbers in your work
  • Calculate how many pages elapse on average between conflict (call that C)
  • Calculate word count of one page (call that E)
  • Divide the number of words needed by that number (call that N)
  • Divide THAT number with average number pages elapsed between conflict (C)
  • SO: if F is needed conflicts, the formula is  F= ((N/E)/C)
  • Go back to your outline and add that many conflicts
  • Check the new conflicts against the summary to make sure they fit
  • Rewrite them into your piece
  • Repeat as necessary
  • Edit for coherence  

Now, what if you went over? Well, edit, edit, edit. edit out the extra stuff such as too many adjectives, scenes that add nothing, shorten and tighten up where possible. Repeat as necessary until you reach the maximum limit for your genre, then let your editor(s) know they should do the same as well as edit grammar and style.

Remember, no matter how much you love writing it is work, so be ready to break a sweat. Like all good art, you get what you put in. Writing is fun, editing is how you make your money and garner respect.