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On the Obsession with Numbers

The author contemplates revisions

My story 'The Crimes Along the Arunder' started out at 132,000 words, which, according to tradpub guidelines, is about 40,000 words too long for a mystery. It is even a bit long for a fantasy novel.

I condensed two scenes that I thought was too much traveling for my characters anyway and made two subplots into one. That got me down to 127, 000 words.

I then re-wrote two scenes and tightened dialogue to avoid a bunch of extraneous matter and repetition. I am now down to 123, 276 words.

Ok, but so what? Is it better now?

I argue that it is better. A lot of timeline confusion has been straightened out, and it is significantly less meandering. I have been careful to leave in thematic elements and to keep it coherent. Something that is mentioned earlier sticks around. The only problem is that I have eliminated some cute little bits, such as when Brynhild calls Magda a harridan. I need to be careful not to cut everything too closely to the bone or it won't be any fun to read.

Tyranny of Numbers

Traditional publishers hew close to word-counts because selling massive tomes or mini-booklets is more expensive than selling the average sized book. They have to justify how much space they take up, how much they spend on ink, and how many trees they expend on a print run. They have to be guaranteed a return on investment if they are going to blow an unusual amount of money on a book.

This isn't so much the case for self-published books. Amazon Kindle isn't spending a whole lot more to put a link to a 100,000-word romance ebook than they are with a 60,000-word romance ebook.

The genre expectations are there, however. Most non-fiction and genre fiction for adults is supposed to be between 75,000 to 90,000 words long. Mystery readers expect relatively short stories, and so do thriller readers. Fantasy and Sci-Fi's special permission to expand only goes so far before you have scared away potential readers with the massive time commitment. I know I read "Childhood's End" in part because it was one of the author's shorter works. I felt like I was sampling his goods before wasting energy on something I wasn't going to like.

How Numbers Guide

None of this is to say that these guidelines are completely worthless. These word counts can point out some important things like lazy writing.

Lazy writers come in two forms:

  1. Underwriters who aren't bothering with scene-setting or explanations.

  2. Overwriters who won't rein in their written diarrhea.

The word-count guidelines can indicate the presence of both.

Other things not reaching the word count could indicate:

  1. Mary Sue is being handed everything and the conflict is non-existent. Obstacles are all nerfed in two sentences.

  2. The basic concept, even when fully fleshed out, could be conveyed in an email. As an example, I just finished reading a book about pirates in Monterey Bay. The author resorted to including a whole chapter about boats and Hernan Cortez's captain, who probably didn't even put a foot on Monterey Bay, to reach 100 pages. Literally could have been a blog post.

  3. No subplots, interesting side-characters, or anything interesting.

Going way over your word count can indicate:

  1. Repetition. (Insert joke here about repeating yourself.)

  2. Not having a clear idea of what you want to convey. These are the 'everything is connected, so I must include random information from anywhere' writer, the 'I can't be bothered to figure out what I want to say before mouthing off' writer, and the 'I hate f#@# editing' writer. This can lead to writing the same argument 10 times, and, instead of condensing the arguments into one that conveys accurately the important information, leave in the 10 fluff-filled and meandering arguments. Often, all four types of writers are in the same person.

  3. Biting off way more than you can chew. If the pirate book guy's subject was too narrow, yours is too wide, trying to chronicle and analyze everything since the earth's crust cooled.

  4. Way too many subplots, one-off characters, and 'interesting' tangents.

In all these cases, the word count is a symptom. The work needs a serious re-write, and possibly the very idea needs an overhaul.

How Numbers Hurt

An obsession with hitting the word count goals starts to hurt a writer when the numbers become the be-all and end-all. They are like the store manager that sends people home early to reduce labor hours and then has customers storming out because they aren't being helped by all the people who got sent home. This obsession leads to certain unfortunate tics:

  1. Filler. Cramming your non-fiction book full of lists, barely related fluff, charts, and start every chapter with an overly-chummy take on how you think the reader will respond to your news.

  2. Slashing important information. The subplot that linked up beautifully with the main plot and advanced the main narrative was yanked without concern for coherence.

  3. Jamming in landscape and clothing porn with no regard for timing or tone.

These are all lazy ways of hitting the word goal. You can't fix your story without a deep understanding of what is causing the wonky word-count, and these are all cheap fixes, meant to paper over a bone-deep problem. Fix the real problem that the word-count is a symptom of, and you will fix the word-count effortlessly.

Times To Ignore The Word Count

There are times when you really need to stop counting. Block the word counter if you can help it. Some stories need more elbow room and some pack more punch by being shorter. Consider:

  1. Your philosophical coming-of-age story that covers years of a person's life but happens to be a mystery. It's not going to fit the solving a crime or finding true love genre's word count because it doesn't fit other genre expectations either.

  2. Your imminently practical step-by-step guide to do something. Extra words are just distractions.

  3. The horror short story that relies on the one big twist. Short stories are legit.

  4. Your thriller or murder mystery that is like my current work or my 'The Adventure in Zeppler.' There are a lot of crimes going on and they need to hook up in a coherent fashion without barreling right by the reader.

  5. You have a legitimate need for a lot of set-up in order to get the story moving. That's why fantasy and sci-fi get extra words: they need to describe the world you just entered. If your political thriller needs to have an explanation of the parliamentary system in order to make sense, then it does and you should keep it.

I know I said I won't advise, but I am getting this off my chest because it is on my mind. Consider it me telling myself to edit wisely, or a way for you to articulate what went wrong with a story you don't like.


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