Word Count… Really?

I know. Why should there be limitations on how many words are used to tell a particular story? Truly, there aren’t. It’s your story, after all, so you can go on and on and on and on—and on, as long as it serves your tale, right? Well, yes and no.

Adhering to word count isn’t an issue when you’re writing something for yourself, family or friends to read. I’m not saying that’s the only reason you shouldn’t concern yourself with word count, but it is the one time you can count on it not to matter (or at least you can hope it doesn’t—ask a family member at what point in your 200,000 word cozy mystery they tuned out and you might get an idea why genre and word count have such a strict relationship).

And, of course, there are authors out there who, due to their renown or the stupendous stories they weave, will be permitted to exceed expected word count without so much as a peep. There’s nothing wrong with that. We enjoy their stories nonetheless. Their talent shines through. But for mere mortals who are struggling to get published, there are rules and boundaries and expectations.

Even the self-published author might consider keeping their suspense novel to no longer than 75,000 words because, in most cases, those of us looking to read suspense have come to expect the length. Too short, and you’re feeling cheated; too wordy, and the only suspense might be the unfound answer to the constantly circling question in your head as to when it’s all going to end.

There are reasons why publishers have placed word count limits for their various imprints or editorial lines. Experience, naturally, and reader expectation, and some limits ultimately reflect the bottom line (printing costs). Because of this, guidelines regarding length are rather stringent. Self-publishing affords an author more leeway, certainly, but one should still be cognizant of what a reader has come to expect in terms of story length.

For example, let’s say you write romance. Harlequin is a well-known publisher of romance, with various lines. Their Intrigue line is for high-stake thrillers. Word count: 55,000—fast read, fast action. The Harlequin Historical line requires a word count of between 70,000 and 75,000 words. A historical romance (or fiction in general) has more scenery to it, more backdrop in which the characters interact. It moves at a different pace (not dragging, though, or you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else along the line). My novel, Once and Always, a historical set in India in the 19th century, was published by Kensington and consisted of 110,000 words. Each publisher has their own limits. I am only citing these as examples.

Science fiction and fantasy novels require quite a bit of world-building and the usual word count for one of these is 90,000 to 120,000 words. Thrillers generally run about 70,000 words. Cozy mysteries top off at between 50,000 to 60,000 words, although if they’re a bit shorter, no one’s complaining. The length still works. Are mystery novels your forte? Keep it to about 80,000 words. There are, however, mystery sub-genres with varied word counts. In fact, there are exceptions to all of the above, whether because of the story you’re telling, or because a particular publishing house has its own outlines for their needs.

To sum it up, if you’ve written (or are planning to write) the next great [fill in genre here­] novel and are seriously looking to have it published by some other means than self-publishing, take a check on word count to see if you’re in the ball park before submitting. Seriously, you could find your work rejected because it doesn’t fit within the word count parameter. If the novel is exceptional, though, you might have an editor asking you to tweak it to fit the boundaries. You know what I say to that? Don’t take the moral high ground. Sit and think about it for a (little) bit. They are, after all, the professionals. You might actually want to work with them and take their advice.

So, as always, research your market. Research, research, research, and always write the best you can and then write it again.

Until next time folks, have a great week!

Writing – Start at the Beginning

I don’t mean the above title in a literal sense. You don’t have to start creating a story at its beginning. In time, you’ll end up with a beginning (whether fiction or non-fiction, composition does require one), but when you first start out to put your story down on paper or a computer monitor or on the bedroom wall with an eye to its eventual form, the beginning is not always where you’ll find yourself.

However, that will be another blog’s topic.

No, by saying “start at the beginning” I’m referencing a birth, an inception to your creation.  Many reading this blog are already accomplished writers (although you still might find the content interesting, so stick around), while others may not have taken the plunge. Heck, you might not even want to—yet you still could find the blog content interesting, so…yeah, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

In recognition of my recently-blogged, coincidentally-timed, not-New-Year’s-Resolution, I am determined to write more about, well, writing. I can’t help it. The written word was, is and always will be an amazing device. A force to be reckoned with, calling up wonder, distress, joy, sorrow, peace, terror…and right on through the emotion dictionary. (I believe there is such a thing, a tome put together for writers stuck for words. Imagine that.)  

Besides writing about writing, I’m going to suggest certain exercises to those inclined to try them. No one needs to see a thing except you. My initiation into authorship many years ago utilized pencil, notebook paper and crayons. I think I showed my little “book” to my mother, but I might not have done so. I likely coveted it in secret, amazed that I’d managed thirty-six pages and illustrations all by my seven-year-old lonesome. It’s all too long ago to recall for certain. I do know I’d been prompted to the task by my love of horses and of drawing and, naturally, words and all the worlds to be found within them.

This little foray into reminiscence brings me to the point. (Finally! you cry out inside your head—or maybe even out loud, if you’re getting exasperated.) We, as writers, garner our ideas from so many places. Sometimes the smallest incident can prompt a tale in our heads. Perhaps we’ve walked down the street and a door on a house has opened, only to be slammed shut again. A cat looks both ways before crossing a street. A bright red balloon, obviously lost without its child’s hand, bobs in a tree’s naked branches. Someone scribbles a note in a restaurant and drops it in disgust on the table occupied nearby. We’re always observing, we writers, always wondering, always inventing, always studying people, places and things. Researching, too, although sometimes by accident, seeking out and finding those kernels that sprout into a whole scenario, perhaps the entire motivation for the next work. This is why we often seem distant and confused (she says and wants you to believe). There’s just too much going on in our conscious brain to be handled. It can hardly be contained. Except for the dreaded writer’s block, of course, but we’re not going to talk about that today, either.

I am designating Tuesdays for the write-brained-scribbler category in my blogs. This Tuesday, if anything I’ve been blathering on about sparks your interest, break out a notebook, rescue a wrinkled envelope from the recycling bin, crack open your laptop, whatever medium you use, and make a list of…things. Things you’ve seen, thought about, wanted to know, want to pretend you know, with the goal being that one of these will be the idea behind a short story. And I’m talking an extremely short story for starters. The word count for short stories is considered to be anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 words. They can be as few as 1,000 words, and I’ve read some incredible shorts, the most recent written by the twelve-year-old daughter of a friend, which topped out at approximately 550 words. I was, quite honestly, stunned.

Regardless of length, all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, or an introduction, a build to the climax, and a resolution. These are fairly simple descriptors, but you get the picture. So, if you’re into it, and I daresay you might be if you’ve read this far, get that idea list in hand. Create a story in your head and get it written down using a 500 word limit. That’s about two double-spaced pages in your word processing program. In the course of those two pages, your character will go through a change, whether in perspective, or attitude, or simply course chosen. Sound good?

Next Tuesday we’ll get into ways to “cut the fat” to reach that limit, in case you’re having trouble. It’s not always easy. I’ll write a short story, too, and post it in next week’s blog. I’m not saying it’ll be great or earth-shattering, because it won’t be, but hey, it’ll be fun.

Tuesdays won’t only be something of this nature, although I would like to take this eventually to the plotting and writing of a novel. We’ll have to see. I’ll still do general craft of writing posts, the occasional interview or review. In the meantime, if you have questions between now and next week, pop them in the comments. See you then!