Considering Chapters and Scenes, Part I: Thinking in words instead of page count is like learning to speak and live in a foreign country

Yale Library relief where words are sacred and part of the architecture to life

By Your Salonniere

In a past conversation about the arduous task of novel-writing, the talented writer Mary Volmer firmly emphasized the importance of thinking not in pages but in word count. Most beginning writers tend to measure their work by double-spaced, one-inch margin, single sheets, which proves counter-productive and misleading. Word count determines the true size of a work, and word count is what makes a scene long and drawn out or taut and fast-paced.

After attending Mills College Pitchfest 2011 one of the agents urged me to share with the world the true standard word count that most agents and editors are looking for since I had come in with the notion that somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 was the target for novels. I was set straight. 80,000 to 95,000 is the true mark emerging novelists want to hit. Thinking in words instead of page count is like learning to speak and live in a foreign culture. You start seeing your plot line, your chapters and scenes in a completely different light, and, most effectively, start sensing the pace of how your story runs.

Once you start speaking, thinking, and acting on word counts, this currency forces you to determine when to contract and when to expand, which is essentially the rhythmic breathing of a novel. So imagine the length of chapter that runs 3,000 words as opposed to 8,000. Is your chapter a morsel, merely an appetizer to incite hunger, or do you want your reader to gorge and laze about with specific characters in a certain setting?

Figure out how many chapters are needed to tell your story and how to break up that 95,000 word count. In this sense, think of chapters as running laps around a stadium. You’ll need to consider your audience’s pacing. When can you get away with long stretches? When will a reader need a break and feel like they’re turning a corner?

If you’re story is told from multiple points of views, consider, also, which part of the story is best told by which character. How much do they know? What kind of information do they have access to? What kind of information are they not privy to, and how does their ignorance amp up the tension? This inaccessibility can also propel the story forward because you’ll keep the reader guessing.

While we’re on the subject of chapter-making, in revision and in drafting we should keep in mind that a chapter can start at any time and place whether its the very first chapter or the tenth. No scene or chapter needs to be chronological even though there is a physical sequence to a book. Nothing need be chronological. Readers are much smarter than we give them credit for, even young readers. Make them work for our story.

How do you strategize word count when drafting or revising your piece? More on the currency of words is forthcoming, so check back at the salon, and weigh in.

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4 Comments

  1. wow rashaan,this is revelatory! really, it makes total sense for pacing, building, expanding, contracting, etc. i esp. love what you say about trusting your readers, that they are smarter than folks give them credit for. i’ve been talking a lot with other writers re: having faith in the reader, and therefore, writing work that challenges rather than panders to them.

    at the ksw YA lit panel, they talked about that too, that young readers know or can tell when you are not being ‘genuine,’ and that writing in the YA genre keeps them ‘honest,’ prevents didacticism, etc. i think all of us can learn from that, no?

  2. Hi BJR,

    Many thanks! I’ve definitely been having a hard time wrapping my mind around this nugget of truth about word count and learning to not s-p-e-l-l e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g o-u-t. I wish I could have attended the KSW YA Lit panel though I definitely got a healthy dose of behind-the-scenes YA during the reading with Rosemary Graham, who’s last three novels and the short story she read at SMC are YA. Her pacing is break-neck speed; her humor, imagery, and wit almost gave me whiplash. It was definitely humbling to see how faith in the reader translates on the page, no matter how old or young the reader is. Bottom line: I still have so much to learn and master.

  3. Wow, good to find out that I’m in that range already…without thinking about it. How often does that happen??

    Seriously, though, it’s an exerise to shift thinking. But it’s realistic–I don’t assign my college students to write papers of a certain page length, even though I remember that happening to me (under that very library relief!). It’s just not an accurate mode of measurement.

  4. Uh-oh, Emily, I’m guilty of following the same practices as our Yale and UCLA professos. Hello, my name is Ms. Meneses, and I assign essays with required page counts.

    You’re absolutely right. I need to put my money, or my word count, where my mouth is and practice what I preach. So tell me, pretty please, what’s the standard word count for the following: a 3-4pp, 5-6pp, and 7pp?

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