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.