Friday, April 10, 2015

The Long and Short of It -- Tips for Writing to Word Counts

I periodically put out a call for topics for these roundtables. And this particular post is one of those come to fruition. One of the fans of the blog sent in a request for an article about writing to word counts. And never let it be said we don't listen to our readers.

Do approach a story differently based on the word count limit? In what ways?


Jim D. Gillentine: I never have done the 'shoot for a certain word count amount." I just let the story play itself out until I get to the last two words 'The End'. I feel like the story is a child that should be allowed to grow as long or short as it is meant to be.

I.A. Watson: If the story is size-limited I try to plan an appropriate number of beats/events for the size of the story. I aim to write something about 25% shorter than the target. That way I sometimes don't go over. Sometimes.

My Robin Hood trilogy started out intended to be one book. The trilogy now has four volumes. My 15k Byzantium novella became five 25k novellas. I may be the wrong person to ask about this.

Robert Krog: I do approach a word limit differently in some ways. I keep the language tighter. I think up a story with fewer complications and avoid introducing any character, plot element, etc that might detract from the point. I use fewer adjectives and adverbs. As I write, I do word count every few pages to see how much room I have.

Allan Gilbreath: If there is a fixed word count, I start backwards at the resolution then work backwards adding in the number of complications and characters needed to hit the target.

Bobby Nash: Of course. If I'm given a 15,000 word limit, that is probably not the project to try and write a big epic opus that spans countless generations. I've been doing this long enough now that I can tell what type of story I can tell based on the word count I'm given. The lower the word count, the fewer side trips away from the main plot, for example. with shorter prose I'm focused on telling the story first and adding extras only if there is room.

Percival Constantine: I now have a word count in mind for every story I write, whether it's long or short, for a publisher or for myself. And one way to help hit that word count is by outlining. If I look at an outline and I think, "this needs more to hit that goal," then I'll add more. Of course, it's not an exact science—there have been times when I've fallen short, times when I've overshot, but for the most part, I get the count hovering right around that target.

Gordon Dymowski: Since my tendency to write to word counts is more of editorial/publisher mandate rather than my own, I don't really worry about word counts. When it comes to limited word count, I tend to plan out a story with a much more limited time span (1 - 2 days) and in chunks of 1,000 - 2,000 words (thank you, Nanowrimo, for helping me learn how to pace out writing!). For me, stories with word count requirements are the equivalent of "bottle episodes" on television: limited in scope of time, setting, and character....but I can do a *lot* with these limitations.

Marian Allen: My life is very unscheduled and unpredictable right now -- more so than usual, I mean. I've learned that I do better at writing in these circumstances if I have some idea how the story is going to go before I begin. That way, if I'm interrupted, I have some chance of getting back on my train of thought. So, if I'm writing flash fiction, I'll write out a one-to-three sentence story arc. If it's going to be longer, I'll write out a five-to-seven point outline.

John Hartness: I outline way more intensely on longer works. For my Bubba novelettes, my outline is usually about three-four lines long. On a novel there's a lot more depth in my planning, because there's more room to get lost. When I run long I just charge more for the book. :)

Ray Dean: Of course... a 3k story vs a 10k story is very different. Same 10k to 100K. The amount of plot points that you can cover changes. The amount of 'lead up' to a plot point changes. It reminds me of when I make costumes for plays at my son's school. The important thing is to have all the costumes... ensembles that convey the character and their world, made to last through all the performances and complete the experience for the audience member... then, if you have time and money (more word count) you can add more details, a costume change for a scene that might help bring more of the character out... or bring more depth to the message of the show.

Walter Bosley: I never do anything on word count limit. I do it on page number limit and lately I use the same style approach for any length. I wrote mostly screenplays my first several years of writing, going with the general rule that a page equals a minute on screen and a feature film is between 90-120 pages. And since I started my publishing company, I work in number of pages, never word count. Thus, as a writer, I think in how many pages I want to write. When I published other authors, I never based a contract on word count per book/story. In fact, length was usually 200 pages but I never told an author their novel had to be limited specifically to that. For the magazine stories I would try to limit stories to around ten pages, expressed as such. As a writer, I keep my pulps novels to under 200 pages. I haven't worked in word count since I was in college writing reports and articles.

Mark Bousquet: I only ever seriously fret about word counts when I'm writing for someone other than me. In those instances, if I've been told the publisher wants X number of words, then I make sure to hit X number of words. Usually, this involves coming up with a tighter outline. For work that I'm going to produce, assessing the length is something I do after I have an idea of the characters/plots/ambitions of a book. At that point, I can say, "Ok, I think this story needs 15k or 50k to tell," but then I just tell the story and let it determine how long it's going to be. That initial guess on length is important, though, because the same story told in 15k is told much differently than one at 50k or 100k. If I totally pants the process, I'm going to end up with bloated texts. Case in point:

My latest novels are significantly shorter than my early novels. DREAMER'S SYNDROME and ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE: THE COMING OF FROST were something like 140,000 and 160,000 words, respectively, but my most recent works tend to be half that. Why? One, it's based on reader feedback, and two, what you learn real quick in the POD market is that longer books cost more. My first STUFFED ANIMALS FOR HIRE book is right around 35k words, I sold it for 10 bucks physical, $3 ebook, and not only has it been one of my big sellers, I make more money per copy sold on that book than I do on either DS or A5. Also, no one has complained about the price relative to the brevity of the material, though I did get a lot of complaints about the physical copies of DS and A5 being cost prohibitive at $20 physical, even though, bang for buck, it was a much greater value.

Now, I think I'm a better writer now than I was a decade ago, so perhaps this is just a sign that readers only care about the price/length if they don't enjoy the reading experience.

Lance Stahlberg: Yes and no. One of my biggest challenges is that I am really wordy. Not when it comes to descriptions or letting talking heads gab too long. I lean toward really dense plots. I don't think I'm even capable of writing a true "short story" word-count definition. I always feel like I need 5,000 more words.

So knowing that I have to get to a satisfying ending with at least one cool hook or twist within a certain word count, I need to outline the plot much more carefully before I can get started.

But even a full length novel has to end some time. You can't meander too much or the reader will get lost. Knowing that if I let myself, I'd keep going forever, I have to force myself to stop. So even then, I have a rough outline.Armand Rosamilia: For me, it has to do with the experience of writing so many different stories over the years, no matter if it is flash fiction or a novel. If I have an idea of basic word count, I automatically know how much character, plot, subplot, action, dialogue, etc. I need to shoot for. Each story has to be looked at differently depending on what length you are looking for. I usually come really, really close. Then it is a matter of adding or subtracting in edits to get even closer to the goal.

Ralph L Angelo Jr.: First, I usually set a minimum that I work to meet The minimum Is always the same, about 65,000 words on novels. (If it's a short story I work toward the number count.) Then once I reach the minimum I just keep going until I feel it's wrapped up properly. If I feel I'm falling short I add a side story, or adventure. Just another few chapters dealing with something else that gets in the heroes way that they have to deal with. Mostly I self publish so there is no overshooting for me. I just write until I'm happy with the ending. I had one story that I had to shorten for a publisher. I wrote it to about 108,000 words and I had to cut it to 68,000. That took a lot of cutting. That was an odd situation in that I wrote it first and then a publisher/friend asked to publish it, so I had to cut it down after the fact.

Ric Martens: I really don't pay to much attention to word count at first, just say what I feel needs to be said.

When you fall short on the word count a story, how do you fix it?


Walter Bosley: Since I don't work in word count, it's easier to fix as working in page numbers gives more margin. If I set out to do a 170-page pulp novel and find myself wrapping up at 185, it's no problem because my hard rule is 200-page maximum on my pulps so I'm still in range. However, I also have my rough draft formula that hasn't failed me yet when it comes to writing the final draft and keeping it paced just so and almost exact on my projected page count.

Ray Dean: The first thing i do is read it again to look for 'holes' in the story, or moments that could benefit from more explanation. Is there something that I summarized that could use more description? That doesn't mean to add things in willy-nilly, or have dialogue ramble on for no reason. You can make things better by adding words... or you could water down a tight scene instead of adding more meaning or more development in a story. Adding word count should never be something you throw in without paying attention to the story and the ramifications of the additions.

Lance Stahlberg: There is no danger of that ever happening with me.

Percival Constantine: I'm actually in this problem right now. The last novella I wrote was 29.5K, which is 500 words short of the target. Now it's not that big of a deal, but I really want to get it over that 30K mark. So when I edit it in a week or two, I'll go back and look for places where I was maybe writing a bit more sparsely and could be beefed up.

Gordon Dymowski: When I read others talk about overshooting, they'll take on a smug tone and declare that writers should "kill their darlings."

I take the opposite approach -- I get rid of anything that *doesn't* work in a story. (Because some writers who advise "killing your darlings" rarely take their own advice :))

Marian Allen: If I fall short on the word count, I look for scenes that I can "break open" to add excitement, poignancy, clarity, humor, or atmosphere. If I'm far short of the word count, I look for a way to plug in a subplot that enriches the main plot.

Robert Krog: I never fall short of a word count. I write a lot of short fiction, but the minimums are always so short that there's no worry about it. If ever I came up with too little, I think I could easily add a few adjectives, some extra description, some lengthened action to account for the lack. If I was way short, for some reason, I could add an extra plot element or character and explore that until I was in the correct range, all the while staying true to the original story arc.

Bobby Nash: Remember those extra bits I mentioned above? There you go. When you fall short, you've got an opportunity to do some character building of either your main character or perhaps some of the secondary characters, maybe even... the villain. There's always good stuff you can add, but don't just add for additions sake. You don't want to water down the story.

Ric Martens: I don't have the problem of being to short very often. When I do I just add a bit more description.

Jim D. Gillentine: After I write a story and I reread it, if there are places I can add things into it to flesh it out and make it better, then I do it. You can always catch places where you left out a minor detail to make the story much better or make more sense to the reader.

Allan Gilbreath: Add another complication if somewhat close to to the target. If way short, add another character and rewrite.

I.A. Watson: I recover from shock and look where scenes could be amplified, and check the structure to see if there are places where an additional cutaway scene or character moment might serve the tale.

Conversely, when you way overshoot the word count on a story, how do you fix it?

Robert Krog: One can always delete adverbs and frequently delete adjectives. That's a cheap and easy way if one is just a little over. No one ever misses words such as "just," "really," and "literally." It's best to avoid them anyway, most of the time. "Big" works just as well as "great big," and so does giant or enormous. If one has felt particularly inspired and waxed eloquently verbose, one might have to take more drastic action and start eliminating extraneous elements. In short fiction, that can be hard, because one has presumably only used the most necessary devices to tell the story anyway.

I have deleted minor characters, though, and even found ways to eliminate whole scenes that I thought were crucial until I really examined my story. I have sometimes tossed manuscripts and started over because I found the efforts to be too wordy.


I have also found that there are sometimes whole phrases that can be rolled up into one, little word.

It's work, and it's sometimes painful, but it is rewarding. I never send in a story that is too long. I never beg permission for an exception in my case. The editor asked for a certain length, and I either respectfully meet that requirement or do not submit. I have sometimes had ideas that I allowed to get out of hand, that I liked too much to shorten, in which case I set that idea aside and start over for the particular story call with something that does meet the requirements.

Jim D. Gillentine: I always let my wife, Elizabeth Donald, take a look at my work and let her put her editor's 'Red Pen of Death and Destruction' to work. She kills my darlings perfectly and helps me trim out all of the useless fluff out of my work. It sometimes hurts, and yes, I'll grumble about it. But ultimately, I know she knows the craft far better than I and that it will make my stories better and more enjoyable to read.

Allan Gilbreath: Do the reverse of what I mentioned before. A big overshoot is the removal of a character. If just a trim down is needed, remove a complication or two.

Marian Allen: I weep and murder some of my darlings. Some words, conversations, scenes, and subplots can be dispensed with. Some characters can be folded together. The good stuff that needs to be cut goes in a special folder, where I can fish for characters and ideas for other stories.

Ray Dean: Usually this is in the revision process, so redundant words are easy targets. The prepositional phrase that is 'nice' but not necessary. If larger cuts are needed I look for transitional scenes that might be summarized in other places instead of spelled out step by step on their own.

Then the story has to be gone over again to make sure that cuts didn't affect the continuity of the story. Like the movies I watch on DVDs with the director's cut that change plot points by omission.

I.A. Watson: I declare a trilogy. When the word count is an issue I set it aside and write something else to replace it  I'm REALLY NOT GOOD at cutting things down. Fortunately I have editors.

And then there's:
"Ian, this George and the Dragon manuscript weighs in at 230,00 words. This is a doorstop."
"You want me to cut it down?"
"I want you to sign this two-volume deal."

Lance Stahlberg: I am always streamlining action scenes and/or exposition, or even tearing out whole chunks of subplot when I realize I've gone too far over to make it to my end scene in under X-thousand words.

Sometimes you have to decide which characters are actually important to moving the plot forward, and which am you spending too much time on just because you like them. Or you may realize that a particular subplot is derailing your main plot too much to be worth it. Maybe that sidebar is better left for a sequel. 

Bobby Nash: First, kill all the adverbs! Cut the extraneous words and dialogue tags. That's a good start. Then, if you're still over, comes the hard part. You have to start killing your babies and look at what scenes can go away without hurting the story. There's usually one or two you can lose and not hurt the story.

Gordon Dymowski: Ironically, this just happened: a story I'm currently writing came up under count by over 2,000 words. However, in reading my second draft, I realized that there was a *huge* plot hole that needed to be addressed. So when I come under, I tend to look for opportunities to expand/clarify the story (and then, when I edit, look for opportunities to cut down). I'm not very concerned about meeting word counts exactly (so if I get 14,900 out of 15k words, that's OK), but I'm willing to flesh out a story that looks a little rickety.

It means taking advice Derrick Ferguson gave on the EXPLODING TYPEWRITER podcast and eliminating "was" and "had". It's finding opportunities to take out long, rambling passages and turn them into tight, concise sentences. It means rethinking exposition (showing rather than telling) and reframing action (initially, a "lost child" subplot drove the bulk of "Crossing McCausland" on TALL PULP; in order to lessen the word count, I simply cut the bulk of that exposition and led with the outcome). It also means focusing on the *story* -- anything that moves the story forward stays in; anything that messes up the gears or feels wrong gets eliminated.

Percival Constantine: I've overshot a few times, and it usually depends on whether or not the book is for a publisher and whether or not it's part of a series. My Vanguard serial is in installments of 15K episodes and the final episode ended up being 20K. I decided not to cut out that extra 5K because I felt it would be a disservice to the story, and also because it was the final episode of that season, so a longer story did feel justified. My novel SoulQuest had an initial target of 50-60K, but ended up being 90K when I finished. But since that novel was self-published and not part of a series, I saw no need to cut out that extra 30-40K.

Ric Martens: I always overshoot the word count. I fix it by going through and cutting out unneeded adverbs and the like.

Walter Bosley: Never happens because my rough draft method ensures I never exceed a specific number of pages. Ever. Of course, I have the luxury of being my own publisher (and having publisher friends and associates, I prefer it that way, lol).