Friday, July 01, 2005

The Dilemma of Writers and Word Counts

Today, I am a writer who's writing about writing instead of writing, a pathetic creature indeed.

The topic of word counts gets a lot of attention among membership of the Great Unpublished. I freely declare myself of this group before sharing my reply to a friend's e-mail which included a link to this WritersNet message thread. I cannot match his brevity in inquiring "Any Thoughts?", but I have listed the bald points up front with screed to follow. Links to Amazon aren't endorsement, just laziness.

1) Writing toward counts is a lousy idea
2) When you get to the counting, actual tallies are easier and more accurate than guesstimates.
3) Padding numbers can't get you an agent or editor if the writing doesn't.
4) Counts are dynamic, and the process of getting published alters them.
4) The common word range of published books is not only huge but rife with disagreement over its sweet spot
5) Even outside this broad norm, the gargantuan and tiny defy word counts with tremendous success.
6) Don't think about word counts much.

I didn't know I had so much to say until I started writing this, which makes my first point for me: I don't think it's advisable to write toward word counts. I think writing to natural scene endings makes sense, but impostion of word counts doesn't aid fluid storytelling. As a reader, I never count words before deciding if the pace dragged or whether there was enough or too much backstory. And no matter how careful a word-counter is during composition, any effective revision must address whether chapters need pruning or plumping for overall dynamics and risks throwing off exactitude. Some experienced authors who have become machines of writing (often producing in their later careers- dare I suggest?- formulaic work) can fit lengths precisely and consistently. I wouldn't expect or encourage any other greenhorn writer like me to focus on that skill since it so favors form over content, and it's always content that gets a non-celebrity published the first time.

The proposed method of estimating 250 words/page would certainly change word counts dramatically as it's inaccurate by design and incorporates huge rounding errors to manufacture results. Imagine, just four hardly-typed pages, chapter ends for example, could add 1000 "words" to your manuscript count. If that sounds reasonable, ask youself whether you'd accept $10 as legit payment on a $250 debt. Writers used to try to estimate manuscripts in all sorts of inexact fashions, because there weren't tools beyond mind-numbing tedium to count every word. Maybe it's my former career in science, but I think regressing to lousy methodology to alter your numbers doesn't feel kosher, and might even beg notice in manuscripts containing unusual formatting or large amounts of terse back-and-forth dialog. Although similar computer applications may differ slightly in how they treat hypenated phrases, for example, Microsoft Word tallies the text on the page as accurately and instantly as anything else, and is accepted as the de facto standard at this point. I'd wonder why any author using it didn't do his word counts this way.

After consulting career authors on the matter, I decided when pitching in person or by query not to mention the word count until asked. So far, agents have ignored the omission, and inquired instead about characters and setting and style. I surely believe agents look at rough metrics and categories as a way to thin down their reading piles, but at best, they know the word count is only a ball park figure, mattering more at the extremes of the range than the huge 50,000 word span between 60-110k where most fiction falls.

Constantly shifting the number are the agents themselves, make their own revision suggestions to enhance the quality of the manuscripts they represent. Further, the copyediting from the acquiring publisher may create swings of thousands of words. But none of this matters to parties who've have already decided they're enthusiastic about the work. If- using a number from the thread- a given agent sees 58K of a book and says she just loved it but must dismiss it completely for not being 60 or 71 or whatever else. And if she says this without any hint of where to expand or how better to market it, the author should face the hard truth that the agent didn't really like it and wouldn't be a great advocate. People have tried padding their counts among other foolish ploys to get their books through the needle's eye, but externalities won't make an unknown the object of the publishing industry's desire. What I keep hearing is that a new author who understands and communicates powerfully what makes his manuscript worth reading, no matter what the length, is the rare prize.

I assume many of the thread's contributors are unpublished shmucks like me, but at the recent Mystery Writers of America mentoring forum, where established authors help the aspiring, the lowdown was that it's wonderful to debut in the 60-75k word range. They said that publishers currently prefer lower printing investments for untried authors. Make it longer, make it shorter. You'll hear it all. But I take the Goldilocks path which I've come to believe the best agents and editors do: all any book needs to be is the right length for itself.

And as for blather about consumers not spending on short books...Crafty publishers routinely bloat the font and the margins to make shorter books visually similar to longer ones, and they reverse the process to reduce enormous opuses to manageable size. Regarding high prices, the many new writers who appear first in mass market or trade paperback don't have to get people to fork over even the price of a movie ticket, just to be interested enough to pick their work over another option that day. The initial gift of a reader's time and his feeling afterwards that it was well-spent is much harder and more crucial to gain than whatever the dollar amount is on the spine.

Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie is short, Bill Clinton's My Life is long. In each case, the publishers obviously thought the length suited the material and both are bestsellers. Morrie is a puny hardcover at about 5 1/2" x 7 1/2" and not even an inch thick. Even with its roomy font and spacing, the thing doesn't make 200 pages. Yet, it wasn't ostracized in the bookstore, people found it intimate and approachable. Do you know how many of those tiny things, not even usable for doorstops, were sold at the list price of $21.00? I woudn't be surprised if millions had been sold by now, it's certainly hundreds of thousands. Albom's Five People you Meet in Heaven became another bestselling shrimp. Even if he writes 1500 pages next, they'll find some way to fit it into the less-common, friendly format his readers have learned to expect. Rules are made to be broken. As Victor Hugo wrote, "Everything bows to success, even grammar."

I'm currently reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Don Maass and find it quite good so far. Even though this agent showed the bad judgement to decline my latest submission, I'm finding the book stimulating my ideas for improving its chances next time. Representing many popular authors over his extensive career, Maass has also written something like 14 novels of his own, which I disclaim I haven't field-tested, as well as other craft instruction. What's great about this particular book is that the first pages put aside the issues of publisher and publicity and everything outside the writing itself as harbingers of success. Not only can authors not control those things, but Maass denies their predictive power and employs copious examples from published work to make his points. He asserts (as many other career authors I've asked) that the quality of a great story manifested through great writing is the writer's overriding concern and the widest path of the many narrow ones to success.

In that view, word count is merely an effect, not a cause, simply the byproduct of writing.
Done now.

If you indulge in illegal fireworks, just remember you've blown off your fingers in the cause of liberty. Enjoy the weekend and holiday!

No comments: