Formal Writing

The Numbers of the Beast

S’ok, this isn’t some out of place religious post from me. We’re still on writing.
It’s just that today I’m going to talk a little bit about one of my biggest demons: Counting.

Newbie Questions

One of the things I did as a new writer when I first started thinking about ‘how’ to do this creative thing, was ask all the newbie questions of the internet.
How many chapters are in a book?
How do you plan out a book?
How many chapters for each ‘section’ of the story?
How much planning do I do for my characters?
Who do I talk to for support?
Should I let people read my work as I go?
How many books should I read while writing mine?
How do you edit?
How should dialogue look?
Do I need any special tools?
How long does it take to write a book?

I could go on forever.
All newbie questions, I have found, are about settling into doing something new, immersing yourself in the unfamiliar environment and learning. Especially as you end up swimming alongside old hands to the pool, who aren’t always quite so mindful of your water wings as one might like.

Most of these questions, I knew the answers already. I was either looking for validation and reassurance or just needed to ask the question aloud to find the answer of my own accord.
Others led me to usefulness, like Scrivener and Grammarly.

But there is one question, even now, I still get hung up on, one newbie question which has warped itself into a little demon inside my head I can’t always turn off.
How many words in a chapter? How many in a novel?

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Word Counts

The reason I think I get so hung up on this is that in writing my first story for Hevna, I went from a simple idea I thought would fill a book, to realizing my story needed time for the events to happen naturally, and the characters to develop believably.
On top of that, it turned out there was a lot more excitement to paste into those pages than I imagined and the next thing I knew… I was sitting over 200k words… and panicking.

I had told myself I would write one story. I wasn’t going to do that thing of writing a cliffhanger-y trilogy as a new writer and join that particular trend.
But.
200k words. Three clear ‘parts’ to the story, stories in their own right.
How many words can be in a book?
And then I got stuck with my little demon.

I have of course come to my own personal decisions and peace with what I want to do with my work, and happy for my choices. But I still find myself watching those word counts, comparing my chapter lengths to each other, measuring myself against some imagined scale inside my head.

How The Demon Can Be Useful… and not.

Admittedly, my imagined scale does have a use. I have fought my way to what feels like a comfortable length of story per chapter for my writing style. Roughly 5 – 7 k words, I find.

By watching my word count per chapter as I go (which Scrivener tracks for me at the bottom of my screen, so its not like I stop every two minutes to do this), I know where I’m at with a certain section and begin to naturally bring the chapter to its enticing close as the numbers tick up.
It lets me automatically focus the scene on the action and most important bits so I don’t waste precious words on unimportant matters, and keep the story punchy and interesting.

On the downside, some scenes end up too short for their content because of this. I find myself re-reading and feeling like a character or moment is too brief, too rushed. Then, the only thing for it is to turn off any word counts and edit the scene, adding in proper pacing and trying desperately not to think about what comes next in the book, or whether I need to change the structure of my following chapters to account for the new length.

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. My favorite author never even used chapters in his writing, he just wrote. Another of my favorite books is so big you could bludgeon people to death with it.

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There Are No Rules

Like everything else in writing, there is no clear-cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to this.
There are trends, there are statistics, there are outright lies, but no black and white answers.

A scene is a long or as short as it needs to be to say what you want to say. Even I know this, despite the Beast of counting.
A book is also as long or as short as it needs to be to tell the story.

There are a few suggestions worth sticking to, though.

  • A sentence shouldn’t be so long that if you said it aloud, you’d completely run out of breath. Run on sentences distract readers with their length, and pull them away from the meaning of the words. Varied sentence lengths definitely pull people in better, allowing you to be neither too long-winded, or too mono-tone inside the readers head.
  • Paragraphs of non-dialogue text work best with between 4 and 6 sentences in them. Again, this is all about breaking up the words for best fit inside the readers head, allowing for pauses and mental ‘breaths’ to keep the reader flowing with your prose, instead of drowning in it.
  • Do not break your text too readily though. A ‘scene break’ in the text isn’t necessary unless a time skip, location change or character switch has occurred, no matter how many words are in the section.
  • The ‘normal’ length of books similar to your own changes by genre, and by time period.

Then we hit the problem that keeps this topic circulating so much, even among more experienced writers…

The Publishing Industry

Eventually, it will always come down to this. Maybe you self-publish, at which point go you, do your own thing!

But lots of us still want to at least try traditional publishing, and thus begins a whole slew of new questions to ask, trying to get your head around this behemoth industry and its labyrinth of trends, rules, and elite selection.

Reading is not so common now as it once was. We now have so many other ways to engage with stories, so many other forms of media to dip into. People do not buy physical copy novels the way they once did, and as a result, the publishing industry is much more reserved and selective about what they pick up and represent than they once were.

Some people talk about writing as a dying art, but I don’t think that’s true – it’s just that things are changing, and the value and nature of a book are malleable. People will never want to stop enjoying stories, after all.

Anyway. Publishing.
Publishers have a lot of potential new works to choose from, limited funds, and a focus on making a profit. That makes traditional publishing a very competitive market, where ‘safe bets’ are often favored. Which is where the dreaded ‘market trends’ comes in. And one of them is all about the Beast of Counting.

For a standard young adult work, 60k – 80k words are preferred.
For a fantasy epic, you may write up to 120k words, though some publishers supposedly don’t like more than 100k right now.
Sci-fi should be about 90k.

And so on and so on. It’s all so much tat, in terms of your book, right up until you decide to try for a traditional publisher.
At that point, you will need to research the current standards publishers are working to, specific to your genre, topic, and intended audience. Things change. What you are producing adds different filters. Your work might be the next big thing, and thus break some of the ‘rules’ without it being an issue, due to the content.

It’s impossible to know any of this when you sit down to actually write your first draft. All you can do is just write, and write the best version of your vision you can, word counts be damned.

Now if only I could easily take my own advice…

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