So as I mentioned before, I think this book is going to run a little long.
How exactly do I know that?
Nobody ever talks about this in books of writing advice, at least not that I’ve ever seen. Nor have I heard it being discussed in creative writing classes (though if your teacher taught you this, I’d love to hear about it). We all know writers need a variety of skills, things like characterization and plotting and the ability to string together an interesting sentence . . . but nobody talks about how you learn to tell how much story you’ve got in your hand.
I thought of this because I was doing some calculations, trying to figure out how hard I would need to drive myself to get a draft done by the end of the month. It’s a little tricky, doing that math when you don’t actually know what goes on the other side of the equal sign. I knew I couldn’t fit the remaining plot into ten thousand words; fine, that means I’ll overrun my target length of 90K. By how much? Not sure. Well, okay: if I wrote two thousand words a day instead of one thousand, then I could write 26K by the end of the month. Ooof, no, way overkill — there’s no way this is 26K of plot remaining. Somewhere between 10 and 26. 15-ish, maybe? That sounds about right . . . .
How do I know this? I can’t even really tell you. I am not the sort of writer who says “this chapter will consist of four scenes, two of them one thousand words long and the other two five hundred.” The scenes are as long as they need to be to get the job done, and I find out how long that is by writing them. I keep forgetting to put in chapter breaks, because for four years I wrote Onyx Court novels that didn’t have any; now I go back and drop them in wherever there’s an appropriate point within a certain range of wordcount. But I can only forecast by approximation: can I get Isabella off Lahaui in a thousand words? Definitely not. Two thousand? Ehhhh, maybe . . . (Verdict as of tonight’s writing: nope, definitely not.) I won’t need five thousand, that’s for damn sure. Somewhere between 2 and 5.
I have to do this all book long. I want to write a 90K book; that means I need to be able to judge how much stuffing goes into the sausage. I sort of weigh it in my hand as I go, looking at the casing, trying to decide whether I should pack more in or not. Eventually I start to feel like okay, we’re at the point now where it’s time to pull things together and wrap them up, rather than adding in new stuff. Within a certain margin of error, I’m right. (When Ashes ran 30K long, I saw that coming a mile off. I hadn’t even finished writing Part One when I e-mailed my editor to say, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.)
Nobody taught me how to do this. I don’t know if it can be taught, because the answers can vary so much from writer to writer. What one person knocks off in five hundred words, another might spend two thousand on. Even if you’re the sort who outlines ahead of time instead of making it up as you go along, you need a sense for how many words it will take you to say something. And I’m not sure how you acquire that sense, other than by writing a lot and seeing how many words you end up with.
All of which is just sort of me rambling, because wordcount has been on my brain lately. But it’s one of those things I never really see discussed — a skill nobody tells you you’ll have to acquire.