Sunday, January 16, 2011

Arriving at Your Ideal Word Count

I'll be the first to admit I am a verbose writer. I was only a few thousand words into the first draft of my novel when I decided to research word counts. Everything said a historical romance should clock in somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

All I could think was, Whoah. How on earth am I going to write that much?

A mere 116,000 words later I was wondering something entirely different. How on earth am I going to cut at least 16,000 words?

I've read that many first time writers have the same problem I have. Their first drafts are entirely too long. Like, WAR AND PEACE too long. So I started on my second draft and tried to find anything I could possibly cut.
First I looked for weaknesses in my writing. Deleting adverbs was on the top of my lists. My characters couldn't just smile. They had to "smile sympathetically" or "smile slyly" or "smile devilishly." Delete, delete, delete.

Then I tried to be aware of when I used the same word or phrase over and over. It seemed I liked to use the phrase "caught my eye" an awful lot. Oh, and the word "seemed." Seems I can't get enough of it.

I also discovered my fondness for explaning character motivation, and then re-explaining it in the next paragraph. And then rehashing it again in the next. Oh, and as was pointed out by the editor I hired, I started far too many lines of dialogue with "Oh."

At the end of my first draft my word count was 96,000. Yes, I cut 20,000 useless words. Then I read a book on editing your own work and read through again. This time I read back through everything with the goal of just making every line tighter and better. Even without trying to lower my word count, I cut an additional 15,000 words!

No scenes or characters have been cut. Just lots extraneous words and description. It saddens me sometimes that because I wrote the first draft at a rate of 1,000 words per day, that I essentially deleted  more than a month's work of work, but I wonder if I could have done it any other way. I wrote everything that came to mind, and only aftwards sifted through the mess and polished only the most essential information. If I'd tried to start out by writing only the essential the final product might not have been rich as I think it is.

I believe a great quote attributed to Michael Angelo can be applied to the art of editing. To paraphrase, someone asked him how he carved the statue of David, and he replied that he started with a block of stone and removed everything that wasn't David. That's how I like to see my approach to writing.

Some writers start with an anorexic framework and add to that. Others start with something bloated and over-written and carve it down from there. What kind of writer are you and how do you move your word count into a marketable range?


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