Saturday, 12 July 2014

Making words count

I have become more than a little obsessed with word counts.

And if you think that sounds like an incredibly boring subject for a blog, you might be right. But let's see what happens.
When I first began writing, one of my many fears and doubts I had was that I didn't really know how long my book should be. I didn't even know how long a chapter should be. So I did some research, and discovered that the first Harry Potter was 76, 944 words long. But then again, The Golden Compass - another literary lodestone as far as my ambition was concerned - was more like 125, 000.

I ended up with a first draft of my first middlegrade novel which was over 100,00 words long, which as my agent rightly said was also too long for my intended readership. The Deathly Hallows, the last Harry Potter, is about 198,000 words long which just goes to show what happens when you're too successful to take notes. Sorry, I mean, which just goes to show how there is no limit to a child's reading stamina if they really love a world and the characters.

US kids in line to get their hands on 198,000 words of The Deathly Hallows

(And truly, of course there is no "right" length to a book. Some of the most perfect middlegrade books - A Monster Calls, Once, Holes - are all much shorter than any of those. I would broadly say that any book which verges on fantasy and involves substantial world creation, is going to always be on the longer side because part of the pleasure comes from luxuriating in the rich, embroidered nature of the imaginary universe conjured up. The story is the length of the story you need to tell. But it's always useful to have some kind of bench mark to work towards in your head, I reckon.)

Either way, I was no J K Rowling, and cutting 100,000 words down to the ultimate 67,000 words my first book was published as became something of a laborious task. Because word counts have real implications for storytelling. For every bit you hack out, you still need to compress or explain elsewhere, so word counts never strictly go down or up, they fluctuate, like a water table.

Which meant that when it came to my sequel, which I had less than a year to write, I was determined not to so massively overwrite the first draft, to avoid the later pain. Luckily, along the way, I discovered this marvellous software called Scrivener, which I'm sure some of you are aware of.  Some love, some are baffled, I'm certainly not here to evangelise, but there are two very useful word count features it has over MS Word.

The first is this. You divide your chapters up into your separate text files, which apart from being very easy to manage, means you can keep a constant check on your word count as you go along, like so. The word count appears automatically at the bottom of each part or chapter, and you can make a note in what Scrivener calls the 'binder' - basically a long column to the left of your writing window:

And I find this more than helpful. Patrick Ness (who has some great tips on writing and chapter length here ) said he decided each chapter of The Knife of Never Letting Go had to be pretty much 2500 words for reasons of rhythm. That gets to the heart of why I find word counts so important. There isn't always time to endlessly re-read and edit when you're drafting, and many feel that's counter productive anyhow. So word counts are an incredibly useful, visual shorthand for seeing if any part of your story is really out of balance. Like Ness, my view with these current books I'm writing is that if I can't tell the chapter's story in around 2000 words, it's too long. And generally - if it's way under 1500, I'm probably not there yet.

There's one last reason I find word counts useful, and that's for the daily routine. Graham Greene famously wrote 400 words a day, always only 400, even if that meant finishing mid-sentence. He rarely revised, wrote over 25 books and was a genius. Others I know like to binge-write - anything from 2000-5000 words a day, although that could be hard to sustain.

Which brings me to the second really handy feature of Scrivener. The daily word target. You type in your submission deadline, the target length of your book, and set various options like whether you write at weekends or not and this handy pop up window tells you - every day - what you need to write. Here's mine for Book 3 today.

It may sound horribly automated and soulless to some, but trust me, as that bottom progress bar begins at red and proceeds to green, nothing can be more motivating. The counter includes negatives, so if you delete loads of stuff, it increases accordingly. The truth, for me at least, is that in the wide empty sea writing a book can be - no end in sight, following a chart that keeps being affected by so many variables, feeling alone - just hitting my daily word target is an incredibly easy way to stay focused and motivated. Even on the dark days, when the ideas refuse to flow, if I can just get to my words, I feel I've achieved something. Even the greatest task feels manageable broken down into small chunks.

Speaking of which, I had better get on it...

*This blog is about 1000 words long, and the ideal average blog is considered to be about 500 words, so too long. I always overwrite. Which is why I'm not much good at Twitter. Sorry.

*My second book was longer than my first, and the third will be longer again. No matter how hard I try! Does anyone else have this problem?

Piers Torday


Sue Purkiss said...

Useful to know word lengths of some well known books - helps you to equate thickness with word count!

So did Graham Greene - who would obviously have been writing either longhand or on a typewriter - keep a constant count of how many words he was writing? It's a tedious thing to do. I think I'd rather have risked going a bit over or under the 400!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've heard of Scrivener. Is it a Mac application or a Microsoft or can be used for both? Well, Pages has a word count for each file, but nothing like that target you mention.

I have to admit, I'm an over-writer for first draft, but usually find that the second, cut-back draft is usually better than the first.

Piers Torday said...

Hi Sue P - I believe he counted as he went along. And then he stopped and had a gin and tonic!

Sue B - Scrivener is available for both Mac and Windows, with slightly more functionality in the Mac version but you still get the word counts.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

I haven't succumbed to Scrivener (yet) though not for the lack of chums advocating it. I once had to edit from 105,000 to 67,000 -- no prizes for guessing which version was better. I work out a word count for a first draft which is always about 10-15K more than I want the edited version to be (I too always over-write in the first draft), and enjoy making myself a table in my notebook with projected word counts, etc. I know Scrivener would do that for me, but why deprive myself of such a delightful procrastination tool? I do highlighters and wee boxes outlined in red.

Cavan Scott said...

I'm a massive word count junkie and have all kinds of crazy plans and graphs when I'm working on a project, setting myself daily quotas and the like. You're not alone in this!