Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When Are Words Not Enough?

When it comes to writers and publishers, wEnvy (in our day of eBooks and pBooks), is an ongoing debate. wEnvy is word count envy. How many is enough? My book is bigger than your book! When is a word count a book or is it just a longer short story? In my Fiction Writers Guild discussion group on LinkedIn, this has become an interesting discussion. By your word count you will be defined.

Within the four generalized categories of fiction, short story (under about 8,000 words), novelette (under 18,000 words), novella (under 40,000 words) and novel (over 40,000 words), it is important to remember that size does matter. But the bottom line is simple, how many words does it take to tell the story?
  • The Cat and the Hat - 225 words (Seuss won a bet from Bennett Cerf on this one)
  • Atlas Shrugged – 561,996 words (Rand had a lot to say – count is debated, like her)
  • Lord of the Rings – 561,792 words (and yes, I did not count them myself)
  • War and Peace - 580,000 words (depending on translation and royal titles)
  • A la recherch√© du temps perdu (Proust) – 1,500,000 (depending again on translation and patience)
It seems, according to Wikipedia, the French own the four top spots – and these are multi-volume tomes. When is 2 million words in French enough?

When is enough, enough? It’s hard to say. Often one lesson given in writer’s workshops is to write a piece, then continue to cut and edit words until the essence left. I suggest that sometimes adverbs and adjectives are needed, sometimes they are not. But to cut all the flesh from the bone, leaves nothing but bone.

In the O’Mara Chronicles I intentional structure the books to be about 70,000 words, broken into 15 chapters, each chapter split into 3 subchapters (with variations). These are units that allow me write each subchapter at one sitting - usually. But in Elk River, the word count is 113,000 words – was that enough, I will let the reader decide.

Word count – smurd count. Each genre has its own expectations on word count and the parallel issue of page count. Want more pages? Write more words or print in bigger type fonts – simple. But the experienced reader knows the heft of their favorite stories, whether science fiction or romance. How many words does Buffy need to slay all the vampires (I think usually too many – but that’s just me)? Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is 74,880 words, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is 340 pages and over 130,000 words, which one do you prefer?

A writer needs to tell their story, the reader will either enjoy it or reject it. Or worse, close the book and not finish. The writer must keep the reader engaged and interested: Will the girl get the guy? Hell, will the guy get the guy? Will the vampire suck everyone dry – if then, what will he do – blood bank? Will John Galt be identified or will those evil mindless bureaucrats actually win? Will the Cat and the Hat come back? The correct number of words will tell us.

More later . . . .

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