25 February, 2011

Counting the Words

Yesterday I got to the 70 000 word point in my novel re-write. Which means, I hope, that I have about 20 000 words to go and might be done in a couple of weeks!

I am a bit of a statistics geek so I love my word counts! I was worried that for a novel for children, 98 000 words (the length of the draft I am working from) is too long but the author who critiqued part of it for me, assures me it isn't. I am pleased, however, to be cutting down a fair few thousand in this version anyway. About 100 000 words is normal for adult pop fiction (e.g crime and thrillers) and fantasy tends to be a bit longer, but word counts on children's books vary from really short to really quite long. On the Harry Potter scale (that all children's writers will be doomed to be compared to for eternity) my book will be just a smidge longer than The Chamber of Secrets but shorter than all the following ones (particularly The Order of the Phoenix which has over a quarter of a million words in it) and shorter than the books in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I'm happy with that.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that one of the best bits of advice he was given was: second draft = first draft -10%. I try and bear that in mind when I'm writing. The first time I wrote this story it came out at just over 100 000 words, so if it's close to 90 000 I hope I will have made Mr. King proud. But how do you cut down so much? Well, another piece of advice he was given early in his career was, "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." You know what that means folks: all those adjectives and adverbs that you lovingly put in to make the prose more interesting but really just slow the story, that great metaphor that is a creative masterpiece but has no place in the narrative, that elaborate bit of scene-setting that shows off your technical wizardry but bores your reader stupid, all those needless bits of dialogue that are merely pleasantries (contrary to popular opinion I think that if you make dialogue strictly realistic you end up with a lot of wasted words - we don't talk as economically as we should write!) - they all have to go. It doesn't matter how good something is, if it doesn't move the plot forward it's out. I am in the middle of this process: the process of killing my darlings.

I have found quite a bit of wasted conversation in the draft of my novel so that's obviously one of my writing sins. What are your worst word-wasters? Or, if you're not a writer, what's your equivalent to having to kill off the words you've so lovingly slaved over?

4 comments:

  1. As you can imagine Chloe, dialogue is my chief love as far as writing goes. 20-minute assemblies have helped me to be brief and to-the-point. I don't entirely agree that dialogue should only be used for plot purposes; alongside that goes the very important task of establishing and expanding character, and that's where most of us go overboard. We want everyone to know everything about our babies ~ we need to trust our readers a bit more. Ceve

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  2. Lest I forget Chloe, you are to be admired and I don't just mean by your husband. Seriously, you don't talk about your novel as a task, but more like the pruning and nurturing of a growing thing. The passion you have for it is obvious and you have an objective.
    I can only compare your progress to when I was training for long distance runs. Each time you venture into a session you know what's expected, but the key point is that you set out willingly.
    Thank you for the mention of 'On Writing' by Stephen King. I've heard mention of that book on more than one occasion and now you've convinced me that it should be on my shelf.
    My own military autobiography, (working title 'The Single Years') has presently got an average 20,000 words per chapter. I think I need some of your cutting ability.
    Till next time, great to catch up.

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  3. As already said, it's presumeably about getting a balance between getting rid of "that elaborate bit of scene-setting that shows off your technical wizardry but bores your reader stupid" and leaving in enough descriptions and dialogue to let people fall as much in love with your characters and places as you have :)

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  4. Thanks everyone.

    Tom, I too used to be a competitive runner and I think my teenage years spent doing that has given me the self-discipline for a lot of things. Definitely give 'On Writing' a go - it's very quick to read, very helpful and quite inspiring (he finished writing it after very nearly being killed in a road accident).

    Ceve, I don't think dialogue is only to drive plot but my point was that if you listen to two people speak there are a lot of wasted words. The one thing I have cut a lot of is pointless questions.
    e.g. "I've got something to tell you."
    "What is it?"
    "I'm going away for a while."
    This is a pointlessly lengthy conversation, when it could just be.
    "I've got something to tell you: I'm going away for a while."

    In fact you could probably miss out the first half of that sentence anyway! People talk much more like the first example but as it neither builds character or drives plot, it's wasted words. Similarly, lots of people start dialogue with the word, "Well..." which is probably accurate to how we speak but almost never necessary.

    Recently, someone who was a fiction editor at a popular magazine read some of my work and complimented the way I do dialogue as being realistic but economical. This was the best compliment I could have been given as a children's book is much more dependent on dialogue than an adult one!

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