After all these years of writing and having some of my work published, I rarely, if ever, considered word count. It wasn’t until Newsweek told me to lose 200 words of my carefully (and beautifully) constructed article on pedophilia in the Catholic clergy that I thought in terms of length. But word count only mattered in journalism, not fiction.
Or so I thought. Now, when dealing with agents and publishers, they want to know the word count of the novel. I don’t know if there’s a preferred length of a novel, but I gathered, from different articles, that the average length of a novel is 80,000 words (which translates into 315-340 pages). Which is the ballpark that my previous novels played in.
The idea of word count became more specific as I started on my next novel. A friend and first reader busted my chops about the length of my novels. She was probably the only one of those readers who wanted more of me, but I’m going to act as if she’s one of thousands. It turned out that, independent of her suggestion, I was working on a much longer/larger book than its predecessors.
So what? You might ask. The ‘so what’ is that going from a mid-size novel to a longer one is that the longer one brings more challenges. Characters, scenes, sub-plots—all get more complicated when you get toa novel that, by my estimate, will be 150,000 words (400+ pages). I remember reading how different writers had cork walled studies, where they had their outlines and character studies pinned up. As the writing developed, they moved them around. They also had an area for chronology, to make sure that the events lined up after they made those changes.
A writer friend suggested Scrivener, which I went out and bought. I’ve used it so far more as a repository for notes and outlines for characters, but it’s the kind of program that has any number of YouTube videos showing how different writers and editors use it. My editor has used it and can coach me, but her usage has fallen by the wayside.
I’ve already shared with you the different openings that I’ve tried for the script and novel, which at first were distinct. The producer I was working with really liked the opening on the yacht (and its violent conclusion), saying it was more cinematic and it didn’t matter that much that it was further in the movie that you encounter these characters again. My editor for the novel had a different opinion, saying that the gap was too long. The solution, at least for me, came when I looked at the outline and the Scrivener notes and realized I could keep the yacht opening (which is one of those ‘darlings’ that I might be holding on to for the wrong reason, since it was the very first scene I wrote for both novel and script) if I created two new scenes which introduced and developed the characters earlier than in the first draft.
So my counsel so far to any writer looking to expand from what Steinbeck called his ‘little books’ (Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men) to a ‘big book’ like East of Eden is: find a tracking/outline software program or buy a shitload of cork for your walls.