Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Counting words

by Rob - May 28th, 2015.
Filed under: Writing.

Over on Facebook, I was asked if I keep word counts in mind when writing a novel. The answer is yes — and for several reasons.

First, I find daily word-count targets motivate me. When I’m writing first draft, I do 2,000 words a day. If I’m focused (and not wasting time on Facebook!), I can often get that done in four hours — and that means I can knock off for the rest of the day (although “knocking off” usually means doing something else related to my work, like research reading). I’m constantly checking my word count to see how much more I have to get done until I call it quits.

(I love doing research. I love doing revisions. The only part of the process that feels like work to me is getting that first draft out. As I often say, a sculptor can buy a hunk of clay and immediately get to work shaping a piece; a writer has to create his or her clay out of nothing before he or she can start the fun part of shaping it.)

Second, I have a contractual obligation: my publisher wants 100,000 words (give or take, oh, say, 10%). Much less than that, and they’re afraid readers will think the hardcover isn’t enough bang for the buck. Substantially more than that, and they’ve got to up the price of the hardcover to cover the extra costs — and that can hurt, especially for Canadian authors.

I have a friend in Canada whose first novel — quite a good book — was published some time ago by Tor (a New York house) in hardcover. But it was (I’m guessing looking at it) 150,000 words long, and it came out at a time when (as now) the Canadian dollar was low against the greenback, and that meant Tor had to put a substantially higher price on the book in Canada: it came out at $40 (yes, $40; not $39.95) — and, holy crap, was that a hard sell: first novel by an unknown author, and with a first digit in the price almost never seen on a work of hardcover fiction.

Third, novels are usually divided into chapters. My own style is lots of short chapters (my new novel has 52 chapters). My typical chapter is 1,800 words; I allow a few as short as 1,250 words and some as long as 3,200 (a typeset book has 350 or 400 words per page). Each chapter usually consists of two or three scenes (although most of those 1,250-word chapters are a single scene — as are some of the 3,200-worders). On a structural level, I’m conscious of where the chapter breaks (which require a cliffhanger of some sort) are going to fall.

Indeed, structuring into chapters is a core skill for a novelist. That’s the reason editors will often ask beginning writers for a submission of the first three chapters, rather than a set number of words or pages: among all the other skills they’re looking for, they want to see if you’ve mastered chaptering — the art of structuring a book so that as soon as the reader reaches the end of a chapter he or she will say, “Okay, just one more!” rather than putting the book down and possibly never picking it up again.

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1 Response to Counting words

  1. Do you think there’s a double edge sword with word counts? It’s great to write 2000+ words a day and have a book finished in two months (given more + days than – ones) but only have about 25,000 words of actual plot in that 100,000 words?

    I’ve been critiquing other people for almost two decades now, and the number one kiss of death I’ve seen in almost every single book I’ve ever critiqued was too much words, not enough story. I’ve read books where 95% of it is two characters talking. And yes, of course you can find books written by masters where it’s two characters talking, but the bigger the rule break is, the better the writing has to be to forgive it.

    Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment and it should be celebrated. Of all the writing 101 “rules” that are handed down, good books aren’t written they’re rewritten seems to be the last rule that writers have to figure out applies to them, too. I write a lot and I usually write every day, but if there’s a scene where it’s stuck and it just won’t come out, I’ve stopped trying to force myself. Eventually, when the scene does work, it’s because the story needed something to happen that took a couple of days of bubbling though my subconscious. It’s not magic, it’s intuition and muscle memory.

    For those who do get stuck in a book, going back to the last place they felt good about it and rewriting it there can be physically painful, but the first time I cut 40k from a WIP and rewrote it better and stronger, I flew past the point in the story I’d been stuck on for months without ever looking back.

    Books have the good bits, the bad bits, and the bits that aren’t bad but they aren’t good either. Enough good bits, and you can ignore the bad bits. Too much bits that aren’t good or bad make the parts that are bad seem like they’re really bad.

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