Saturday, April 7, 2012

How big is 'enough' for a novel?

I struggled a bit with how many words I needed to classify 'Genome' a true novel, versus a novella or other shorter work. I cruised the web looking for the definitive authority, the writers pages, the wiki entries, SOME place that sounded official.
I found so many contradictions I gave up. I decided to pick one so I picked the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America word counts. You can check it out here if you're interested.

This cleared the way for me to decide if I wanted to try for novella (17,500) or novel ( at least 40,000) word count. That was important to me because I wanted my first book to be a 'normal sized' novel rather than 'just enough' to call it a book. I wanted to push myself and see if I had the stamina to get out a novel.

Shorter works are just as important to literature as a novel. Since it was based on my screenplay I felt it should be a novel. You know; 'based on the fantastic novel Your Favorite Author, this movie adaptation, etc, etc' only in reverse.

I knew I had enough for a novella already but I didn't have the 40,000 mark. I think I was around 30,000 or 40,000 when I decided to push on and see what I could do. I'm really glad I did and I would recommended the exercise to you as well.

Here's why: it made me go back and actually read the book again and 'taste it' so to speak. Reading it as someone else would for the first time. And I found that it was weak.

As an example, I hadn't really fleshed out the Geek squad yet, there was only Jerry the uber geek. Here was a great plot line I could explore. The result gave the company a more believable feel because now the major characters had better developed minor characters to interact with. Minor characters maybe, but characters that lend a lot of interest to the plot and add that tension an author is always looking for.

I also decided I could really expand on the AI character of 'PIP'. Expanding the Geek squad also helped expand PIP and gave me an additional chance to play with their interactions. As I said in a previous post, expanding on PIP was a blast and makes the book much better overall. Score!

Towards the end of the book I have a scene in a graveyard that I just didn't like. I was still light on my target word count so I decided to chuck what I had and rewrite it. It was a challenge to say the least! I was around 55,000 words by then and I was just trying to get past 60,000. But rewriting the scene just to get a better word count actually became secondary to making it much better once I dove in.

I had not realized that the scene was just plain 'unfinished'. It ended the story of course but that's all it did. It didn't give me that roller coaster ride, adrenaline rush I thought it should have. It didn't take advantage of all the 'foreshadowing' I had written into the story. It was pretty dull. Nuts. So again I dove in to a rewrite. I explored several possible plot paths until I found a much more satisfying end to the story. Again, SCORE!

So I'm not advocating you pick a word count for your book based on my expectations or the SFFWA for that matter. I'm advocating that you decide for yourself if 40,0000 or 60,000 or 100,000 is what you consider the right size for a novel.

The lesson for me was that the word count was less important than the exercise of rereading the book, reconsidering if each part or character had some room to grow. I would have missed some great opportunities otherwise. As I continue to write maybe I'll just 'know' when everything is right. Until then I'll stick with what works for me.

BTW, I haven't tried the discipline of XXX number of words a day yet. Does anyone have useful experience on that method?

Keep the muse happy, write something great today!