[process] Rubric's cube, or at least number line - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
? ?
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-01-25 05:40
Subject: [process] Rubric's cube, or at least number line
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Music:not much
Tags:green, process, writing

My email box constantly assures me that size matters. Apparently I am the little guy at the club. (Club? What club? Famous Writers' Club? Club Dread?)

Unfortunately, my editors also assure me that size matters. For example, I began writing "The Baby Killers" with the intention of creating a novella for an invited market. ABout 7,500 words in, my editor brain lit up and I thought, "Why the heck would they want a novella?" Turns out 6,000-7,500 words is the upper limit. My 20,000 word target is a wee bit overlength. I had somehow swapped two projects on my punch list, the other being an actual, invited novella.

Last night "The Baby Killers" crossed the 12,000 word mark. I'll write something else for the market in question, and I'll sell "The Baby Killers" somewhere else — I've already had one editorial query about it.

The interesting thing is that size really does matter. Most anthology invites have a pretty specific word count range associated with them. Novel contracts specify a word count for the final manuscript. What this means is that writing to length (which, naturally, includes the editing process) is a critical skill for a working pro.

I used to be really good at it.

Now, not so much.

There was a time when I could size an idea, target a short story length, and hit it within a few hundred words or less. The New Model Process has wreaked havoc on my ability to do this. Writing under that rubric, I still have some rough idea of class — short story, novelette, novella — but that's about it. Green's length was difficult to predict as well, though I believe I told arcaedia 185,000 words in first draft, and I only overshot that by about 13,000 words.

What does this mean? For me, mostly more rewriting, editing or cutting. Since my drift over the past few years has been to write long, and NMP absolutely reinforces that, this is ok. Turns out I'm a much better taker-outer than putter-inner. I admire tight, crisp prose in others, and that process helps tighten and crispen my own wordage.

But I have to admit, there was something cool about being able to call my shots. On the other hand, there's something cool about having a bit more mystery back in my writing.

Can you call length? Do you try?
Post A Comment | 13 Comments | | Flag | Link

Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2008-01-25 14:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If I write an outline first, I can predict my wordcount to within 500 words or so for a short story. If I don't I have no idea. I can't speak to novels.

I do try, because I find that anything around 4000 words is a sweet spot for me when it comes to selling the work.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: bram452
Date: 2008-01-25 14:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can call length to a degree that unnerves the folks in my crit group. Short stories to within 500 or so. For novels the error bars are around +/- 2000 words. My wordcount kink is what I use to occupy the front of my head so the back of my head can get to work.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: kellymccullough
Date: 2008-01-25 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: For novels
yes, within a thousand words, but a lot of it is due to keeping a floating outline and rejiggering as needed. By about 20,000 words in I generally know what the natural chapter length is for the rhythm of the book. Then I can take the narrative outline and break it up by chapter into a working outline, count the projected chapters, and decide where I need to add or trim scenes. As I go I see what gets left over or added onto for each chapter and adjust everything else to fit.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-25 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: Re: For novels
FYI, I wrote Green without chapters, because early on I found myself forcing the story to meet a chapter end around the 5,000 word mark, and I didn't want to do that.

I will go back and chapter it before final submission.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: kellymccullough
Date: 2008-01-25 15:06 (UTC)
Subject: Re: For novels
I can see why you'd want to do that. That's one of the reasons why I really can't do this till about 20k in, because I have to find the rhythm of the story.

For WebMage books that seems to be about 5k per chapter. With the YA I've written it's usually somewhere between 2-3k. But I've also had projects where the natural length within one book varied from 800 words up to about 1,800 because of the different voices of the POV characters. Still, since I had about 17 chapters including several from each of the significant POVs at the 20k mark I was able to get an idea of length on the project well in advance of finishing--since it was spec rather than under contract I just needed to make sure it wasn't going to land in the very difficult to sell lengths.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: eddvick
Date: 2008-01-25 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: Re: For novels
I was on a panel at foolscap where we were to bring books we liked, open it to chapter 7 and read the first few paragraphs, then discuss the work with the audience. We kept the books hidden from the audience, so a prime discussion point was how old the book was (HG Wells "The War in the Air" sounded surprisingly modern).

Point is, I was surprised to find about half of my fave novels aren't chapterized. At this late date I can't remember which ones, but I had to go through a lot of books before I could get a good mix for the panel.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: renatus
Date: 2008-01-25 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've never been able to call length. I might be able to length when approaching the first revision, but the very first draft, no way. Even with an outline I have to do a lot of thinking on paper--adding scenes, rearranging scenes, chucking scenes altogether, blathering on textually to figure out just what the important point is. It ends up taking me forever and I end up with a giant shambling mound of text, but fortunately I like revising. Viciously, if need be.
Reply | Thread | Link

Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2008-01-25 17:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've never yet written a story that ended up being shorter than I expected.

Occasionally, I've been in the right ballpark.

Usually, I'm anything from 20% to 50% over.

I am wordy.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: desperance
Date: 2008-01-25 18:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm hopeless. Thirty years a pro, and I'm still hopeless. My recent novel, the contract calls for 125K and I was predicting/expecting 150; it came out at 195 (which I have hacked back to 155 in the first-pass edit). My current editing project, a piece I wrote on spec, started out intended to be a short story, albeit a long one; it passed 8K and I thought, okay, novelette. It passed 15K and I thought, okay, novella. The first draft came out at 45K, which is technically too long even for a novella, and all my editorial ideas consist of adding more. I do still think of it as a novella, though, despite the technicalities; it has that structure and that simplicity of line which makes it not-a-novel. (And given how books generally have become longer, it makes sense that novellas should too, and I wish they could revisit the categories in terms of awards: 45K does not make a novel, in any serious current reckoning.)
Reply | Thread | Link

oracne - Victoria Janssen
User: oracne
Date: 2008-01-25 19:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can sometimes call length, but only in sections, like, "the chapters feel like they're all going to be about 5000 words" and that turns out to be true.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: iamrazorwing
Date: 2008-01-25 21:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
People who have that skill constantly amaze me. I write until the story's done, and I never have the slightest idea how many words that'll be. I kinda wish I could call the final tally, but I'm really not all that broken-up over it, ultimately.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: leatherzebra
Date: 2008-01-26 00:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can with shorter works. With novels, not so much. I'm definitely a puter inner with novels. I have a strong tendency to write through the plot and leave out things like character building and world build because I already know about it duh. LOL. I'm struggling with a short right now that needs to be 3-5k and the voice it wants to be in I don't think can make it that long.
Reply | Thread | Link

Mark Teppo
User: markteppo
Date: 2008-01-26 03:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On first drafts, I've been pretty good in the last year or so. But they always grow a bit when I polish them up. Usually, though, I don't consciously say the number to myself until after I've hit the 1500 word mark as that's how long it takes for me to get the shape in my head of what the story is.

Usually I think 100K for novels by default. The one I started this week is telling me 80K already. We'll see how it comes out.
Reply | Thread | Link

my journal
January 2014
2012 appearances