The first draft of my current novel clocks in at 135,105 words. Anyone who’s written a novel knows exactly what this means just by looking at this number, but to give my non-writer pals some perspective, this translates to 468 pages using double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font. Almost one full ream of paper.
I’m told this is too long for a debut novel. But hey, no worries. To quote Hemingway: The first draft of anything is shit.
So I’ve been cutting.
I got the second draft down to 120,860 words (or 413 pages). It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. All the cuts I made were big picture stuff. I eliminated a small sub-plot that went nowhere. Removed a character who added nothing to the story. Deleted backstory (background info) that no reader would care about.
I gleefully killed my darlings. Some writers mourn this loss. I think it’s freakin’ awesome.
I’m now ten chapters into the third draft, and so far I’ve cut another 2,500 words. Small picture stuff this time. Conversations that droned on too long. Excessive adverbs. Lengthy, boring descriptions. And you know what? Woo hoo! Cutting is FUN! It’s addictive! What else can I cut? Bring me the scissors!
When all is said and done, I’d like to end up close to 100,000 words. That should put me smack in the middle of the ‘sweet spot’ for a first novel. And yes, I’m aiming for this. I’m constantly checking the bottom left side of my computer screen for the updated word count. The smaller that number gets, the better I feel. It’s actually kind of cathartic… that is, until I’m forced to cut something I actually care about to hit my goal.
So I can’t help but wonder. Is it not ridiculous to be so focused on word count? Isn’t it the story that matters? As a reader, I love a big, fat, juicy novel that can double as a doorstop. And I’m an artist, dammit. The story should have as many words as it needs – no more, no less. Right?
I can be as artistic as I want, but ultimately, publishing is a business and it costs money to print books. The longer the book is, the more money it costs to produce. It’s a huge risk for the publisher to print a doorstop that might not sell through. Unless your name is Stephen King. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Stephenie Meyer.
For an unknown like me, word count matters. There’s no room in my fledgling career for artistic ego.