Monday, August 21, 2017

How to Use Your Word Count to Your Advantage

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Quite often, word counts are associated with dread. "Oh no, I have to cut words," or "My manuscript is too short for the market I want to write for." We might even stress over a chapter that's gotten too big (or too small). It makes sense, since what we can measure is what usually gets measured, and word count is the easiest things to measure in a manuscript. It's how we judge the hard to judge.

Which is a bit unfair to the poor word count, because it's actually a very handy too to use when writing. The number of words we have can help us judge our pacing and structure. I even use my word count to help me write my scenes.

Keeping an eye on my word count per chapter helps me control my pacing as I write. It varies some from chapter to chapter, but I know there's certain basic structure to my storytelling processes, and keeping track of where I am in my word count guides me in how a chapter should play out.

I didn't start off doing this, of course. I realized several years ago that I had a certain structural style I naturally wrote in. My first drafts typically fall around 60,000 words for young adult, and 80,000 words for adult novels. My chapters like to weigh in around 2,500 words. Even within my chapters, I have a typical structure that uses a certain number of words. I'm not purposefully following a template, this is just how my writing brain works.

For example, when I begin a new chapter, I check my word count feature (or set it if the software allows that, such as Scrivener). I know generally how many words I typically write per scene to work out a plot event. I have a common word-count curve that more often than not goes 500-1500-500 as I start, build, and end a chapter.

So how does this work?

Let's say the chapter I'm working on is starting with a new goal for my protagonist. My scene introductions tend to run around 500 words, so I know this is about how much I need to write to get into the scene and set everything up. By that 500-word mark, my protagonist has been handed a problem, reacted to it, and made a decision about what needs to be done next that propels the scene forward. At the end of the chapter, there's usually a big "eek!" moment, and that typically needs 500 words to lead up to. So I have 1500 words in which to connect those moments.

If I get to the decision point and find out I've only written 145 words, there's a very good change I've skimped on description or internalization or I'm not increasing the conflict or tension as much as I need to. I'll add something to flesh out that beginning, such as a problem, fear, some foreshadowing--it varies depending on the scene and what's needed at that point of the book. If I'm close (or over) that 500 word mark, then I continue as planned.

I keep writing until I get close to that 2000 word mark, and usually by then I'm ramping up to that big "eek!" moment. If not, chances are I need to start wrapping up that chapter. If I'm nowhere near the ending of that scene, that either means this is a very long scene (which it might be) or I'm wandering and losing focus, possibly unsure where I'm going.

Now, I know some of you (especially the pantsers) are probably thinking "Egads, how could she write like that? It's so rigid!" but it's really not. I don't force my chapters to fit my 2,500-word target. If a chapter starts out with only 145 words and they do exactly what they need to do, I don't worry about adding more. If the scene needs an extra 1,000 words to complete what has to be done, I write those words. Keeping an eye on my word counts is a technique to help me, not stymie my creativity.

For example If I'm halfway through a chapter and I've written something that can turn into a problem if a character does X instead of Y, I might check to see where in my chapter I am word-count-wise. If it's early on, and that problem might be fun to explore a bit, I let the problem happen. If I'm close to the end of the chapter, I reevaluate that potential problem.

Not every problem I come up with is going to serve the story. Just because I can make it harder, doesn't mean I should, especially if it's going to hijack my protagonist from the core conflict at the wrong moment. If I'm excited about the idea, I run with it even if breaks all my guideline "rules" just to see where it goes, because you never know where something awesome will come from.

A lot of it is gut instinct, but after years of writing, I've learned I write best when I write organically within an outline structure. It's useful for me to know "I have 1000 words to do stuff in this scene before I get to X plot moment." What that "stuff" turns out to be often depends on what pops out of my head and onto the page as I write it.

If a scene spans chapters, then naturally this breakdown goes right out the window, but I've found there's still a plot wave of introduction--building--problem that happens in every chapter. I still keep track of the words, because I've also found scenes that run too short tend to feel rushed, and those that run too long tend to drag. If I've written 1,200 words and I haven't added a new problem, revealed something new, or done something that moves the story in some way, chances are the scene will bore the snot out of my beta readers. It's much easier to deal with it at the drafting stage than revise later.

I'll love this process, but I know this is not a technique that will work for everyone. If this sounds appalling to you, stick to your own process. But if you do decide to try it, remember to use whatever word counts work for your writing style. If you write longer, your breakdowns will differ. Study your past work and look at the scenes and chapters you really like, and see if there's a common breakdown you can use as a guide.

Maybe it's the artist in me fleshing out a rough sketch, but I've discovered I have the most freedom when I give myself a little structure to work in.

Have you ever used word counts to help pace? Does this technique appeal to you or sound dreadful (grin)?
For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is interesting, and kind of the same thing I'm doing now with this draft of my novel, except my word count goal is 4,000. Sometimes I go over the word count and sometimes I'm just a little under it, but I think that's fine since it'd be weird for all the chapters in a book to be the same amount of words. And I have to agree with you on the most freedom being available when you have a little structure. Doing it this way, I get a chance to see my story from a different perspective and it's really helped.

    Great post.

  2. This is very interesting and unconsciously, I think I work along the same lines. I set word count goals for each scene (depending on importance) and try to stick within those guidelines. Since I've planned everything out beforehand, it seems to work. I like the idea of watching where the eek moments fall. That's great advice.

  3. By contrast, I get this gut feeling when the chapter is supposed to be ending... but for my current novel it just happens to be right around 4000 words. At that point I get to decide whether it's worth breaking or continuing. So I think our minds are often aware of word count on a certain level even if we don't think it through as consciously as you do.

  4. Speaking as a dedicated pantser, I make heavy use of word count to make sure my structure is staying tight. Like Jaydee, I watch at the scene level, trying to keep every scene right around 800 words.

    I've noticed you can affect pacing a lot by playing with wordcounts. If I drop a series of scenes down to 5-600 words, the book feels faster, breathless. At 1000-1200 words, it becomes more thoughtful. Just like the balance of action/dialog/description, the actual number of words between breaks influences the reader.

  5. Cool! How long a chapter should be is something I've wondered. I tend to write until I feel that section is done, some are long and some are short.

    I really like the way that you have it semi-formulated with room for flexiblity.

  6. I use pages instead of word counts, but it's really the same thing!

  7. With my several WiPs, I've noticed that different works have different chapter lengths--but that chapter lengths tend to remain roughly equivalent within a work.

    I don't consciously seek a word count in a chapter unless I've already noticed a pattern, though I'm not averse to having chapters mean something specific and therefore require approximate word counts if I can ever actually write a story that would fit it.

    With my WiP undergoing revisions, I originally had chapter lengths bouncing from about 500 to 2000 words but most were around 1000. I decided to sit down and try to make them more consistent. When I took a closer look, I realized I was sometimes using a chapter break where the situation actually required a scene break, and my scenes...

    Well, I'm still working on that. But I was surprised by how much sitting down and evaluating the chapter lengths helped me work more action and development in.

  8. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my word count each day. And yes, I agree that looking at a scene you think is done and finding it's too short, either by word count or page count, often means you've skimped somewhere along the way.

    I usually ask myself, "How can I get more tension into this scene?"

  9. It's funny reading your posts Janice because you work so completely differently from me - so it's nice to see a different perspective.

    Like Juliette, my chapters tend to tell me when they're ready to be finished. I usually start knowing what the event at the end of the chapter needs to be and just work towards that. Typically my word count for a chapter is somewhere between 3500-4000 words but I've found in my latest WIP the word count has been all over the place, with some chapters being very short and some being somewhat longer than usual, which I guess answers the age-old question "How long should a chapter be?" - As long as it needs to be.

  10. Very interesting. Thanks for posting it.

  11. Most welcome. My way is certainly not the only way, but I know it helped me to hear how others did things and why when I was starting out. I could try different things and figure out what worked best for me.

  12. Ok so it required to have. Say 4000 words per chapter, consistently throughout the novel, or is it ok to have say 2000-4000 per chapter? I realize it broad, but sometimes the chapter doesn't need more than 1700 words, but some chapters have a lot more going on and are at 4000 words...I think I'm confused

    1. Nothing is required. You can vary the size per chapter, or even have a chapter with one word or sentence if it worked for the story. Chapters tend to be roughly the same size, but no rule says it has to be that way, and it can vary without any trouble. A general range is pretty typical of the average novel.

      Chapters are just another tool you have to pace and structure your novel. They help you break it so it flows the way you want a reader to read it. Endings pack a lot of dramatic punch, and sometimes you need to end on that beat to get the emotional impact you want.

      A range is fine if that works for you. So is writing in scenes and deciding after the first draft is done where to break it into chapters. However you want to structure your novel is your call.

  13. Just making sure I get an email alert😉

  14. In anything I do, I flounder if I don't have structure. Breaking down chpts in this way is perfect for me. Creativity generated by structure. I love it. Thank you.

    1. Most welcome! I'm the same way, so I hope this works as well for you as it does me.

  15. I am writing my book with Leilani and Zane and it will be 29 chapters long. yes I also use how many words I wrote for the day to add to the story so I can keep track of it.

  16. While I've never used word count to help me in this way, I've definitely toyed with it a lot in my suspense fiction to ramp up the tension or ease it when things have gotten too dark. And I was always a pantser - until the first time I really decided to use an outline. Now I fall somewhere in between, and I can't imagine going back to not knowing anything about the story I'm about to write. Talk about Blank Page Paralysis! Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. Most welcome! It's not something that will work for everyone, but I've been surprised by things I never thought would work for me that were exactly what I needed. Like you with outlining--you never now what might click with you.