Writing, Reading, and Smiling . . . It's Contagious.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Striving for Greatness

Double-spaced, left-justified, 12 pt. font, MLA style, 
FIVE pages!

IF YOU CAN EXPLAIN the fall of Rome in three pages, tack on an extra two pages of fluff, so you can get an A. Ten pages about Einstein's theory of relativity? You'd better cut it down to five or face Dr. So-and-so's paper shredder. 

Remember writing essays like that? As a student I never had a problem with the  issue of making my work reader-friendly, but I did have a problem with the length requirement. No matter the class, the teacher always dictated a required page count which students dared not adjust to fit their thesis or writing style.

"Sages" also tout average word counts for books, factoring in the intended audience, the genre, the marketability, the author's reputation/experience, the production cost, etc. I remember the nausea I felt after reading that the average word count for a work of fiction is in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 words. My work of historical fiction, Dead Bird in the Weeds, is nearly twice the "maximum" length. I've asked myself many times if I should have cut 80,000 words in order to "fit in." The answer is always "no," despite the fact that many proclaim that a writer who doesn't stick to the rules is either a bad writer or doesn't understand or care about marketability.

Although I'm confident about my work, this length obsession haunts me daily. Regardless of what I'm writing, I constantly check the page count and the word count as if the work's merit rests in the hands of a magic number. At times it has driven me to the point of adding extra paragraphs or scenes simply because the chapter didn't look long enough. That's nothing more than commercialism, and unless you're considering approaching traditional publishers or agents who are looking to market the latest fad, it has no place in serious fiction.

Despite my conviction, it's hard to break away from the word-count frenzy. Before I start a work, I say to myself, "X (the work) is going to be approximately Y number of words (because of either the genre or complexity of the subject), so plan on X to be Z number of pages." To give you an idea of how instinctive this behavior is, read the following conversation I had earlier this week with a friend of mine:

FRIEND.  I really like this last chapter. You're probably about, what, halfway through this book, aren't you? [Keep in mind that this person knows most of the plot.]

ME.  No, I've only written about one-third of it. [Note that I've been struggling with the length of this book to the point that I've sat for hours staring at the computer while trying to think of a way to stretch it out].

FRIEND.  Oh, really?

ME.  Yeah, this book is going to be about 100,000 words.

FRIEND.  How can you know that when you haven't finished it?

Good point. How can you know the length of a work before it's finished? The answer is simple: You can't! There is no magic word count or page count. A work is as long as it needs to be, no more, no less. Because of this realization, I have now accepted the fact that my book may only be half of what I had originally planned. And do you know what? Nothing is wrong with that.

Another plus is that the pressure is gone. The words are flowing—faster than before—and I'm more confident about what I'm writing. I'm not being sidetracked by the word-count calculator and I've stopped looking at the page count.

So, to all those professors and sages touting average word counts for average essays, books, etc., I have one thing to say, "Sorry, I have no desire to fit into a mold so I can be 'average.'"

I'm striving for greatness.


As always, I love to hear from you.
If you’re in the cyber-neighborhood, drop me a line.

In the meantime, keep writing, reading, and smiling.
It’s contagious.


Anonymous said...

Love the look of your blog. Great post today. I kept thinking back to the days when the teacher would assign a paper and all the kids wanted to know was whether or not they could count the articles as full words. Duh.

I'm so past that. Write on!

Laurel (Raven)

J.E. Seanachaí said...

Thanks, Laurel!

I think those school days serve as great reminders of how much we've accomplished and learned over the years. We can look back and say, "Hey, look how much I've grown!"

Happy writing to you!

Post a Comment