The evils of word count

The evils of word count

How do you know if you’re making good time or your novel is long enough?

I am currently in the process of writing my first novel and so many things are new to me.  There’s quite a difference between putting together a short story here and there and making the commitment to drop tens-of-thousands of word onto the digital page.  In fact, aside from the placement of one word in front of the next, I walked into this thing completely in the dark.  So when I decided I wanted to see if I was making good progress or not, I hopped on the Internet to see what it could tell me.  The answers, as it turns out, were not so simple.

I decided to check both daily word counts and the overall word count that my novel was shaping up to hit.  At the time, I was writing somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000-4000 words each time I managed to sit down and pay attention to my work.  Still, I felt like I wasn’t making any progress.  One chapter a day out of what my outline said was going to be a 50 chapter novel just didn’t feel fast enough, especially considering the fact that I don’t get more than a few days out of the week to work on it.  Given my outline and the progress made so far, it looked like the end product was going to be around 160,000 words or more in total.

So were these good numbers?  Was I making good time and was I aiming for a solid goal for a first-time novel?  If you listen to the Internet, the answer is yes and no.

Many of the suggestions I read said that 2000 was a good number of words to aim for daily.  For me, that isn’t enough.  If I don’t write at least five or six hours in one sitting and complete a chapter (whether it be a 2500 word chapter or a 4000 word chapter), I am not satisfied with my progress.  Then I read some counts from some legendary word-count producers of the past, people that were turning out 15,000 words a day on average.  Well, why can’t I be like that?

When I looked at the overall total, I found that the recommended total word count for a new novel was between 80,000 and 120,000 and that if you put the numbers too much over that then the chances of being rejected were increased.  To make matters more complicated, many of the authors I read are of the fantasy genre and most of them seem to have first novels that defy these recommended norms.  So is putting together a novel of 160,000 words a bad idea?

I still don’t have the answer to these questions, no matter how much I’ve pondered them.  The only thing I could come up with is that I like to write in large bursts and I have a lot to say.  Maybe more will come out in editing and I will whittle my book down to 120,000 words and thus stay within that “safety zone.”  Or maybe not.

I think my point in relating all this is just to let other writers know that the world of novel writing is hard to define with strict sets of numbers.  You can make big novels and be successful and you can write as little or as much as you need in order to feel productive.  The answers out there might be good guidelines, but should by no means be barriers to your creative process.