Sunday, January 16, 2005

Keeping Count ~ Tricks for Controlling Word Count

Word Count - My biggest Nightmare.

It’s much easier for me to go long than it is short. Once I started writing full length novels, it became pathetically easy to run too long.

In the past two years, the shortest story I'd been able to write was just short of 4000 words. (I was aiming for 2000.) 3 stories I originally planned for 20k (20,000 words) went to 40k. I have the detailed outlines for 3 more that were originally supposed to be 40k. According to my outline, all three of these want to be full length 100k novels.


Avoid Whack-Jobs ~ Write Fresh!

I'm known for my water-tight plotting. My background is in writing Advertising Copy, so I tend to write very, very spare. Once a story is completed I CAN'T cut. There's nothing TO cut. No extra nothing. Every single thing in my stories has a reason to be there.

I'm lucky. If the word count doesn't come out exactly right, my Publishers will normally take the story anyway. In most cases they ask me to ADD scenes. (I have yet to be asked to delete a scene.)

But ~!

If I'm writing for an anthology, I'm dealing with a hard-limit. The story HAS to be the correct length, or it won't fit.

If I get it Wrong? I'll write a whole new story rather than attempt a rewrite.

It is always better to have TWO sell-able stories
~ than One carved down beyond recognition.

NEVER waste your time cutting - writing a whole new story is actually faster, and far less stressful. This way you have two stories for sale instead of one badly mangled tale.

Deadline = No Time to Waste on the WRONG Story!

When I am on deadline and I am dealing with a hard word-count, I don't have time to waste on false starts so I do a detailed plot outline before I write. 
Actually I make a detailed plot outline for everything I write. I'm what you call a Plot-Whore. *Grin.*

One Event that changes the Characters' lives.
20,000 to 60,000 words
8 major movements:
0 – Overture - Alarm
1 - Introduction - Denial*

2 - Rising Action - Anger*
3 - Climax / Reversal - Bargaining*

4 - Falling Action - Despair*
5 - Crash - Sacrifice*

6 - Confrontation - Acceptance*
0 - Denouement - Resolution
16 chapters at 3.75k words each = 60k
8 chapters at 3k words each = 24k

3 Main characters: Hero / Heroine / Villain
(Proponent / Obstacle Character** / Adversary)

Only 1 or 2 POV characters - 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited

* Note: Character Arc:
Denial - Anger - Despair - Bargaining (Sacrifice) – Acceptance: The Stages of Grief.

**Note: Obstacle Character:
The Nay-sayer that possesses the opposing opinion. 
 -- In a 3-character plot, the Viewpoint Character tends to play opposition for both the Adversary and the Proponent. 

For the HARD CANDY anthology,
I had a hard limit - 20 to 30k.

By outlining my ideas, I discovered that 3 of my story concepts needed too high a word count. All three novel-sized ideas went into my Unfinished Projects folder, and I didn't waste all my deadline time writing something I couldn't use.

When I finally put together a story that had all the necessary criteria for the anthology, I still had a story that was double the length of the other stories by the other two authors. I contacted the publisher and told her what I had. I was lucky. Both of the other contributing authors ran short - exactly 20k, so there was room for my 40k monster.

Why did my anthology story run to 40k?

The publisher wanted a menage; three sexually involved main characters, in a cross-genre of sci-fi / fantasy. This was for an erotic Romance publisher so a “Happily Ever After” was essential; the menage set had to become a 3-way relationship.

Both sci-fi and fantasy take a lot of detailing to do right. (You can't just throw a fairy into a story without explaining what it's doing tere, in addition to having a reason for its presence.) In order to pull off a logically sound sci-fi / fantasy mix, I used paranormal elements as the fantasy element.

The complications of the mixed genre forced me to add an Antagonist, a villain to have a USE for those paranormal elements.

I ended up with a total cast of 5 main characters: a cyborg, a telepath, a fortune-teller and a man haunted by a ghost - the ghost being character #5, all running around on a space station.

Then there was the Sex.

In order to cut the encounters to as few as logically possible, I started the story with two of the three already sexually involved, and then added my viewpoint character.

That meant that I needed a minimum of 3 encounters.
  • One where the viewpoint character became sexually involved with one of the established couple.
  • A threesome scene to show the beginnings of their 3-way relationship.
  • Finally another thresome after all the story problems were solved, to show them as a viable 3-way relationship and deliver on a happy ending.

The final count for the Sci-Fi / paranormal story FORTUNE'S STAR came to just above 44k.

From the editor at Loose Id, on FORTUNE'S STAR:
"Excellent work. I was almost hoping I would find some extraneous stuff to cut, to make it shorter, but I found that the pace moves along very well and there isn't anything that's not vital to the story. It really keeps you guessing but is not too confusing."

Tricks I use to Limit word count:
  • Limit the CAST to only the absolute Essentials to tell the story.
  • Start the story closer to the main event. The closer to the main event, the shorter the story.
  • Simplify the Genre. Contemporary stories take far less descriptive detailing than Sci-Fi or Fantasies.

  • Story Under 10K - You only need 2 characters - the two people having sex. Start the story with them already getting nekkid.
  • Story Over 20k - This calls for a Problem, (a plot twist,) to come between the main characters.
  • Story Over 40k - This calls for an actual Antagonist, a villain, in addition to a problem to solve -before the main characters can have their "Happily Ever After".

Expanding Word Count is Easy.

  • - add characters
  • - add problems
  • - use a genre that takes a lot of detail
  • - cross genres

In Conclusion -

If you are dealing with a hard word-count limit, and a deadline, outlining the entire plot to your story before you write it, will save you time and grief.

Morgan Hawke


  1. you are so right on Not cutting it. Few writers can actually cut a lot from their stories--and if they can, it means they had loose plot, or were too wordy to begin with. Or, well, you can replot and cut a chunk of the story, but it is such a major revision...

  2. A question about an erotic romance under 12k words that I'm trying to bang out. You gave as a guide that a story under 10k should just be the two characters already getting nekkid...but how does one go about making it a true 'erotic romance' (by your definition of action-adventure with sex) in so few words? I have a vision for my sex scene but also wanted to have a villian pop up. Is it impossible?

  3. "You gave as a guide that a story under 10k should just be the two characters already getting nekkid...but how does one go about making it a true 'erotic romance' (by your definition of action-adventure with sex) in so few words?"

    Technically, all you need is a conflict.

    The key difference between an erotic romance & an ordinary romance, is the TYPE of conflict.

    An ordinary romance circles around an EMOTIONAL conflict.

    Erotic Romance circles around an action-adventure conflict.

    When you want to complete an Erotic Romance in 12k, the easiest way to do so is by making the characters in Conflict with each other.

    - Vampire vs. Vampire slayer
    - Cop vs. Robber
    - Priest(ess) vs. Demon
    - Witch vs. Sorcerer
    - Master vs. Apprentice

    With Lust as the fulcrum point forcing the characters to reconsider their inter-personal conflict, ("Do I like you, or hate you?") you go from action adventure to Erotic Action-adventure making it: Erotic Romance.

  4. Hmmm, righto, I think I get your point. I've been struggling with my plot anyway and I think your examples might have given me a fresh idea for it. I'll play with the story a bit more and see if it works itself out. Thanks!