How many words are too many? How important is word count? Do the rules change when you’re an established writer compared to when you’re just starting out? These are some of the questions I tackled completing the 7th draft of my manuscript, Misplaced. It was daunting – I reduced my word count from 130,000 words to 80,000. Is it possible to cut so many words without losing your story? Should we be bringing the razor to our work just because publishers want us to?
A year ago, a writer friend of mine advised me to cut down – I scoffed at her. Cut down? Why? This is my story. After all, the debut novel of one of my favourite writers, Paulina Simmons, is 500 pages and about 200,000 words. If she can do it why can’t I?
The talk at the moment in publishing is that the optimum length for a debut novel is 70,000 words. Publishers have limited budgets for first time writers and producing larger books is too expensive. In a way, it almost doesn’t seem fair. Take Paulina’s ‘Bronze Horseman’ trilogy. The first book was brilliant, around 500 pages. The second was a laborious read – the first half was a rehash of the first book, the second half was entertaining enough. The third book was 900 pages – I couldn’t finish it. Publishers would justify that she has a following and readers that love the first book will buy the others regardless of the wordiness. This is a classic example of the leadway publishers allow established writers.
Another example of a wordy book – Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The Slap’. I wouldn’t take a single word out of that book even though it’s got to be around 170,000 words. It’s a pivotal book to Australian Literature. But what if that was Christos’s first book and he cut it down to 70,000 words because that was what publishers expected? How many Christos Tsiolkas writers are there out there chopping out words in the hope of being published? Anyone would agree cutting down ‘The Slap’ would be a disastrous mistake. Is this expectation on emerging writers moulding our literary space into something for the better or worse?
To me, the Paulina Simmons days where a debut novelist can publish a huge book are over. I still would have cut down my manuscript regardless but this expectation was definitely an influencing factor. Anything that increases your chances of getting published can’t be ignored. Surprisingly I had more happening in this draft than my previous draft. Less is more. But I think emerging writers need to remind themselves that it’s okay to have wordy drafts when you start out. Redrafting isn’t about adding and removing commas or changing a word here or there, it’s an experimentation of ideas, themes and characters. It’s about allowing your creativity to take you where it wants to take you. Then one day you’ll get to a draft and the characters will be so alive that they’ll tell YOU their story. That’s when the true writing begins.
Any thoughts from all those emerging writers out there, or even more experienced writers and publishers?