I recently posted a blog about the distinction between novelettes, novellas, and novels, which all basically boils down to word count, though that can also restrict the nature of the content.
If you’re self-publishing, you really don’t need to concern yourself with things like “word count.” But if you’re going the conventional route – or if like and increasingly many other writers, you’re pursuing a mixture of both, depending on your agenda for each individual piece of work – you will need to conform to the publisher’s specifications, particularly in the popular genres.
Most agents won’t handle manuscripts that don’t clock in at a certain length, because what they’re selling is a commodity, not “art” per se. Only when you’re a bestselling client are you allowed to experiment with form. But meantime, you will have to essentially cut your work to fit a particular pattern.
Ironically, most editors are more concerned with cutting content so that the narrative is tightly constructed rather than adding in material to bulk it out per industry standards. So even if you turn in a book that is the correct size, you may wind up with something short of the goal once the fat has been sliced off, which can be a painful process.
The trick? When trying to meet a specified word count, make every word count.
Generally speaking, science fiction and fantasy novels tend to be epics and so must be about 100,000 words minimum to earn consideration from a major publisher or agent. Horror and crime normally clock in at around 80,000.
Basically, anything less than 70,000 words may be rejected as being “too short” for mass-market appeal. Publishers want to give readers as much bang for their buck as possible, partly in order to warrant the steep cover prices which themselves reflect the continually rising costs of printing and distribution. This applies especially if they’re peddling escapist literature, which is primarily bought for entertainment value, and commands the largest share of the marketplace.
Of course, this type of mainstream product is referred to in the trade as “beach reading,” even if many of these books are consumed on airplanes, buses or trains. Publishers don’t want to try selling shallow ponds for casual wading. They want to provide deep pools for immersive swimming.
So when you’re trying to stretch your story concept into an acceptable length (even if it’s a short story for an anthology), you may find yourself repeating yourself, adding too many descriptions, or otherwise filling valuable space with wordy “filler” rather than succinct material germane to the story and subject.
Meandering for the sake of reaching a word count is sure way to lose both readers and publishers. Anything obviously extraneous is going to stand out like a Trekkie at a “Star Wars” convention. Maybe not obvious to outsiders, but a glaring incongruity to “the in-crowd.”
So here are three suggested ways you can reach the required word count without sacrificing the pace and flow of your story:
1. Self-plagiarize – I wrote an entire blog on this very topic. It can’t be considered cheating if you’re stealing from yourself. If you can weave in some older work into your current plot without it coming off as some sort of randomly stitched together, “Frankensteined,” lazy crazy-quilt cut-and-paste job, you’ll have the satisfaction of “rescuing” good work that was buried within a previously discarded context, giving it new life in a better home.
2. Go back and connect all the dots – sometimes you feel like your story is complete, but when you sit back and consider how certain events and characters are linked, those connections may seem rather weak or forced. You may also discover some of your plot threads have unraveled and require reinforcement. There is a big difference between “padding out” a story with unwarranted information and adequately providing sufficient history so that the readers aren’t forced to “fill in the blanks” with their own imaginations. They could do that themselves, for free, without your help, meaning they’d have no need to buy and read your unfulfilling story. Be generous without being overly extravagant.
3. Introduce interesting people rather than contrived situations – every person has a story to share, even fictional ones. Without overpopulating your story, perhaps invent a character or two that will add some dimension to the piece, as opposed to an uninvited interloper crashing a party. As long as they don’t seem like they just stepped into your little world to seek sanctuary from a storm or asylum from a dictator, the reader will have no idea they were a latent addition. Make them integral to the plot, and their own unique back stories could possibly not only expand your story or book to satisfactorily meet market expectations, but also augment an already compelling piece of work into something even more intriguingly complex and commercially viable than what you initially had in mind, pleasing your publisher as well as yourself.
Again, none of this matters if you are self-publishing, especially in eBook format, because no trees or print costs are at stake. But it’s better to know the rules before you decide to flout them. That way, you can claim you autonomy as an artist without losing credibility as a businessperson.