Why you should use exactly the number of words you need to tell the story
Many years ago, someone read a 50,000 word manuscript of mine and said, “It’s great, but it’s not a novel, and you’ll never sell it to New York until you add 40,000 words.”
That ingrained the idea in my head that if I wanted to sell my work to a publisher, it had to be 90,000 words, give or take — that there was no way something in the 50,000 or 60,000 word range would ever sell.
Of course, in the years that followed, several of my friends sold what were essentially novellas to New York, and I realized I had a wasted a lot of time trying to find ways to add “layers” to my work to reach an arbitrary word count.
These days, especially with self-publishing being what it is, I encourage everyone who writes to simply tell the story the way it needs to be told. If 10,000 words does the trick, that’s great. 90,000 words? Also great. 150,000 words? If you’re absolutely certain they’re all really needed and there’s no fat to be cut, then that’s great, too.
The thing I hate the most when I read manuscripts is when I start wading through obvious padding that’s only there to increase the word count. Just tell the story the way it needs to be told, and tell it as well as you can, and everything else will fall into place eventually.
Of course, it took a very long time for me to shake that 90,000 word “rule” that had been planted into my head, and even today I still have trouble accepting that my 40,000 word manuscript will find its place — even though we buy manuscripts of that length at my day job just about every other month it seems.
I am getting better at accepting a lot of things in my life with each passing year, and one of those things is that the 90,000 word novel is not something I’m entirely comfortable writing. I wouldn’t be too surprised if I end up just writing novellas and short stories from here on out, even if there’s “no market” for them.
If I do my job right when I sit down to write the stories, then those stories will find readers eventually, one way or another.