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.

Typewriter

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.

13 thoughts on “Why you should use exactly the number of words you need to tell the story”

  1. I have the opposite problem. I tend to make it short, sweet and to the point and then feel I’ve said too much. I don’t even try to publish, I know I am not a writer and with awesome people like you, J. Maberry, Steve King and many others who needs me? So when the urge strikes, almost daily lately, I spew into my notepad, save it if I am so inclined and move on. Get it out of my system and go read a real author.

    I’m really sorry someone burdened you with that word goal, they’re tough to shake, looming over you when you’re writing and want to be left alone with you, the tool you’re using, and your words. I can almost see a book cover, can’t you?

    On another note: When will More than Midnight be available in eBook please?

    Thanks for all the great stories.

    Ila in Maine

      1. Thank You, my Yahoo group has asked me to place it on the calendar when I have a date so they can get a copy. We’re only 2K members strong but love your work, and much looking forward to the release. I’m just getting started on my blog and I want to announce it there as well so I’ll keep a close eye out for the announcement. I haven’t opened my signed copy, which I received as a gift from my son, and I’m anxious to read it too.

  2. I agree. Extra chase around the bush words, the added ‘that’, run togethers, repeated words, for example, push my crazy button. In fact, I begin cutting and editing most all I read…in my head, when I feel the slush pollution build. Sad part when this habit happens – I heave the story at the wall in frustated abandonment.
    My high is lost; so angry for missing many possible thrilling, harrowing adventures.

  3. I personally think short fiction says a lot about an author. Their writing skills, plot development, and cast of characters have to be revealed with the fewest and most important word choices — they have to be wicked good. Some of my favorite pieces of fiction are short stories by various authors.

    When I am browsing for something to read, and I’m not familiar with the author, I’ll go for their collection of short stories first (if one is available). If I read a new author and I’ve really enjoyed them, once again, I will look to see if they have short fiction available.

    Bring back short stories by buying short story collections. Eventually publishers will get the hint.

    1. It’s funny because last week Entertainment Weekly declared the short story collection was back and then over the weekend I saw the New York Times declare the short story itself was back! So we’ll see if that means New York publishers actually start buying a few more collections again. I know a lot of small presses that never stopped believing in short fiction. 🙂

      1. You would think short stories would be the holy grail of writing. With people’s attention spans nowadays, I would think publishers would be actively seeking out great short fiction.

  4. For me, it was always the 80k barrier. I used to abandon perfectly solid story ideas because they were longer than 5k, but shorter than 80k. My last novel is around 75k, and I’m shooting for 45k for my current project. The story should be as long as it should be.

    I’ve fallen in love with reading on my Kindle, and the 40-50k range is a sweet spot. Finding a story of that length by an author I enjoy… leave me alone, I’m reading!

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