To Play or Not to Play the Numbers Game
When is a story done? At what word count? Is longer better? Can a good story be told in less than 80,000 words or is that a sign of someone who can’t “go the distance?” It’s amazing that during the Golden Age of science fiction, some of my favorite novels wouldn’t even be considered by publishing companies today due to length—or lack there of.
A story is finished when the tale is told. Adding tens of thousands of words just to make up a word count is pointless. In fact, I’m one of those notorious readers with a penchant for skipping over large portions of boring description. If you can’t describe something in a sentence or two, I’m not going to waste my time reading 10 pages describing the sequence for a bomb detonation. I don’t care how famous the writer.
For me the story is all about the action and dialogue. Move it forward or lose me as a reader. My time is valuable and I have so many other things going on that I don’t want to spend seven or eight hours on one book. I’d rather read seven or eight books.
I have an imagination and I know how to use it. Tell me the character is a greasy thug and I can see what he looks like without the specific details—unless the dreadlocks, ACDC T-shirt, and scraggly beard have a purpose to the story….say identifying the perp in a particular crime for a detective novel.
Maybe it’s my journalistic background. I remember in college getting my first C on a paper—with no red marks. When pressed, the professor told me my paragraphs were too short. If I can clearly state my objective in 25 words or less, why would I want to waste my time (and the reader’s) by adding “wordiness?”
Let’s face it: not every story is going to be “literary.” Not every literary story is good, nor is every non-literary story bad. Andre Norton’s description of scenery and character in The Beast Master still resonates in my memory even though I first read her novel more than 30 years ago. She didn’t waste any words in her 192-page novel and the story is a classic.
I also grew up with the Hardy Boys, Tom Corbett, and Rick Brant, all excellent adventure stories that were less than a two hour read and didn’t waste a lot of time on description. Yet I can see Spindrift Island and I know how to find my way from the flight deck to the power deck on the Polaris.
So don’t expect my novels to have cumbersome word counts or drag out over several books like some Borg collective. If the story can be told in 40,000 words, that’s what I’ll write. If it takes 80,000, be prepared to spend some time in my story world. At the end of the day, my goal is not a specific word count, but did I make you forget your problems for a little while and did I bring a smile to your face?