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This Writing Life: The Horrifying Realisation of Too Few Words

3 October, 2011

I’ve been debating for a week now whether I really wanted to talk about this on the blog, but ultimately I decided that my pain might be useful for other writers out there, so here we are. You see, last week, whilst I was busily preparing to submit my novel to agents, I came to a horrifying realisation. This novel, that I’ve considered ‘finished’ for weeks, that I’ve been working on for a good couple of years… It’s too short. Far too short. Potentially 40k words too short.

I always write short first drafts. My earliest novels never passed 70k words. This one came to about 80k, and passed 90k after my first round of edits. I told myself that was long enough – and it is, for many genres, but for traditional fantasy (not urban), it’s a bit on the low side. Even so, I pressed on. With the second round of edits complete, and the book ready to query, it had shrunk to 85k words. Still, I told myself I’d included everything I needed to in the novel. It was long enough.

And then I came across a forum thread – a discussion with an agent – in which novel length was being discussed. This agent suggested that, even at the low end, fantasy novels tend to be around 120k words. Another writer, who’s just sold a book and who went through the same novel revision course I did, mentioned adding 20k words to her 100k manuscript. And here I was, about to submit to this agent, with an 85k word novel.

I won’t go into all the thoughts that went through my head during the few hours that followed (although they ranged from ‘I’m sure they’ll make an exception for my novel’ to ‘I should just scrap this and move on to something else’). In the end, I realised I was just going to have to make the damn thing longer. Which is what I’m working on now.

My most recent first draft is on hold (thankfully I’d just reached a very convenient stopping point) while I go back to my ‘finished’ novel and add somewhere between 20k and 40k new words. New scenes. New characters. Whole new subplots. It’ll be a stronger novel by the time I’ve finished – I’ll have room to flesh out all those events and conflicts I skipped past before because I thought I didn’t have room for them in this book – but I’ve got a hell of a lot of work ahead of me to reach that point. As ever though, it’s knowing that this will make the book better that keeps me going.

  1. Brett James Irvine permalink
    7 October, 2011 1:55 pm

    It’s always a fine balance between leaving things out and adding extra things in. Basically, for me, it comes down to the story. Is your story finished in 85K words? Is it ready and done and as polished as it can be? If so, then 85K it is. If not, and if it needs those extra 40K, you better add them.

    Either way, good luck!

    • 11 October, 2011 11:35 am

      Thanks Brett! I think I’m really having this problem because I’d convinced myself the novel WAS finished, simply because I’d reached what I considered a reasonable word count. Looking back, there are a number of sub-plots that are skipped over too quickly, because expanding them seemed like too much hassle at the time. I’m paying for that mistake now!

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