When I first began writing The Oak Lovers I didn’t consider the issue of word count. Both my other novels hovered around that magic 80-100,000 word mark. While this book would be longer, surely there was an agent or publisher willing to take a chance on a well-written, compelling, mostly true story even if it soared to 150,000 words.
My muses spoke. I transcribed.
The first hint of trouble came when I got to the point in my story when my protagonists (and great-grandparents) Carl and Madonna are finally together. (No, this is not a spoiler.) My critique partners (Joan and Pamela) sent that chapter back saying something along the lines of, “This is great. How many chapters left? Two? Three? You must be about done.”
I was taken aback. Carl and Madonna indeed surmounted many obstacles to be together, but their story didn’t end with marriage and a happily ever after. Not even close. I said I was about a third done. But how many pages have you written, they asked. I honestly had no idea, as I keep each chapter in a separate file. A quick calculation astounded me – 175 pages - about 44,000 words.
“Can you break it into two books?” they asked.
I considered this, eventually deciding that the answer was yes and no. A stand alone book would sell far easier than two books. I could, however, write the second book about Eleanor Douglas, an artist with a compelling story of her own. She lived with the Ahrens family for six years, including the time they lived on the Ojibwa reservation. Carl was her teacher, and they were close, but not as close, I suspect, as the relationship between Eleanor and Carl’s first wife, Emily.
I kept going, determined to finish and worry about length later. The book would be as long as it took me to tell the story. If that was 140,000 words, so be it. Someone would take it on anyway.
But what if they didn’t? Or did, but told me I needed to slash 30,000 words before submitting to publishers. What would be stronger, my artistic ego or my desire to see this story in print?
I knew the answer to that. I went back through my chapters, tightening dialogue, abolishing chit-chat, and made obvious cuts. Down to 81,000 words. There’s no way I could finish the story in 19,000. Even 29,000 would feel rushed.
I took a deep breath, knowing that if I didn’t do something now, every new word I wrote would be labored, rushed and, frankly, not very good. The only way I could relax is if I bought myself more words.I started with chapter one and am now up to sixteen (of twenty-seven). I’ve cut 11,000 words so far. Here’s how:
- I look at the chapter as a whole. If there are any scenes that don’t move the plot forward, enhance character or relationship development, or include something that definitely comes into play later, it must go. I move it to a separate file in case I change my mind. I don’t wallow on how long I struggled to write the scene, or how nicely the words flow. Is it better to spend 500 words on a sweet scene that serves no purpose other than being sweet, or use those words for a visit from the Prime Minister of Canada?
- If the scene stays, are there unnecessary paragraphs? Does the reader need 320 words about why Carl fears death, just because the story happens to be true? Yes, it’s interesting, but a sentence or two in a key place would establish his above-average dread.
- For what remains, I review each sentence. Is there a shorter way to say the same thing (remaining consistent with the tone of the story, of course)? Is the paragraph stronger without the sentence? Are the characters speaking in complete sentences, when it’s more likely they’d use fragments, as we all do?
Had I waited until the end of the book and then been asked to cut 30,000 words, it would have been agonizing. Cutting 11,000 (and counting) now has been liberating. Do I think I can finish in fewer than 100,000? Unlikely. Under 110,000? Quite possibly. Will this length be forgivable? I sure hope so.
If anyone has any further advice for writers attempting to tame their epic, or simply have any word count stories to share, I’d love to hear from you.