Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Escaping From Word Count Hell

By Kim

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:

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


  1. Great tips on how to cut excess stuff from your novel. Once I realize I need to edit out parts of the book, usually about halfway through, I never know whether to wait until it's finished or do it as soon as I know.

  2. This is a very wise decision and I applaud it. My quest as a painter is always to move to simplicity. Not easy, but worth it.
    If he were alive, I suspect Carl would agree with me. His painting are economical and specific. My kind of painting. My kind of writing. Once a year I re-read "The Old Man and the Sea," thinking I must try to paint the way Hemingway writes.

  3. ANDREA - Normally I would have waited until the end, but nothing about this book has been 'normal'. I knew that I'd be worried about word count as I wrote anything new, and that would seriously stifle my creativity!

  4. RICK - I believe you're right, and that Carl would be pleased with the changes. I'm now over 13,000 words cut (with eight chapters still to comb through) and I MAY just finish this puppy within a few thousand of the magic 100,000 word mark.

  5. Hi Kim - I admire you for facing the challenge of simplifying your words, although, I find your words so creative and well chosen; your information so well researched and readable that it seems a shame to have to limit them! Besides, I think, what information is going to be lost in doing this? Always my concern being an historian who hates to leave out any conceived important details! But good writers find ways to say more in less words. It is true that a monumental, heavy, costly book might limit your buyers.

    I was surprised to see you mention that Carl was so fearful of death considering his Swedenborgian background!

    Here's to you--you are being very realistic and brave in this attempt!


  6. Hi PAULA,

    Thank you for your kind words - I know you don't give them lightly. Many of the things I cut are conjecture written around a known fact that, while interesting, is not overly important to plot or character development. I also cut out a rather large scene where Madonna paints, not Carl. As you know, she was an artist as well, though the talent she chose to focus on was singing.

    The short version of why Carl feared death is as follows: When he was about six his grandmother took him to visit an old lady. A few days later that woman died and Carl attended the funeral. The grandmother then took him on a visit to console the woman's sister, neglecting to tell Carl that she was an identical twin. When Carl saw her he was so petrified that he yelled for her to "get back in the hole." After that whenever he saw the black crepes hanging on the houses of those in mourning, he ripped them down. Also, as a child he watched three people in his household die of consumption, including his own father. As you know, he also had a form of consumption, and likely always worried he would die as horrendously as they had. In reality, his death was far worse, having been prolonged in an agonizing fashion until he was 74.

    I have to wonder, given his Swedenborgian background, if he feared that in the spiritual realm he would find himself once again married to Emily? Perhaps you could shed some light on that, as it could be interesting to work that in.

  7. I just wrote you a lengthy response, but I guess it was too long and it didn't get posted. It's too late to re-write it. Sorry. Maybe tomorrow.


  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Paula Niall03 April, 2010

    You asked, given Carl's background, if I felt his fear of death had anything to do with his concern that he might find himself re-connected with his first wife in the spiritual realm? My brief answer to this is, "No". It's true that a main focus in the Swedenborgian Church is the holiness of marriage. The revelation given through Emanuel Swedenborg reveals that married partners and those who love one another deeply, do dwell together in the other world, if they so wish. And who in such a state of genuine love, would consider being parted from one's partner, "being in Heaven"? Would not such a tearing apart feel more like Hell?

    It's hard to determine just what the underlying cause of Carl's fear was. It may have had to do with his guilt of having, 'committed adultery' and living in 'sin' so to speak, but I don't buy that. I think Carl contemplated deeply on spiritual things while painting and studying the variety in those trees he loved to paint. I also feel that much of his early influences and philosophies would have been challenged by his later experiences in life; his innate love of nature; his attraction to the faith of the Aboriginal people and the discovery of a love for a woman with whom he felt in complete harmony. All these things would have opened his heart and mind to the knowledge of God's gentleness, all-embracing love, understanding and forgiveness.

    By the way, in the Swedenborgian religion, trees represent a man or a woman, and those that stand straight and tall, represent the regenerate man or woman. All those gnarly trees Carl painted could have represented the unregenerate state of mankind, as well the natural and spiritual entanglement of a man and a woman that we so easily recognize in his paintings.

    A sensitive, six-year old boy thinking that he had seen a ghost or a dead person suddenly come alive would have come as quite a shock. How deeply did this event affect him?

    Another thought - In the 1800s, it was not uncommon for people to unwittingly be buried alive.

  10. Fascinating, PAULA! I always assumed that his focus on trees had more to do with his connection to the Ojibwa people. I had no idea they were considered a symbol in the Swedenborgian faith as well. I have one glorious painting on my wall featuring tall straight trees and have always felt he was especially happy when he painted it. Perhaps I was right.

    As for the incident involving the elderly twins, I don't have to guess. This is what Madonna said after relating the incident: "He carried through life this extreme horror of death, and had to be watched, as a little child, or he would tear away the black crepe streamers fastened to doors in time of bereavement, probably in his childish mind also hoping thus to destroy the cause of his fear."

    She also mentioned that the sound of gravel striking a coffin made a "shattering impression" on him as a child. You may be right about the whole buried alive aspect.

  11. Kim I applaud you for this major accomplishment. As your first reader, I've witnessed first hand how you've tamed your epic. Like Paula, I feared you'd cut too much, but all your trimming has strengthened the impact of this incredible story. It now flows like a beautiful ballet with two unforgettable main characters.


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