Six impossible things

Guesstimating length

A lot of writers I follow blithely spout how this story is going to run 70 thousand words, or 100 or 120, as if they can somehow see the eventual number of pages laid out before them in a crystal ball or something. Me, I have no idea how long a given work is going to be until I’ve finished the last edit. (For that matter, I don’t know at the beginning whether I’m writing flash fiction, a short-short, novella, or multi-book series.)

 I’d like to see a post addressing how one decides–if that’s the right word–how long a piece is going to be—other than having a contract that specifies length.

 This is a very good question. The problem is that the word-count of a given piece depends on multiple variables, including the author’s style, the type of story he/she intends to write, the genre and subgenre the author intends for said story, and a bunch of other things…none of which includes the characters or actual plotline, which is what most writers are thinking about when they ask this kind of question.

(OK, if you have a set of twenty characters, all of whom are exceedingly talkative, you probably aren’t writing a 3,000 word short story. Ditto if your story involves a quest for fifteen different magical gizmos, each of which is located in a different country and guarded by different magical traps. But really, that ought to be obvious, and most of the time, even those sorts of ideas can work quite well over a surprisingly large spread of word counts.)

Basically, how one predicts the length of a manuscript ends up being a matter of experience and instinct. Some writers are good at it; others are very bad at it. That said, it helps to be looking at the right factors. Most of the people I know who have trouble guesstimating the length of their mss. seem to focus on plot elements rather than things like writing style. The hero’s fencing lesson will, they think, take one scene and be about three pages; finding the rightful heir to the throne will be about a novel’s worth of plot. And for some writers, they’d be correct; the trouble is, they aren’t one of those writers.

These folks often know the plot elements that come next: Our Hero has a fencing lesson, beats the instructor, and as a result is given a rapier that will be of great plot importance later. What they don’t think so much about is the way they write – usually with lots of in-depth characterization, setting details, conversation, and implied backstory. The little three-page fencing lesson becomes a twenty-page chapter that includes a detailed description of the architecture of the building where the fencing salon is located, along with several salient points about the reasons behind certain features; Our Hero’s emotional reaction to a vase in the entry hall that reminds him of his deceased brother (and which distracts him enough that he nearly loses his first match); descriptions of the instructor and other students and the Hero’s reaction to each of them, whether that’s mistrust based on previous interactions or curiosity/interest because this is their first meeting, along with little details that convey things about each person’s background, status, experience, and skill at fencing; probably a sidebar about the clothes people are wearing, whether they are appropriate to a fencing lesson and why, and how they reflect different personalities, status, etc; descriptions of the different styles of fencing each participant favors (and somewhere along the way, the fencing lesson has morphed into an end-of-class elimination tournament, so different bouts have to be at least summarized, and some will have to be described in exacting detail); and the description of the rapier that’s the prize, along with something about its history and maybe some details about the importance of forging swords and the symbolism of different types of swords in this culture. And of course the final bout in which Our Hero wins the sword needs to be described in detail, both the physical moves and Our Hero’s emotions and reactions, along with a few memories of prior lessons, his relationship with the instructor, and why he thinks winning the sword will be so important (some of which may become whole flashback scenes of their own, if they are important enough).

Actually, that might very well end up taking two chapters instead of just one.

The plot elements haven’t changed much: Our Hero still goes to his last fencing lesson, wins the tournament by beating the instructor, and gets a rapier as his prize. It’s all the other stuff the writer puts in – the emotions, reactions, background, backstory, description, history, culture – that a) make the scene much, much richer, and b) add a lot of unanticipated word count. And this is true at multiple levels – how many sentences it takes to describe a room, how many words or pages in a scene, how many words or pages or scenes in a chapter.

It isn’t a property of the story. Plots can be told in multiple different ways that result in multiple different possible lengths; see Cinderella at the Rock ConcertIt depends on how the writer writes. Some, like Hemingway, write spare prose with only a few very specific details; others, like Faulkner, write lush prose with nearly overwhelming amounts of background and detail. If you want to improve your guesses about your manuscript length, it helps to be aware of your writing and of what is actually taking up space/word count.

If you notice that you always provide a six-page infodump about every detail of your imaginary spaceflight technology, right down to where they got the dilithium crystals and the imaginary company that mined them, then you have to allow for that when you are estimating. If you tend to skate by most action with “It took him ten minutes to fight his way past the city guards and escape out the postern gate,” you have to allow for that, too – obviously, your action plot just won’t take up the space it would if you were a writer who adores writing six-page set pieces.

And really, being able to estimate the length of your ms. in advance is more a convenience than a necessity, most of the time. It is almost always possible to adjust word count during revision – in fact, a change is nearly inevitable at that stage, even if one isn’t deliberately trying to increase or decrease it. If it helps to have something to aim at, set yourself something arbitrary and aim at it. If it gets in the way, ignore it and just write.

  1. I seem to be pretty good at estimating final lengths. The 80,000 word novel came in at about 65,000 — before the 15,000 additional words of revision. The 90,000 word novel clocked in at 86,000. The farthest I’ve ever been off, percentage-wise, was the 5000 word short story that needed 7200 words to be finished. That was a little disconcerting, seeing as writing too long is generally not my problem, but it still fit in the contest it was for, so good enough.

    Supporting your theory, I tend to be much more focused on things like writing style than on plot. 😉

    What I’m not any good at is predicting where in a story a given event will occur. What I thought would be chapter 4 of my first novel ended up in chapter 1; what I predicted as chapter 8 wound up as the end of chapter 3. Other works have adjusted similarly. I’ve decided to roll with it, since as long as all the good bits get in there and there’s enough to get to the end of the story, it doesn’t seem to matter. Right now I’m holding onto something in the current WIP that felt like chapter 4 when I jotted it down, but I’ve cunningly labeled it “Chapter N” so I don’t have to worry about renumbering.

  2. My first drafts always run short and I have to add descriptions later to bring my word count up to par (usually it’s a pacing issue, as I don’t like to give too many details).

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