HOW Many Words?

A few months ago I was offered a novella in a collection to be published by Silhouette Romantic Suspense this fall. My editor ran through the requirements: had to take place at Christmas, had to be a reunion romance (people who’d been together in the past), had to have a suspense thread — and, oh, yeah, had to be 20,000 words. I was nodding, going “Uh-huh,” on the phone after each requirement until the last one. I would have laughed hysterically if I hadn’t stopped breathing.

I don’t “do” short. Never have. I have turned in four manuscripts in my career that were in the 140-150,000 word range. If they ask me for 90K, I give ’em 100K. Right now I’m supposed to be doing 60K books, but darned if I don’t have to struggle to get them down to 62,000.

This book came in, with my best efforts, at 22,384. So I spent the last day before shipping it reading through and cutting, cutting some more, cutting even more. I emailed my editor and asked if there was any wiggle room, and she said she could let me have an extra thousand words. So I cut more.

I love cutting other people’s words when they need it. My friends have a standing offer when they just can’t find any more to cut. But when it comes to my own . . . I lovingly wrote those words . . . or pulled them out of my uncooperative brain one at a time. It’s really hard to see what’s not necessary. A brief exchange may be funny or clever or telling about the characters, but when you’re in a word crunch, it’s got to go. And it’s hard sometimes.

Granted, by my second-go through the manuscript, when I still needed to ditch 600 words, I’d pretty much lost all attachment to the words. Hero telling heroine “I love you”? Heck, that saves me three words. Heroine’s little warning speech to the bad guys that saves the hero’s life? Can’t she just say, “Run, Josh”? That cuts another thirty words.

What about y’all? Do you tend to write short or long? (If it’s short, I hate you.) Can you set a specific word count and arrive dead-on or nearby, or do you not know how many words your book will be until you’ve written the last one? And how do you feel cutting? Love it, hate, a necessary evil of the job?


16 thoughts on “HOW Many Words?

  1. Oh Marilyn, a girl after my own heart. I’m a long person. Loquacious even. I can write volumes on any subject assigned. I’ve never even tried to write a short piece. I’m sure it would give me fits. spw

  2. My shortest was 15,000 for a Bantam anthology ten years ago, and I still have the knots from banging my head. I think I did about double that, then worked with my editor to cut it down to size.

    I admire people who can tell a story in a few thousand words or less, but even my emails are longer than that!

    • Marilyn,

      I’m pretty sure I could tell a sweet meet type story, but I could never do a suspense in that amount of words. Some things just need a better setup. spw

      • I think I did it successfully, though I’ll find out when the editor gets back to me. It helped that the hero and heroine of this story are Josh (Joe’s brother from CRIMINAL DECEPTION) and Natalia (in the same story). So some of their background and the suspense were already set up in that story. I think it will work for readers who didn’t read that story, but it took the edge off MY need to explain everything thoroughly.

        We’ll see, though.

  3. Okay, I’ve thought about this and I’m not sure where I rank. ROUGH EDGES is 45,000 words. I had orginally aimed for a novella, and according to Ellora’s Cave, this is considered a novel. I do know that I extended the word count 5 times for this story. hehe

    I do know I’m a long-winded talker. Like I have to tell you! pfft! But not real sure I’m a long-winded writer. ๐Ÿ™‚ For my next story, we’ll see how I go about it.

    • Well, now I’ve gone from 15K to 150K — and the 150K was waaay easier!! That’s one reason why I’ve never tried my hand at short stories. So many RWI members have sold them, but ask me to tell a cohesive story in less than 25,000 words and I get hives. Expect me to include suspense in that cohesive story, and I have panic attacks.

      Do I need to mention that one of my nicknames was when I was a kid was “Chatterbox”? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Your babies, your beautiful babies, deleted from this world and sentenced to life in an obscure file on your computer. Oh, the HORROR!

    I’m like you, Marliyn. Every word is precious to me, but I’m realizing that there’s only so many times a hero needs to say I love you before the readers get the point. They’re in love, so what? Get on with the story. But after editing my brains out, sometimes I start to question what I was trying to say in the first place. ๐Ÿ™‚

    A short story would be work for me, but one day I’ll be up for the challenge. Not soon. But, some day.

    Glad you were able to pare down and get the work out. Is the release for the novella scheduled?


    • You’re so funny, RD. The first time I ever had to cut a scene, I saved it to another file, then printed out a copy, just to be sure I’d have it if I should ever under any circumstance have a need for exactly that scene. When I started working with Claire Zion at Warner (now Hachette), her first revision letter started with, “You need to cut 30,000 words. I read that line over, dropped the letter, and called my agent, hyperventilating. It was NOT a pretty sight. Seriously, I was in tears by the time I finished saying, “She wants me to cut 20% of the book!”

      The novella is scheduled for October 2010, I think. It’ll be part of Silhouette Romantic Suspense’s regular line-up — no idea what either the title of the collection or the title of my story will be. I leave that up to heads with functioning brains. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. I’m a short writer. Of course, part of it is because I started as a short story writer. Now, I tend to write too short, too sparse for a novel. Usually, when I edit, I have to add stuff, but it’s necessary to add texture, color, etc. Even so, when I HAVE written too long, it hurts to cut. After all, if the word was in there, I obviously needed it, right?

    • I don’t think you’re too sparse for a novel, but your first impulse is to write too sparse for a romance novel. There are genres out there that are extremely well suited to a tighter, word-stingy style. But when you edit, you do it so well. Look at WARRIOR’S HEART and how many contests and readers loved it.

      LOL about your last line. Sometimes my editor will say, “Can we shorten this passage by half?” and I always want to say, “If it was supposed to be shorter, it would be.” But I keep it to myself and do my best.

  6. I began my writing with short stories so keeping it short- somewhere between 7.000-10.000- was no problem with meโ€ฆ But once I started to work on my novel, now it feels like writing short is so difficult and I could never have enough room to express whatโ€™s going on fully… Thereโ€™s a lost talent there! ๐Ÿ™‚
    And cutting- arh! Hate it, canโ€™t do it, always end up adding more and more words ๐Ÿ™‚

    • LOL, Lua. When I first started cutting this novella, I was keeping an eye on the word count down in the corner. By the time I finished the first three pages, I’d added something like 70 words! Had to go back and start over.

      Don’t you wish you could just flip a switch in your brain — Today I’ll write short — and it would just come naturally??

  7. I love description and emotion and passion, so I always want at least a few thousand more words than my publisher asks for. I grew up in the days of really lush romances, and my first 40 or so Silhouettes were in the 80,000-word days. (Even then, most of mine ran 82-85,000.) I developed a real rhythm for that length, so when they cut to 65K, then 60, it threw me way off.

    I’m not sure I’m so attached to my words as I am repulsed by revising them. If I cut something here, as often as not I need to change something elsewhere. Too difficult for my brain to keep up with.

    I think writing short’s a great talent, but especially in romance. Gotta have that heart-twisting emotion!

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