Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Words, Words, Words

There's loads of writing advice everywhere out there, most notably from literary agents.  These self appointed gatekeepers have a litany of dos and don'ts they preach must be followed.  If these guidelines are violated, you're a loser, a failure, destined to never accomplish anything in publishing.  And the most glaring of these rules is when you're given a word count goal.

The basic guidance is that if you write anything too long, the reader will give up, bored beyond belief.  Most agents won't touch anything over a certain word count because they feel it'll be unsellable.  Fortunately, the rise of independent publishing is testing these sacred boundaries.

What got me thinking about this was my recent reading of Doctor Sleep.  King's latest book is a fast read, and nowhere near the mindboggling length of some of his other works like The Stand or The Dark Tower.  As I neared the end, I found myself wondering at its overall length.  I know page count is meaningless since there are different sizes and different fonts, so I did some random samplings and assembled an approximate word count.  Imagine my surprise when I found that it was around 170,000 words, give or take 10,000 either way.

Before I start getting hate mail, I fully acknowledge that I'm not Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer.  I know that bestselling writers like them can break a few rules and get away with it due to the already established fan following.  However, the 170,000 words I flew through were hardly burdensome.  It seemed to be a fairly normal size book, thick enough to provide depth, but not so big that it turns people off.  That got me thinking about the established rules of writing and how much they applied.

In looking around and finding lots of skinny books on shelves out there, I think I found the answer - too many in the publishing world assume the average reader has the attention span of a gnat.  They want things that appeal to the lowest common denominator, so they discourage books of true depth from coming out.  Once I realized this, I found it much easier to ignore.

None of this is to say that stories must be so thick that only a body builder can lift it, or that any writer can pull off such a project.  However, what is does say to me is that we needn't be constrained by artificial bonds.  If a story takes longer than 150,000 words to write, then the writer should do so.  As long as the story will support it and you've eliminated the fluff, why not?  A good book will keep a reader engaged beyond the usual guidelines, and artificially limiting what you're writing is a great way to build a flimsy story, and readers will discover it quickly.

So let loose with your imagination, and don't let others dictate your story just because they have a false notion of what right looks like.  Only you know the book you want to write, so it's up to you to write it.  Do it without fear.

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