Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The 85,000-word sweet spot

I have no grounds on which to base the following rant. Indeed, I have no facts, no statistics, no actual numbers or evidence of any kind to offer. All I have is an invisible line in the sand that I crossed yesterday sometime around 11:17 in the morning, and it has caused me no small amount of angst since. I have known this moment was coming for a long while; really, I’ve known it for two or three or five years now, depending on where you start counting from. I knew this line would be unavoidable, but I just wish I’d girded myself a little bit better before I crossed it.

I am of course speaking of the 85,000-word mark for the second draft (which is, really, the first readable draft) of my new novel. Eight-five thousand words – and I still have five chapters to go!

For me, 85,000 words is a significant milestone. Don’t ask me why – I have no idea where I’ve gleaned this arbitrary length. I know there are countless novels out there longer than 85,000 words. Brilliant novels. Breezy, ebullient, engrossing novels that get scarfed down in three days flat. But I feel (again, no evidence) that I have wandered into some scary frontier now where my book will be judged by potential publishers on a whole other plane. The long novel plane. The plane where editors say – What, it’s longer than 85,000 words? Well, it better be damn good, then. I’m in that phase where I’m really starting to doubt whether the book is anywhere near damn good, or good at all.

Now believe me when I tell you, a guy like me knows that length isn’t everything. And I know I’ve come a long way since finishing the first (and extremely rough) first draft of this book last November. I won’t even tell you what the final word count of that version was. Okay fine. It was 135,000 words. Yes, you read correctly. So in one sense, I’ve made tremendous headway, cutting like mad during this first key rewrite. Out went that whole section on Korean shamanism for which I spent weeks researching three years ago. Gone is the long, contrived coffee-shop discussion on the Iraq War. Whole chapters have been combined and scaled back. Characters have had their entire backgrounds expurgated. I’m talking a 20% purge across the board. And still this thing is going to be over 100K before I’m done with it.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve crossed the 85,000-word threshold. Hell, I’ve published a novel longer than that. Off Book tipped the scales at 114,000 words, and my editor at Norwood Publishing assured me that he was comfortable with it at that length. But still. I look at other novels on my shelves and wonder if their authors have been able to show more restraint. Mind you it’s hard to tell with formatting – leading and kerning and all that – but the books I’m talking about seem to be 85,000 words (or shorter). Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy, Dennis Bock’s The Ash Garden, Lisa Moore’s Alligator. These are books that I admire so much, books that I feel are at once concise and expansive, books that are rewarding without being daunting, books that wear their length well. I ascribe to their level, and yet part of me just feels so damn – long winded.

I guess what I want is for someone to tell me that I’m being paranoid. That it’s okay if the second draft of my new novel will most likely clock in at 106,000 words. That it’s no crime. Books need to be as long as they’re going to be. And if you tell your story well, if you make every word count, then it doesn’t matter how long it is. An editor won’t care about an extra 21,000 words if she’s engrossed in the world you’ve imagine. Make it riveting, and people won’t care how long it is.

Yes. That's exactly what I need to hear.

Okay. I’ll stop there. I promised myself not to make this post longer than 700 words. Back to work.

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