Word Count

This afternoon was spent prepping The Pomegranate for submission to an award scheme. I had been nominated by another author who thought the criteria matched the book perfectly. The FAQ was read and re-read to make sure I had everything lined up according to the guidelines provided. I filled out endless forms, verified the preferred formats, and even re-wrote the synopsis to be a bit more succinct. I uploaded all the documentation and started to fill in the very last page of questions.

There was a box for the number of pages: 565, followed by a box for word count. I entered 197500, which is a nice round number and very close to the actual word count according to WORD…which is 197,485. I pushed the enter key and nothing happened. I pushed it again, and a pop-up appeared: maximum length 150,000.

WTF? I went back to the submission information and the FAQ. NOWHERE appeared the phrase maximum word count 150,000. Needless to say, I was pissed.

On the other hand, it got me thinking about the kind of books I read. Do I check the thickness of the spine before I pull it from the bookstore or library shelf? Or do I read the blurb for guidance? Do I even look at the last numbered page? Take a look at this list. Do you even think about the number of pages when you pick up a book?

  • Centennial (Michener) – 1105
  • Ulysses (Joyce) – 783
  • Outlander (Gabaldon) – 688
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon) – 639
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (Stone) – 638
  • Exodus (Uris) – 608

I realize font size and spacing is not universal. I know page count and word count are two decidedly different measures. HOWEVER, a book that’s 688 pages long is not gonna be 150,000 words.

In the editing process for The Pomegranate, I knew I had to tighten it up and, wherever possible, slim it down. I worked with professional editors on this process and when it was over, I cut over 20,000 words from the manuscript and brought it in under 600 pages. Was stuff lost in the cuts? Yeah, I would say so. There were a couple of things that were surgically removed, the threads followed and snipped, and some of pretty funny stuff excised. I’m not saying it wasn’t necessary; it was. Would I have preferred to leave Isabella confronting Archdeacon Poore in Canterbury intact? Sure. I liked that scene…but we all agreed it didn’t move the story forward; it merely illuminated a point. Gone.

Then again, TWO people called me crying this week. Crying. Sobbing….because they finished the book and they didn’t want it to end. They wanted more. That wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that for the other two books as well. The reviews on Amazon and Good Reads pretty much support the idea that the books tell a complete story and readers have trouble putting them down. Would the books be better because I macheted them even more? Would my readers be missing important information if I did?

Cover of "Dream Dancer" a book by S. J. Schwaidelson

I suppose it depends on your definition of important. Is it important that Leah, in Dream Dancer, is sitting on the side of a mountain singing Hallel, a selection of Psalms recited on momentous occasions? Maybe not to everyone, but if you happen to know what it is, or even Google the word because you don’t know what it is, that simple detail establishes her familiarity and comfort level with Judaism, an important part of her inner character. That detail comes back later in the book as a benchmark for Tan, the male MC. I decided to keep that one, but it was on the chopping block for quite a while. There are lots of examples of that and I can tell you weighing each one for demolition is not easy, but it has to be done. The final count for Dream Dancer is 194,508/562 pages…and whole chapters were pulled outta that one. I don’t even wanna think about what the original word count was.

Lingua Galactica, my sci-fi folly, is a bit more manageable at 163,951/432 pages, but still over the 150,000 mark. Added to the usual character development, add a bit of world-building into the mix and you have a lotta words. Still, people have said the book is succinct and lean. Not according to that contest! What could I have removed from that manuscript? Maybe the impromptu jazz jam in the all-night coffee, but how would Morgan’s budding interest in Sarah have been surreptitiously telegraphed? Or the banquet on Jeylos? That scene gives the reader bold clues about why she is the way she is. Does removing that help the pacing….or does it leave way too many unanswered questions about the protagonist leaving the reader to wonder why she can bend what seem to be immutable rules?

A question all the other authors out there: are you watching word count when you write, or page totals? Tell me, please, if that gauges your writing. I tell multi-layered, complex stories. My characters struggle and I dutifully report those struggles. I think that’s what makes a book good/enjoyable/readable. I worry that the pressure to count words or limit page numbers is really an indication that readers want the quick read. They are loath to be invested in characters and more complex plot lines.

Or maybe I’m just one of those old-fashioned writers who believes in telling the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.

Feel free to weigh in here.

Word Count: 929

Published by SJSchwaidelson@The Author Is In

New York born and bred, living in Minnesota, I am a widow, mother, grandmother, and writer. These are the things I do well.

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