Word Count & Mediocrity

Let’s talk word count. There are quite a few rules around word counts, speficially around genres. I’m working on a historical novel, which puts me in the camp of science fiction and fantasy, although it shouldn’t be as long. In the various searches I’ve done, I see a good length for historical novels are in the realm of 100,000 words to 150,000 words. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See comes in at 147,900 words (probably one of my favorite books). Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is 150,655 words. Both books take place during World War II, a fairly well-known event in history, and yet both books are on the long end of the range.

I have heard from Grub Street instructors, and from my fellow writing group members, that first-time authors should aim for a book length of around 80,000 words. This rule has been echoed by other blogs and writer’s magazines. Yet, looking at Anthony Doerr’s first novel, About Grace, it comes in at 112,230 words. Well over the limit! Perhaps this is because he is a stunning writer and was given a pass but, needless to say, rules can be broken.

The questions I ponder are: Do I follow convention? Do I think my writing is good enough to warrant a word count above the recommended 80,000 words? Do I have the time, in my remaining eighty-two days left to write the first draft of my novel, to write a novel of 100,000 words, let alone 150,000? And, I think the answer comes down to this: I do not have the time, I am not good enough, and I should just follow convention.

In the past, I would have striven for the large word count. I would have thought I had the skills and talent where I would be an outlier, the one with the raw talent to skyrocket my book to international fame. Editors and agents would chomp at their bits to get ahold of my first manuscript. But I suppose age and wisdom play a part now. I know I am mediocre. It’s kind of liberating, to know you’re only meh, to be honest. It’s actually wildly liberating, especially for a first draft! If I know, from the outset, that I’m just so-so, I can concentrate on getting the words out, hitting my 871 words for the 91 writing days I have scheduled between now and the end of the year. I can write the worst drivel, hit my word count, and be happy that I hit my goal.

The other days, my blogging days, I’ve set a loose goal of a minimum of 500 words an essay. It’s a quick, three or four minute read, and I can bang it out in an hour, at most. It lets me step outside of the world of my novel to take a break, perhaps gain a fresh perspective. I’m being practical in my goals rather than aspirational. This is a new thing for me. My previous thinking was why do something if you don’t do it 100%? but, I have found, that often leads to my failure. Now, knowing that I am going to fail, that I am going to be mediocre, I am trying the practical approach. The deliberate approach. I have to thank my current partner for this approach. I may not feel I’m giving it my all but still, my overall word count grows.

You know the old story about the sculpting class? The one where one group of students would be graded on the number of pieces they created, while the other would be graded on the perfection of one piece? And how the group that created as many pieces as they could actually turned out to have the better pieces? It’s the ol' quantity vs. quality debate. I am not going to agonize over sentence structure or perfect word choices. I’m going to write my words, vomit them onto the screen, page, notebook, toilet paper—whatever I have—and my focus is purely word count. My goal is to put as many words as I can out into the world, without going mad in the process. I still have a full-time job (although, I do write a lot of words—emails, documentation, Slack messages—in my day job), I have a partner that I want to spend time with, and hikes to take while the weather is still good.

So, 80,000 words is my goal. At least 19,000 words on this blog (hey, that’s a quarter of a novel there!). Around my original 100,000 word goal by the end of the year. It may seem odd to focus solely on word count rather than letting the novel tell its own story. Let the characters guide the book length. But characters are silly things that only worry about their own needs and wants. As the author, I have so much more to worry about. At some point, I’d like to publish this novel. If 80,000 words brings me closer to that goal, then 80,000 words it is.