When I first started writing, during the pre-internet days, I didn’t have any idea how many words were in a novel, a short story, a novella, etc. I just wrote, but had no idea if I was producing at a good pace or if my stories were a good length. All I knew was after hours of crafting my sentences, the word count seemed low. But I was spending hours and hours on my writing, so I must be making good progress, right?
Big Numbers, Big Scary
The day of reckoning came when I finally came across some numbers, and they floored me. Many of my favorite novels came in around 100 000 words and some short stories were almost 10 000 words. I also learned a typical paperback page comes in at 250 words. This meant my short stories, which tended to come in around 1000 words, were only 4 pages long, compared to 400 pages for a novel and 40 for some short stories.
There are reasons for that, which I won’t get into in this article, but suffice to say I believe they had to do with not understanding POV.
Anyway, I got scared, like brown underwear scared. How did someone write a 100 000 word story? Heck, how did they write a 10 000 word story? Where did all the words come from?
Sometimes it took me hours and days just to squeak that 1000 words. The thought of writing 100 000 felt like scaling Mt. Everest wearing only a thong, especially when I learned some writers put out multiple novels a year.
I once listened to a Stephen King interview and misheard him saying he wrote 20 000 words a day. That was like a novel a week. HOLY CRAP!!! There was no way I could match that. My dreams of being a writer or even finishing one novel seemed impossible.
But the actual number King said, which I didn’t learn until many years later, was 2000 words, a significant number, but a bit less superhuman.
It wasn’t until podcasts became a thing, and I started to listen to Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing that I discovered typically what authors wrote daily, and what was considered a good word count. Two-thousand is typically considered pretty decent.
But still, being able to produce a 100 000 word story seemed a tall task until I came across some interesting tidbits on numbers.
The Novel Numbers
In this article by Holly Lisles, she describes how she uses note cards to help her plot when under time constraint. In it she did some writing math which made me realize that depending on how you look at things a novel isn’t really all that big.
If your typical scene/chapter length is 2000 words, then in a 100 000 word novel, you’ll have 50 scenes to work with. Following a typical three-act structure, this means 12-13 scenes for the first act, 25 for the second act, and 12-13 for the third.
Now, if you have two POV characters, and they share equal screen time, this means you have 25 scenes for each to tell their parts. If you have four POV characters, this only leaves you with 12-13 scenes each.
If your scene/chapter length averages go up to say 4000 words, which isn’t uncommon in fantasy stories, that shrinks the number to 6-7.
Notice what seems like a very large word count can suddenly become very small. So much story to tell, but so very few scenes to tell it.
I suspect this is one of the reasons novels balloon, especially in epic fantasy with its multiple POVs. There’s too much story to tell in too little space. But then again, maybe it’s just that the author doesn’t have the skill yet to tell their story concisely. That last bit, me, guilty as charged.
Producing by the Numbers
We all have priorities in life, and sometimes writing has to take a backseat to things like family, dentist appointments, a beer on the back porch after putting in a 60-hour week, or binge watching Daredevil season 2.
That last item was priority one for the last ten plus hours of my life.
When you have stories to tell, this can lead to guilt, and long periods of not writing because you think there just isn’t enough time to be productive. I mean what are a handful of words written in 15 minutes going to do for your 100k novel?
I’m here to say you don’t need to be a word spewing machine to be productive, nor do you need long stretches of uninterrupted time.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
If an author produces one novel a year, I think many would consider that a pretty decent pace. Some authors produce more, others less.
But have you ever considered how the words average out? To produce a 100 000 word novel in a 365-day year, one only has to write 274 words a day.
When I found this out, that mountain of a novel didn’t seem so high any longer. The thong disappeared underneath a parka, and I found myself holding pickaxes, and being guided by a Sherpa.
Two-hundred-and-seventy-four words, I write more than that in emails or forum posts. Heck I’m almost quadrupling that in this article alone.
Think about it. If I wrote at the same pace as this article, I could finish the first draft of a novel in around a hundred days. Over the course of a year that’s almost four first drafts.
So when you think to yourself that you don’t have the time to write, or doubt you could ever write something as long as a novel, realize that’s not necessarily true. It’s just a few paragraphs, 274 words a day for one year, and really, does 274 words seem like an impossible burden?
For me, not so much. It might even be doable in 15 minutes, which is less than the runtime of commercials in a one-hour TV show.
Of course there’s no guarantee the 274 words will be made of 100% pure awesome, but word quality, that’s a different article and another story. Pun intended.
For Further Thought
What is your word count goal? What steps do you take to achieve it?
Are you satisfied with your average daily word count?