Why Word Count Doesn’t Make a Story (The Self-Editing Guide Part 1)

As a new writer, the first mistake most of us compulsively—and even subconsciously—make, is manipulate our sentences to increase word count. We go out of our way to phrase things in complex ways to fill the pages and meet that imaginary minimum word count requirement—the one we only discovered by Googling the phrase “how long should a novel be?” So we throw in a few prepositions, explain every single task our character completes, and describe every minor scene down to the last button on the grey, tufted, linen couch.

Sure, this little trick worked wonders back in the day when we pulled all-nighters to finish those seven-page essays or research papers due the next morning, but only when the assignment was an immediate “F” if the word requirement was not met. Otherwise, your teacher or professor might have noted that your paper was wordy or superfluous—a comment I received during a critique of my first edition of The Vanquished.

 

This eye-opening critique pushed me to recognize my mistakes and release a polished version that lacked distracting, scene-pausing descriptions, interactions or inner thoughts with the main character that hardly amounted to anything, and sentences that read a little clunky (binge-watching the entire series of Downton Abbey while writing the rough draft isn’t such a great idea when your inner voice isn’t yet developed). Since then, however, I’ve noticed many authors repeating the same mistakes as they try to get their novel as thick as possible.

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As you’re writing your story—be it a short story or full-length novel—ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Fluff—Is what I’m writing important to the development, or does it exist simply to fluff up my story and make it appear longer and more complex? Does this scene propel the story forward, or does it slow the pace, distract from the plot, and leave the reader confused in the end?

For example: If you have repeated, similar scenes of meaningless, every day conversation between two characters and the scenes start and end with nothing else happening, it’s probably fluff. Try removing it and see if you miss it.

  1. Over Prepping—Are the sentences too wordy? Over prepping is when you use an unnecessary amount of transition words in your narrative—like of, that, after, on, to—leaving your sentences complex and the story slow moving. Prepositions are a necessary part of the story. Too few prepositions can be just as bad and look as amateurish as too many. So do not use the find and replace feature in word to remove more despised ones like of or that—any seasoned reader will know exactly what you did and probably roll their eyes. However, be modest when using them. Reread the sentences while removing one preposition at a time and see if it reads smoother. If so, you can probably go without it.
  2. Over Specifying—Another mistake we make as new writers is try and cover all our bases to keep the reader from being confused during the story. We worry that we aren’t being clear enough, and in turn we specify that the character opened the door of the house, then walked through the door, then closed the door of the house. See how specific that is? There is no way the reader won’t know to imagine the character doing everything that was just stated. But is it necessary? This is where we learn to do something new: trust our readers. We all have varying degrees of imagination, and we all know what it looks like to enter a house. You could easily state that he/she opened the door and went inside, and the reader would never claim you left a hole or that they didn’t know whether the door was open or closed. If it wouldn’t confuse you, it probably won’t confuse ninety-percent of your readers.
  3. Overt Descriptions—How many times have you skimmed over paragraphs of description just to get to the action? I know I have countless times. When I decided I wanted to start writing full time, I actually spent a few years just reading novels word for word, forcing myself to read through the boring parts that I had never taken the time for when I was younger. I was ecstatic when I finally connected with other writers and learned I wasn’t the only one to dislike scene-pausing descriptions. Chunks of description slow down the pace and distract from the immediate action or conversation taking place. Be careful where and how you use it to keep your readers engaged in your story. If whatever you’re describing doesn’t really contribute, you can probably get away with only a sentence or two. If it’s a main character or special object, take enough time explaining it so your reader knows it’s important, but don’t forget to keep it interesting. You want your reader invested in your story, not muddling through it just to get to the end.

To put it simply: word count does not make a story—and that’s great news for us. Once we stop trying to come up with ways to increase our word count—planning sentences out in our heads that sound more intelligent complicated than how we would normally speak, adding scenes that contribute nothing to the story in way of character or plot development, and looking up pictures and technical names of grey, tufted, linen couches that only exist for the character to shove a zombie into, we get the ultimate freedom of focusing on the best part—the story. And if you’re having fun writing it, I can guarantee your reader will have fun reading it.


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

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Writing Your First Novel Part Two: The Question of Genre

Writing Your First Novel

Part Two

The Question of Genre

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“Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.”  — Dean Koontz

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From the first children’s book, comic book, or novel that we choose, we begin to develop our sense of what type of story we are drawn to read. For me, I was intrigued by mystery and science fiction at a very early age. In my teenage years, romance entered the mix, and I soon found that my favorite stories to read were combinations of these separate genres.

In Part One of the Writing Your First Novel, we discussed the importance of reading and how it impacts your writing skills. One of the strongest influences of reading is an enhancement of vocabulary. Many of us tend to use the same words in our everyday speech. Reading will expand your selection of words and enrich your writing. Reading also provides an awareness of sentence and story structure and correct grammar. Reading current work allows you to discover the latest trends in the genre can assist in helping you decide the focus of your novel.  Choosing popular works within a specific genre allows you to explore the latest trends and can help you decide the focus of your novel.

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Fictional genre is further categorized into specific topics such as romance, mystery, science fiction, historical, contemporary or young adult among others.

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“I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts.” — Jonathan Lethem

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The traditional brick and mortar publishing houses have long categorized novels into specific genre descriptions. Even though there are numerous sub-genres under those headings, a cozy mystery or detective novel will still be displayed under the ‘Mystery’ banner in a bookstore or library. Based on statistics and marketing plans, it proved easier to control the advertising dollar and consumer focus if novels fit a certain niche. Shelving of books in a retail store is coveted and easier to acquire shelf space for a book in the single mystery genre rather than one in the mystery/science fiction/romance genre. What area of the store do you place a book of mixed genre? It’s a publisher’s marketing nightmare.

That issue has changed considerably with the advent of on-line publishing and search hashtags which have allowed authors to market their works in multiple genres. When genre lines are blurred, the only limitation a writer has is their imagination. Shelf space is no longer a consideration when as Lethem says, “boundaries are confused.”

The question you should ask yourself is what genre do you feel comfortable writing. I have seen numerous writing ‘experts’ say you should write what you know. The problem for me is that I love science fiction and murder mysteries. But, I have never been in space, and I haven’t committed murder, so I don’t have those experiences to draw from when writing. Author John Grisham is a lawyer and his stories center on his experiences practicing law. Not all of us are afforded the luxury of writing with such skill sets. What do we do?

We read, read, and read more novels in the genres of our choice and we do the necessary research to provide plausible details to your writing.  There are certain patterns and expectations that exist within genres, and your reader will feel cheated if those characteristics of the genre are not present. A noir murder mystery novel needs to have a dark, sparse, gritty quality that you will not find in a cozy murder mystery.

The key, I believe, in successfully writing a multi-genre novel is balance. One of the genres chosen must be the primary focus of the story, while the other one, two, or more genres should support. For instance, I wrote a science-fiction/murder mystery/romance novel where the overall science fiction theme is the focus, the murder mystery is the vessel to deliver the story, and the romance builds tension as the two main protagonists, who are emotionally connected, face danger. Throughout the novel, any of these components may take the lead in scenes, but the story balance remains the same.

I do hold to the theory that any genre can mesh with any other, and the combinations may open new vistas for your readers. The fact is these genres are a measure of what can and des occur in our lives. While there may not be dragons in our real world, we have fears that manifest themselves as such and can be symbols within a story.

One thing to remember, throughout this process of learning to write you should also be writing. Details can be added or corrected in the editing process. The important task is to write and to write until the story is complete.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part Three:  To Outline or Not to Outline…. (Pants or No Pants)

Coming soon…

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Resources:

https:qute//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/genre.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genre