Metric of Writing
Now and then, folks need to account for their work. Also, I needed a topic for this month. So let’s talk about my book in progress. Overall, it’s taken far longer than I thought when I set out back in 2016. But also, there’s been words on paper and improvement. So let’s go over the project and see.
How It Started
I mulled over the idea of a technomage long before I set out to write it down. Once I started writing, I cranked out a 15K short story in a few weeks. Then I added to it, and over the course of six months, had a 70K novel. It had problems, namely lack of a cohesive plot and theme because I wrote it as serial short stories.
Despite the large problems, I got what I needed, which was experience and a better idea of who the characters were. So I googled story arcs, plot points and found CS Lakin’s 20 Key Scenes outline. I used that to outline the original quest I envisioned for Alex Rune. It may seem strange that I didn’t start with that story, but one of my mutant powers is having a vague sense of what I don’t know. I assumed my best idea at the time would be hampered by what I didn’t know or what I thought I knew.
With a fluffy outline equal to a typical novel sized story, I began anew. Three years later I finished the new draft with 41K words. Remember how I said novel sized outline? Yeah, I speedran the course and told a 70K story with almost half the words. Not good.
Solving this problem became a top priority. For some projects, “a story is as long as it needs to be” is a useless platitude. A novelist needs novels to be novel sized. Note that I’m not talking about filler additives and verbiage. The way a novel approaches storytelling carries a certain weight of description, dialogue, action and plot to make it cross the 50K threshold.
Let’s catch up on the numbers of writing. Everyday across the internet, a new writer asks these questions. The answer varies by genre, but for fantasy, sci-fi, action these are close enough. The first lesson is that stories are measured by word count, not page count. This is because layout choices like font-size, page size, and margin-size make comparison impossible. If for some reason, you only get page count from somebody, assume 250 words per page.
Short Story < 7,700 words
Novelette 7,700 to 20,000 words
Novella 20,000 to 50,000 words
Novel >50,000 words
I also know from Google that a chapter is typically 2,000 to 5,000 words. Some could be much shorter, but the average lands in that range. It’s a good idea to keep a spreadsheet with your numbers and check the average. In my 2nd draft, the average was less than 1K. No wonder I didn’t make it to novel size.
New Scenic Math
For the third draft, I adopted a new approach. I re-outlined the story in Scene and Sequel methodology. I knew that a novel had 60-70 scenes, and I ended up with 64 scenes in my outline. Research also showed that scenes should average at least 1,000 words. Scenes with higher stakes tended to be longer, but the average should work out.
If you imagine 2-3 scenes per chapter, and you cleared that 1K average, then the chapters would also fall within 2K-5K expectation. Going to a finer granularity made it easier to see what to work on.
For my 64 scenes, I could then get scene average targets to identify where and when I might be falling short.
50K goal = 781.25 words per scene
60K goal = 937.5 words per scene
70K goal = 1093.75 words per scene
I made a spreadsheet to track this stuff. It’s basic math and basic how to use Office that anybody who’d been in school after the 80s should have.
At my current scene count, my average is 851. I’m going to make it to the 50K minimum. I foresee some spots where I’ll be injecting scenes to cover sub-plots that arose in the actual writing. So I might make it to 60K. Being able to see that early on is helpful to me.
Where the Numbers End
Knowing my chapters are short and my scenes are short does not help make them bigger or better. Unless I have a few experts in my genre analyze my work and notice some traits I have that the good books don’t have, I could be in trouble. Analyzing a whole chapter myself is harder than reviewing scenes. They’re shorter, and therefore easier to notice patterns.
I tended to go light on description. From characters to locations. Sometimes you’ll see advice suggesting to do that, to let the reader’s imagination fill it in, but that means lower word count. There’s a balance to be had between nothing and overdone checklist descriptions.
The hardest area to work on is the hardest part to write. Dealing with emotions honestly means delving into what the character is feeling and bleeding that on paper. It can be gut-wrenching. You know what’s easier? Speed running past all that. This is related to Show Don’t Tell. “She was sad.” is an archetypal example of this, but it also happens when you try to show it. Remember when I said the scene size increases when the stakes are higher? Guess how easy it is to shy away from those stakes as a writer, to avoid going into the difficult stuff.
The Final Tally
My new 64 scene draft is based on a version of the previous 20 point outline. In a few spots, I can re-use text (if it’s long enough and decent). But I try not to do that, as I’m hoping that the act of taking a fresh approach to the same scene I’d done before will let me apply what I’d learned since the first time.
From July to September, I’ve written 22 scenes at approximately 19,000 words. That’s a little over 6K per month. Could take me seven more months to finish this unless I can push harder each week. That depends on work and doing other things. Sacrifices need to be made to write a novel.
I do think this draft is better than the last. I hope I won’t have to do a full rewrite again, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. If you truly learn from each thing you write, the writing gets better the more you’ve written. I’ve been doing this continuously for five years. I’m almost there.