40,000 and still going

A New Allegiance clocked up its 40,000th word this morning. I don’t know what that word was, but the 40,086th was willpower. As ever, that is unlikely to remain the case because the work will be revised, edited and redrafted repeatedly before it is ready for publication. The word count equates to 137 pages of my master edition, and will be roughly the same in the published edition.

This means that I am about a third of the way through the narrative if my recent works are anything to go by. My earliest books, which were published a decade ago, tended to be a little over 300 pages in length. The shortest of them, The Planning Officers, is a mere 230, but that was only ever meant to be a novella, not a full novel. More recently, however, they have grown in length, regularly breaking the 400 page mark, and the longest of them being Rutter’s Revolt, which tips the scales at 452, so it is almost double the length of the novella. This, I suppose, is down to my maturing as a writer, gaining experience and developing skills.

The most significant lesson I learned as a writer was given to me by my original proofreader. I had been labouring on my first novel, Usurper, for years, and was feeling really proud of myself when I handed him the manuscript. It was a weighty tome, clocking in at well over 500 pages. I used a different layout in those days, so one page of manuscript was rather more than what would appear in the printed edition. Had it been published as it was, it would have been well over 400 pages in length, possibly nudging 500.

Imagine my dismay when he tore it to shreds. This was my baby, the product of my imagination and effort. It had taken me years to write. For all that, he told me the truth. It simply wasn’t good enough. I had padded innumerable sentences out for no better reason than to make them longer and, thus, increase the overall page count. I had included scenes that, although pleasant enough in themselves, added nothing to the plot. I told myself that ‘real’ books were all over 400 pages long. This is utter rubbish, of course. Is A Christmas Carol a real book? Is Of Mice and Men? Check out their lengths. A book should be as long as it needs to be, and not a single word longer. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that Usurper did not have the legs to justify its length.

Accordingly, I bit the bullet and wielded the axe. The original was over 137,000 words long. The published edition is less than 93,000 and weighs in at about 330 pages. That’s right, I cut over 40,000 words from my original manuscript. That is nearly a third. Sometimes, it was whole passages, cut because they were irrelevant. An entire chapter disappeared for the same reason. Usually, however, it was superfluous words and phrases, cut because they were unnecessary, or passages rewritten to make them simpler and more dynamic. Ironically, I had to add text later on because I had cut too much and the edited version was not descriptive enough. Suffice it to say that by the time it was published, Usurper had the legs to justify its (shorter) length.

My skills have improved since then. That is not me boasting. Everybody’s skills improve with experience, regardless of what they do. I can now write more fully and descriptively without waffling. That is why my more recent works have all been over 400 pages in length. The difference is that I was not thinking of that page count as a target to be reached at all costs. It was simply how many pages would be required to tell the story properly.

So here we are, nearly 140 pages in and possibly a third of the way through. Whether it stays that way remains to be seen. I have a rough idea of the rest of the story, and how I want it to end, but much remains to be decided. I tend to plan it out in my head, not in fine detail, but in terms of major events. The hard bit is linking these events. At times, I cannot see how I am going to move onto the next part of the story because I cannot link it at all. Then, I have to place my faith in the Muse, who will show me the way. And she does — eventually, and only after a protracted period of writer’s block and soul-searching because she is a toffee-nosed little madam who delights in torturing writers.

Don’t ever think that writing a book is easy. It isn’t.


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