Counting on Infinity

Post Date: September 27th, 2008

“Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Stephen King quoting an editor’s comment on a rejected short story, On Writing.

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264,329. 65 words in excess.

Page Count for the Novel: 941

“This is the only time we’ll ever do math in this room,” I used to say to my English students, “the math of how long it takes me to grade your essays.” In response to whining over the whereabouts of their papers, I’d bring them up short with the raw, scary data of my hours spent beyond their view, hunting topic sentences and run-ons. Math served me well at such moments.

I hate mathematics, even though it’s beautiful, philosophical, and essential; I hate how clueless I feel in its presence. Perhaps that’s the root of my love-hate relationship with the addition and subtraction part of this writing job and why some days I feel I can’t get it right.

I was once given a cold, hard number of advice about page count – that this novel in progress should hover between 300-400. I’m at 941 and 264,329 words. By this formula, I must reduce to 112,360 words. (Note I had to work with ratios to get that. I like ratios. They and percents make good, mundane, unscary sense — unlike figuring the volumes of cones and parsing sines and cosines.)

But now that I have this answer, all I can say is, Hmm.

Does it help my overwritten case that my original first draft was once 299,441? Does the eradication of some 35,000 words give me any lit cred whatsoever?

Stephen King writes, “If the first draft of a novel runs three hundred and fifty thousand words, I’ll try my damndest to produce a second draft of no more than three hundred and fifteen thousand…three hundred, if possible.”

I’m no Stephen King, in many senses. I don’t have an automatic audience and fan base who will tolerate vast lengths, and my plots don’t simmer with the kind of scary conflict he’s mastered, keeping the reader poised on edges of things. The only fair comparison with him is I write “puffy” as a rule, and there I diverge. 10% has to be too conservative a formula for this inflated, bloated prose of mine. But that said, cutting 151,969 words, or over 50%, begs a question in a different stratosphere, the big fuzzy question of “What’s this novel all about?”

I’ve had a couple friends say to me, “Just decide what it’s about and cut everything that’s not that.”

So what’s the formula for that? Forgive me for being dense, but do you say, “Okay. My novel’s theme is boils down to this one word – salvation. Anything that ain’t about that, I’ll cut”?

What if your mind sees connections among all things? What if every act of your characters could arguably rationalized as part of this mission of salvation – only expressed in myriad, bizarre ways? What if Charles Baxter just taught you in his essay, “On Defamiliarization” (Burning Down the House) that instead of pursuing a central theme, the “arrows” of your characterization need to “point in all directions”? How to balance word count with that deep-sea exploration?

What if the focusing word you choose is too abstract? Do you limit it to something more concrete and therefore, increase its length to a phrase, and say, “Okay, the novel’s about Saving Jane?”

Like math, there must be a right answer to this.

I’m reminded of a Pulitz Surprise we teachers used to all chuckle over, gathered by a wonderful colleague who helped relieve our stress with the hilarious malapropisms and misstatements of student essays. Wrote this one child: “Folks, it all comes down to one word: mass destruction.”

I’m that student writer. If you can say it in two rather than one, why, by all means!

In my search for an A on this word problem, David Edelman, author of Infoquake, has given me much comfort. In his blog he argues that the novel has been artificially restrained by the medium and thus the form. He says, “The medium of the novel is that 8″ x 12″ hunk of pulped wood, while the form of the novel is the 120,000 words of prose that gets inked onto the surface. But the point I’m trying to make here (as Frank Lloyd Wright and Marshall McLuhan made long before me) is that those two things are inextricably tied together. The medium of the novel is its form.” Then he says, “There’s nothing magical about the size, shape, and length of a novel. There’s no divine law which states that the perfect size of a story is between 80,000 and 150,000 words. That just happens to be the number of words that will comfortably fit in your hands using standard twentieth century printing technology.” He explores the e-medium as better suited to delivering art, unlimited art, whatever size we see fit.

So if the 400 page limit for commercial fiction is a paradigm we’re stuck in, on the cusp of bigger technologies that might be slim and waterproof and light enough some day for bathtub-ready reading, then I can be an edgy author who busts open that paradigm, right? I can keep my 264,329 or any length whatsoever and paradigms be damned.

Of course I’m posturing. What I really want is to engage fellow authors struggling with this same issue with what gets them writing what’s right for the piece rather than what’s right numerically. Word counts are beautiful constraints, the convent room or flower to keep us focused, but they might also force us into too clinical and rational a computation of our literary purposes.

Do you believe in the 150,000-word paradigm for the novel? Why or why not?
How do you know when a story is finished?
How do you keep the narrative line focused?
How does word count help or hinder your writing efforts?

Edelman also riffs on why popular songs are usually three to five minutes. So I’m off to tell my musician husband the field is open and he’s free to create the bluegrass equivalent of a Grateful Dead song.

Today’s Writing Goal: Let my characters pursue their actions with yearning. Follow their surprising actions where the contradictory and the concealed, as Baxter says, can surface. Fight formulaic passivity, dullness, transparency, or enigma.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option 1: Big Books, Little Books

What’s the longest book you’ve ever read? The shortest? Do you like longer or shorter books? Why?

Imagine that you own a publishing company and you can publish a book of any length. Write a letter to the people who work with you explaining the best number of words or pages for a book and why you believe this length works the best.

Option 2: Books of the Future

Imagine what books will be like 25 years from now. Will books always look the way they do now? Will they be made of paper and a certain length?

Describe a scene where you picture yourself reading a book. What will the book look like? Feel like? Sound like? Smell like? Where will you get your book?

Secondary and Adult

Option 1:

Imagine that you own a publishing company and you can publish a book of any length. Write a memo to the people who work with you explaining the best number of words or pages for a book and why you believe this length works the best. Then ask for your employees to offer contradictory opinions and argue for different lengths. Step into the shoes of two other employees who argue for different lengths than you, and write their responses to your memo.

Then write a memo to the company sharing your final decision and your justification for it.

Option 2:

What’s the longest novel you’ve ever read? Estimate its page or word count. Did you enjoy reading a novel of such length? Why or why not?

It’s been argued that the reason the average novel is 150,000 words is because that’s what most paperbacks — and people – can handle. If books are all someday offered electronically, a novel could have the option of being twenty times this size or any length the writer chooses.

Will books always look the way they do now? Will they be made of paper and a certain length? Imagine what books will be like 25 years from now. Describe a scene where you picture yourself reading a book. What will the book look like? Feel like? Sound like? Smell like? Where will you get your book? Do electronic options – e-books – enhance or detract from the reading experience? Why or why not?


  1. bobmust says:

    My first novel went to my agent at about 115,000 words. He (and she – a h/w team) said to pare it to 100,000 words. I got it down to 105,000 and they were happy. It sold at that length…until my publisher went belly up.
    The paradigm is, I think, more one of the cost to print, bind and ship vs. price a reader will pay. Ever notice that DeLillo, Clancy and Oates write super long stuff? I think it’s because the hefty advances they get demand upwards of $25 per unit, and giving the reader 500+ print pages is the palliative for the consumer cost.
    Back when the novel was, ah, a novel idea, the usual length was as much as 1500 pages. No one gets away with that these days.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:


    It’s interesting to think that some of the writers we deeply admire have become the feudal lords of the system! Not that I could guarantee I would behave any differently; I don’t believe I’d turn down a huge advance! But it’s a bit like the lottery, and I wonder if authors would turn from the devil’s deal if it was posed to them this way: So are you willing to take option A — uncertain royalty payments over many a year or option B — big, fat advance, knowing that option A leaves the market open for some others while B could pay your mortgage plus a trip to Bermuda? It’s not that simple, yet we all know the frustrating truth that the door is tight against new authors in this market of giant corporations looking for the next package to hock at Wal-Mart.

    Yet there’s blogging and self-publishing and e-book options on the horizon, different markets that we can envision now. I haven’t lost hope in the least as I “publish” my comment.

  3. heather says:

    Just finished your story in Relief and had to stop by to tell you I absolutely loved it. Loved the voice.

  4. bobmust says:

    Lyn, you and I surely read the same lit-rags, but I’m of the understanding that the industry is toying with the idea of doing away with advances altogether.
    My take on it is it’s unfair in the short-term. But because that puts all books on an equal footing in the marketplace (given that an author with a $2 million advance can market his/her book much better than someone with a $5K advance), I sort of like the idea.
    Incidentally, if you know anyone who has used Amazon’s Kindle, let me know how they like it. As something of a techno-geek, I’m tempted, but, well, I just don’t know……

  5. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Heather,

    Thanks for the comment. The voice just came to me one day and you know how it goes…had to follow it!


  6. Lyn Hawks says:


    Very interesting idea to get rid of advances. I’m used to that in the ed publishing industry; labor for two years and then see your royalties. Seems quite fair to me, though the two year part isn’t so fun. (But nothing compared to the years on the novel!)

    At David Edelman’s blog, he links to another blogger who claims that e-books won’t take off due to the way they’re being exorbitantly priced via tech like Kindle. I don’t know anyone with one but I’m intrigued as well. Something tells me to wait another few years until the technology is bathtub-ready and even slimmer. Until then, I’ll enjoy my musty and bendable paperbacks while composing furiously online. (Am actually thinking about trying to write standing up, though, to help my back and neck issues, so maybe the yellow legal pads will come out again.)