revision

On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.