Monday, March 28, 2011

Needed: 1 Cup of Words

You've written your first draft. You love your plot, your characters and your setting. You've popped the champagne cork to celebrate and happens. You open up your manuscript, look at the word count and discover you're short of your planned word count by about 10,000 words.

What to do?

When this happens to me, I generally find I need to beef up my descriptions. I tend to write manuscripts that are very dialogue-heavy and in the midst of all that talking, descriptions seem to be left behind. It could be because I can see it all so clearly and I'm so familiar with my setting and my characters, I forget readers are reading it all for the first time - not the ninety-second like me.

I go back through my manuscript to pay more attention to where my story takes place. I let my readers know that the grand piano is covered with silver-framed family photographs or that the morning sun highlights the heaviness of the green velvet draperies. Instead of one character simply clasping her hands in her lap, I add that before clasping, her hands smooth out the folds of her black silk skirt or that she runs a finger over her pearl necklace.

I add that the windshield wipers on a car squeak in an odd rhythm, or that an uncomfortable silence in one room is painted with the faint echoes of a gramophone playing the newest jazz records from America seeping in from a bedroom down the hall.

I don't try to add a new sub-plot because usually my plots are complicated enough to begin with. I do, however, search to see if each of my main characters grow during the story. I ask myself: How have the events changed him/her? What have they learned? Most importantly, does each evolution happen at a logical pace? No one changes their outlooks because of one conversation, but it can happen in baby steps.

What do you do when you realize your manuscript needs a few thousand words?


  1. Elspeth - That's a very important and interesting question! And it's very relevant for my writing because I've got an academic background. So I tend to write very "lean" stories. When it occurs to me that I have to add more, I add little doses of backstory here and there. I also add more description.

    Here's what Agatha Christie's Ariadne Oliver says about that problem in Cards on the Table:

    "I always think I've finished, and then when I count up I find I've only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It's all very boring."

  2. Usually I have the opposite problem -- I need to *cut* words! However, I also tend to be a bit dialogue-heavy, so I employ the same technique of adding little touches of description here and there-- a facial expression, perhaps, or a detail that enhances the setting to that readers have a sense of place as well as time.

  3. Panic.
    Actually, my first draft is usually way short. As I go through drafts 2-? it beefs up. After a few of these, I end up having to cut. It's just the way it works for me.

  4. Margot; I think my tendency to leanness (WHY OH WHY is it only in my writing) comes from what I learned in acting school: less is more. And thanks for that Ariadne quote. Apt, true and funny all at the same time.

    Elisa; I find I hit that delete button simply because the words are BAD - not because there are too many! Although I have noticed I have a wonderful gift for using 10 words when I could use 2. Hmm....wait...that sounds familiar...

  5. Carol; You get bonus points for honesty. Panic *is* usually my first reaction as well. You're right, of course, the word count tends to grow with the number of editing passes.

  6. .. I have the opposite problem - I don't know when to stop!! ;p But like the other comments have mentioned the re-writes get me there *grin*
    The Arrival, Book 1 of the BirthRight Trilogy available now

  7. I think that I think much differently about it now than I did in the past. Now, I consider the first draft as just the telling to MYSELF of the story. So there is probably lots in it that is uneccessary and lots that isn't there but is in my head. I try to write fat and revise lean but when I don't I would probably fatten a bit all over like you are suggesting - instead of trying to grow another appendage which might ruin the through-line of the plot.

  8. Jan; I don't worry so much about the first draft - it's when polishing has happened and I'm *still* short when I get worried. I find writing fat difficult probably because I used to write speeches.

  9. I consider self-publishing. No, I think your suggestion is great because it seems some crime writers just add a body or five, and enhanced violence is not my taste. But sometimes I wonder if we would see some better stories if publishers didn´t assume novels should be of a certain length.

    What if we were free to tell the story, polish it until it was a perfect gem, without worrying about a few thousand words more or less?

  10. For me it goes back to exposition, and character development. Making sure the guts are there to support the rest.

    Great question, Elspeth!

  11. Dorte; I don't like when the violence meter is ramped up either. And I agree with you about not worrying about a few thousand words more or less.

    Janna; You make a great point, Janna! Without the guts, you've got a great deal of dressing hiding nothing.

  12. My first drafts tend to be short, simply because I'm focused more on getting the story out and keeping the pace rolling. In the second draft, that's when I really start adding stronger sensory description, focsu more on showing emotion and adding mood to the settings.

    It doesn't take long to beef up the word count...just in time to tighten and trim in round three!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


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