Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Novel in Progress - Getting the right word-count

My Psychological Thrillers tend to run to around 92,000 words. This creates a book with around 380-450 pages in a paperback format, depending on the type face. It's the sort of length I've been advised to aim for by agents and publishers. But how do you know when you start, that the story you have in mind is going to run for that number of words? How do you know that the storyline isn’t going to be all over and done with by 50,000 words?

Desk - with timelines, character profiles and inspiring books!
My immediate answer is I have no idea. I think it’s about reading a lot of books in the same genre, getting a feel for themes and their duration, finding several threads that will run the course of the book and ultimately making some kind of judgement when I write the initial plan and synopsis that there’s enough material to flesh the whole thing out without drying up too soon. I've been lucky so far - my story ideas have gone the distance...

I’m on the final run with my latest one, having reached 83,000 words yesterday. I tend to write fairly quickly in the first draft  (30,000 words in the last three weeks). All the remaining scenes are sketched and now my concern is: Will I fit it all in?! But it’s a good feeling, because I usually spend most of the novel from around 40,000 words onwards fretting that I will not have sufficient storyline to fill out the rest of the novel.
I usually think of a book in three acts, with high points towards the end of each act.  At 60,000 words, where the third act is kicking off, I start to hold my breath. Has the storyline got enough depth? Enough body? Is the dramatic twist and/or powerful denouement going to wing it? Have I undercooked the last section?

The Finishing Line
I’m now at the stage where I can allow myself to get really excited. The end is in sight and up to this point, it’s been touch and go. It usually is – because it’s a creative entity in process and has so many directions it could go in, even though I've sketched a comprehensive outline. Books still have a life of their own, they can drag you and swivel you all over the place. That’s why they feel so dynamic and the writing of it feels so alive. Now I can breathe again and enjoy it, knowing that it’s going to go the course and ‘fit’. Whether it ‘works’ or not is another matter!
Once it's finished...
After the first draft, where my focus is to 'get the story down' (thank you, Stephen King), I will leave it in a drawer for a week or so and shift to other projects. I have no ideas yet for the ‘next one’, so I’ll give some thought to that. I also have a completed book that’s just gone through the structural edits, so I will be liaising with my Agent re publishing on that one. Then I’ll return to the novel and go through it several times, looking first at the structure and plot: Do the threads follow through? Do they all get tied up? I’ll check for continuity - sometimes characters shift from blonde to brunette through the course of a story! 'Living rooms' become 'sitting rooms', or entrances develop front steps...

The nitty-gritty of first revisions
I usually ask myself at the end of each scene – what is the role of this scene, what has it told us? And at the end of each chapter: what does the reader know now and what do they want to know? I’ll check the characters – are they rounded enough and believable? Are they striking and compelling? I’ll also look at setting (is there enough atmosphere?), and openings of chapters (are they grabby?) and do the cliff-hangers at the end of chapters make the reader want to turn the page? Finally, I’ll look at language and style, these are the easiest to play around with, in my view.

Recruiting fresh eyes
After that, I’ll send it to my lovely beta-readers. I now have four with sparkling credentials, who will hopefully give me honest and specific feedback on all aspects of the book. Then I’ll revise again responding to the comments. I’m not precious, if I can see a criticism has some validity, I’ll  make changes. Then it will go to my Agent. She will read it and possibly send it on to one of her trusted readers for another round of feedback. Then more revisions and edits – and back it goes until we get to the point where it feels ‘ready’ to go out into the world.

How do other authors judge the length of their books? How do you get to the finishing line? I’d be interested to hear from you.
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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