blogger: Cynthia Ruchti
“My story’s finished, but it’s way too short for its category. What do I do now?”
Some writers have never experienced that particular brand of panic. They might well know the tremors that come from needing to slash 40,000 words from their epic novel that wasn’t supposed to be epic. But other writers well understand what it feels like to sense that they’ve come to the end of what they wanted to say in their memoir, or how the novel played out in their mind, or covered all the points they meant to address in their nonfiction book. The End. Great! But the recommended word count for their genre is far higher than what their computer screen tells them. Now what?
“Is it okay?” the writer asks. “My story ends too soon. How much wiggle room can I have? The guidelines say 80,000. I’m at 49,302. Close enough?”
No. And that’s not an arbitrary pronouncement. Much thought goes into word count guidelines for contests, contracts, and even when an author self-publishes.
Suggested word counts are based on many factors. Here are a few:
- Reader expectations. Readers have come to expect a certain rhythm to the time they invest in a book of a given genre. A novella will be a quick read–shorter word count. A nonfiction personal development book will grow wearisome if the author belabors his or her points for 800 pages. Five Quick Tips for Boosting Your Productivity will not get the readership it hopes for if it isn’t quick reading. But a fiction reader does love to linger in an historical world for a while, which is why some historical novels push close to the 100,000 word mark than contemporary fiction does.
- Shelf-ease. Imagine yourself perusing a bookstore, looking for something to catch your eye and beg, “Read me!” You note that most of the books in the fiction section are spine-out, and about the same trim size–roughly 5″ x 8″, 5.5″ x 8.5″, or 6″ x 9″. And they’re all roughly 3/4″-1.5″ thick. But there’s one among them that catches your eye, and not in a good way. It’s so thin, you can’t read the spine. It’s so tall, it’s bent over at the top on the bookshelf. It will seem out of place, and either less significant or not worth the price. On the shelf is another book that stands out. It’s four inches thick. FOUR inches. It’s taking up the space of three other novels that can’t find room. It costs three times the price of the others (see the next point), and will be a sure way to irritate your chiropractor if you try to carry it in our purse or backpack. Word count matters.
- Cost of production. Imagine the shipping cost increase to ship 25 copies of an 800-page book. The cost of editing, printing, warehousing, shipping, and every other element of publication is higher with an extremely long book, but doesn’t shrink proportionately with a thin book. Even if the publisher can cut some costs for the thinner book and charge readers less, it means both publisher and author will also make less money. Publishing houses have their reasons for caring about word count.
But the question was, “What do I do? My story ends too soon! But it feels like the story’s done.”
How can a writer increase their word count significantly without “faking it” or making the story seem falsely padded with quilt batting?
Did you search carefully for loose ends?
Did you introduce a character, start to develop that character’s persona and relevance to the story, then drop him like yesterday’s yogurt? Sometimes a character appears in several scenes, but then seems no long necessary to the story, so the author is even away of having let him or her sneak off stage. If a character enters the book with a dilemma, it needs to be resolved by the end of the book.
Did you rush the ending?
Many times an author grows weary of the unfolding and ends a book too quickly, rushing through what might naturally take several chapters to develop. Readers can tell when a story ends too soon or abruptly.
Are all the senses represented?
Sight is the easy go-to sense. Sounds run a close second. But you may find ways to add not just words but sentences or concepts to your too-short book if you look for places that are lacking the elements of taste, smell, touch.
Is the emotional connection deep enough?
Did you try to tell the story without letting the emotions (of both character and readers) have room to breathe? If the main character is grieving, was it over within a week? Then that may be a place that begs for further development.
If your story ends too soon, take a look at the subplots you’ve included. Are they necessary? Do they serve their purpose well? And are they cheated of their opportunity to have an impact on the main plot of the story? Were they a teaser only and never developed? Is there more you can do to flesh out a subplot that enhances, enriches, or adds excitement to the main plot?
Have you told what needed to be shown?
It often takes more words to show what’s happening or what’s felt than it does to tell it. Telling has its place, but readers feel more engaged with the story if they are invited on the journey (becoming part of the scenes or becoming the character) rather than hearing a report of the character’s journey. As you go back through your “completed” but too-short book, watch for places where you took an unnecessary shortcut by telling.
The SEO guide may say this blog post did the opposite of ending too soon. If it’s been helpful, let us know. And stay tuned for a future blog post that addresses the book that’s carrying around excess poundage.