Solving for X - Maggie Stiefvater - NYT Best Selling Author
April 10, 2012

Solving for X

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In my continued attempt to answer reader questions, I decided to pull another one out of the stack today. Some of the questions I got were quite specific (like “what font did you use for the chapter headings in Lament?), so I’m trying to hit the ones that have the most universal relevance first. Here’s one I though might interest multiple people.

What’s considered too much? My book is hovering at a precarious 156,000 words, and I’m not even halfway through the plot. I’ve run it by some people and so far they don’t think I can cut any of what I have already. Of course that will change later, but how do I where the line between a long book and rambling is?

There are a few things you should know about me.

1. One of my eternal fears is being boring. It means when you ask me a question out in public, I will always try to answer in as few words as possible, and then I will pause to analyze your facial expression. If your eyebrows are still saying that you are interested, I’ll shoot more at you. If I’m at all not certain about the status of your eyebrows, I will fall silent and give you a chance to escape to powder your nose.

2. I write young adult novels. I like bucking the system and setting fire to expectations and other amusing pastimes, but I don’t do those things without good reason. That means that I am aware that most young adult novels are between 50,000 and 90,000 words long, and I will do my level best to put my story into that many words unless badly pressed.

3. I believe you can always cut. When I wrote the first draft of THE RAVEN BOYS, it was a monster — 40,000 words too long, in my opinion. I went through the draft and cut out a word here and there, a redundant sentence here and there, and lo and behold, I lost 40,000 words without removing a single scene. That means I kept all of the action in a book 2/3rds shorter. There is always more you can cut out of a manuscript. There’s always a shorter way to say something. A chapter is like an equation: solve for x. You can start out with a huge long equation and get it down to x = 32 x 11, and that might accomplish what you want. But never forget that you could always strip it all the way down to just this, if you had to: x.

4. I think nearly any writing question can be answered by looking at it from the perspective of a reader. So when the question is: “is eight narrators too many?” imagine books you read with loads of narrators. When the question is: “can I tell this story entirely through flashbacks?” remember how you react to it as a reader. When the question is “is length a problem?” try your level best to recall everything you feel about long books. How they affect your purchase decision, how they affect your decision to pick them up out of your TBR pile, how they make you feel when you’re halfway through. The answer will be different for every reader, but the best thing you can manage is to write honestly for the reader you are.*

*not the reader you wish you were, either, by the way. no cheatsies.

How does all this boil down in regards to our question above? Well, like this. At some point in the world of word count, a manuscript ceases to be a story and begins to be an assault.

You don’t want to be that person who gets asked a question and goes on and on without checking the eyebrows for permission. It is better to leave them wanting. You don’t have to solve entirely for x, but if you leave your book in epic form, it becomes an equation that fewer and fewer readers have the desire to solve. I don’t know if you remember my post about gimmee points, but exceptional wordiness is a decision you have to make consciously. You have to be aware it’s going to limit your audience every time you go over the standard length for your genre. Personally, I’d rather use my gimmee points elsewhere.

Because too often length is not a conscious story choice. It’s a sign the author doesn’t really know their own story. That the focus has been adjusted too wide. That the prose is sloppy. And when I say too often, I mean, pretty damn often.

You might convince me that your 156,000 word novel needs to be that long. But I will then turn around to my bookshelf and pull out my favorites in multiple genres and quote numbers at you:

ANANSI BOYS (adult genre sci-fi/fantasy): 107,972
ENDER’S GAME (adult genre sci fi): 100,609
THE NIGHT CIRCUS (adult literary)(ish): 120,937
TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (Adult literary): 155,717*

SAVING FRANCESCA (YA literary):  58,782
HUNGER GAMES (YA genre): 99,750
WHERE THINGS COME BACK (YA contemporary): 56,527**

*this is the fattest book on my shelf at the moment, apart from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
**you can find out more numbers here at Renaissance Learning.

So is x>156,000 a good length for your book? It is, if you can answer the question like this:

“I can’t cut anything from this manuscript.”

But you’d better be right.