Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guest Author Mark Budman on Word Counts and Concise Writing

Word Count: Pretty Unsexy?

What could be less sexy than the word count of a literary work? Even the serial comma or a dangling participle wouldn’t. At least the former went to Harvard (or was it Oxford?) and the latter could be funny. Yet the word count speaks volumes in spite of its diminished sexuality. The right word count can make a difference between the boring amateurish novel and a modern masterpiece. Yes, a literary masterpiece can be long. Oft mentioned by the defenders of gargantuan manuscripts are War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—560,000 words in length, The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later by Alexandre Dumas, père—626,000, and In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust—a whooping 1,500,000 words. More modern examples are Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling at 257,000 words and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at 575,000 words. All these are examples of literary and/or commercial success. But should a masterpiece be long?

I saw the same question repeated in many writers' forums again and again. My novel is 150,000, 200,000, 250,000 words. No agent wants to see it, and no serious publisher wants to touch it. How do I make it shorter? My question for those writers is: how did you manage to make your manuscript long in the first place? My answer is: make it short to begin with.

An example from a war novel: “The cars bore the food, clothes, weapons and other tools of war.” But of course they were. The supply trains do that. That is their raison d'être. It would be worth mentioning if they didn’t bear the food because, let’s say, the general thought that the troops would fight better when hungry, or they didn’t bear the weapons because, let’s say, the soldiers used magic.

Don’t describe what the protagonist had for breakfast unless the menu sheds some new light on him or her. Don’t say: “I’ll be brief.” Just be brief.

Dear author! Be concise. Cut mercilessly. Cut the adjectives, the obvious, the irrelevant, the secondary characters, the dead-end plot lines. Better yet, don’t create a bloated monster that needs its stomach stapled in the first place. Write only what is necessary to propel your work forward, to develop your plot and characters. Stop and ask yourself: “Is this chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, word really necessary?” Cut them, re-read and move ahead.

But make sure that you get rid of the fat and not the muscles. Otherwise, “I want sex” or “Give me food” would be fine examples of concise but worthless stories.

Even if you are a novelist and don’t stoop to writing short stories, consider writing flash fiction as an exercise. Come up with a retelling of a famous plot and set up an artificial word limit. Say, retell War and Peace in 500 words, but do it with a plot twist or two and make sure you still have a coherent, appealing story and not the cliff notes. You will not be sorry. Even if you don’t become a flash fiction writer, you still could use the skills you would acquire in writing flashes as stepping stones. They would help you to grow as a novelist. I mean, to grow in strength and your appeal to the reader and not in girth.

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union and is fluent in Russian. His fiction, poetry and book reviews have appeared in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, American Book Review, The Bloosmbury Review, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, The Literary Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction(UK), The Warwick Review (UK), Flash (UK), Neo (Portugal) and elsewhere. He is the publisher of Vestal Review, the longest-running flash fiction magazine in print. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited the anthologies You Have Time for This (Ooligan Press) and Sudden Flash Youth (Persea Books/WW Norton). He is at work at two new novels, and puts together an anthology “Condensed to Flash: World Classics.” This anthology will feature world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer.

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  1. Hi Debi, I'm new to the Rochester critique group and just got done reading your chapter. :) I wish I had read the first eight! It seems really interesting. It's MG, right? Out of curiosity, what's your word count?

  2. Hi, I tagged you in the Lucky Seven Meme. :) Check out my blog for details.