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Serialised Fiction – Part Five

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So this week I figured I’d talk about word counts.  I know its one of the things that most writers won’t really think about in any great detail, but word counts are extremely important.  If you write shorter fiction, and have considered submitting your work to any of the number of short story competitions that are run each year (or magazines, for that matter), then word counts become vitally important.  Because short stories especially have strict word count limitations.

 If you’re writing a TV series, then obviously the scripts have to be a certain length (As everyone knows, the general rule is one page of script = one minute of screen time).  While word count isn’t necessarily as important here, page count is.  A half hour sitcom should be about 35-40 pages (because some scenes are inevitably cut) while hour long drama’s should be 65-70 pages. 

If you’re writing your first novel, then word count should be approximately between 60-90,000 words, and definitely no more than that.  Why do I bring this entire subject up?  Because it is all about control. 

Words, words, words.

I somehow write an incredible number of words in a fairly small space.  One of my peers even dubbed me ‘The Word Machine’ because of this.  And it’s true.  It isn’t deliberate, it’s not like I try my best to squeeze as many words into every page as I can, I guess it’s just the way I write.  But it hasn’t been helpful, especially in the writing of this series.  For each episode I have a maximum word count, and it is often at the forefront of my mind just how many words I have left.  I know how much of each episode I have left to write, and I also know how many words I have remaining to write it in. 

I know it can be a drag to have to think about technical things such as word count while in the raw ‘generating material’ part of your writing.  After all, isn’t that what editing is for?  But it’s all part of your ongoing writer training.  If you can develop the ability to write judiciously, to not be so wordy in the writing phase, then you won’t have to rip so much out during the editing phase.  This is something I never really learned when I first started writing, which often made editing a painful process for me.  It’s much easier to scrap a character during the writing, than coming back later, that character firmly entrenched in your mind, and then having to remove that character altogether.

Not just fiction.

I also had this issue while I was at University, writing essays.  Obviously essays are an entirely different beast, what with them not being fiction, and needing facts and quotes and references and so forth. But while – I imagine – a lot of people would do their best to pad essays out, include long quotes, and lots of them, I always found myself pushing the maximum leeway we had in terms of word counts.  It’s like I always wanted to get as much into each essay as I could, to clarify my points, maybe even to show off how much work I’d done on the topic.  Essay writing is probably a very good exercise actually.  Essays involve doing research, backing up your claims, showing evidence.  In a roundabout way, writing fiction is much the same.


Active Thinking

I’ve been having problems with word count because like I say, I have a word count limit, and a lot to get into every episode.  So it generates an active thinking process.  A few of the episodes I’ve written this week I have actually found myself changing during the writing, mid scene in some cases.  Why do I need two characters here, when one can do the job just as well?  Yes, it does mean having to go back and edit the first half of the scene, but better to just edit the first half of the scene than the whole scene, right? 

This has been coming to me more and more.  Soon, hopefully, I’ll be able to do this kind of thinking before commencing a piece, so I’ll be able to streamline it as I go.  It allows for a little improvisation during the process while it’s actually occurring.  Comedians who work exclusively in improv don’t just make it all up as they go along, they work within set guidelines.  Some people may find that surprising.  If you have those guidelines in place however, it makes the whole process easier, not more limiting, but more free.  I believe the same is true for writing.  Once you train yourself to work within these guidelines, it becomes easier and more free, instead of limiting.  You will begin to think of such things as word counts unconsciously, and your writing will become better for it. 

The word count for this post, by the way (not including this sentence) is 809.  With editing I could probably get it down to 750.  What would you edit out?