Personal editing. Professional results.

Whaddya do with a quarter-million words?

July 14, 2023
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

A quarter-million words is what you get if you're writing four sentences a day for eight years. The total might feel like the accomplishment of your life. A quarter-mil can also haunt you and taunt you, depending on how close you get to revisions.

In the span of just three weeks, I consulted with two authors who each had 260,000 words already written of their novel. They said this with a variety of emotions, ranging from pride to bafflement to despair. I've written here in this newsletter about how anything that size simply must be two books. People disagree.  Game of Thrones comes in at 303,000. Are you writing GoT? Or Gone with the Wind, at 419,000?

Authors do hew to their original courses, though. Only the story's structural strength can determine the size of a book. If you think of it like a skyscraper, only the best-designed books and buildings can top out at over 100 stories.

One hundred stories of 2,500 words each is a quarter-mil. One hundred chapters isn't so very novel in novels, by now. The books that publishers buy today, and then try to sell, have that many chapters, more often with smaller word counts per chapter.

What you do

If you have a summary document of some kind — the sort of thing that Amazon uses to entice readers and tell them what the story is about — please print it out. A 250,000-word first draft is a significant hill to climb. The book will be only yours once you can do revisions. That’s not impossible, but it is a task you must face.

You can try to avoid asking an editor to carry your draft to the finish line. Even at 3 cents a word to do an edit — which would not be as deep as a rewrite — that’s a $7,500 job at market-competitive rates.

That strategy to kick onto an editor's desk a first draft of a quarter-mi? It has a good chance of failing — because no editor is going to live out your book as you did over those eight years in your heart and in your head.

It's possible that a quarter-million words could be 5,000 short of the finish. It’s not possible to do a decent edit, in the vein of a rewrite, without knowing the ending to the book.

A rewrite is your first task, after you’ve got that summary created. I can help with consulting and developing. We can stay on track and develop a synopsis. No matter what, summing up the work is essential to breathing it into the world.

Find your beacon

One thing that helps focus your work with me is what I call a Beacon Book. That’s the novel or nonfiction you believe best fits your style and tone. Sometimes people with massive novels say, Infinite Jest. It's the champion of this derby of words, coming in at 550,000. Of course, David Foster Wallace took his own life, years after finishing it. The brilliance of keeping a story of that size together, good enough to still be in print today, is nothing short of a miracle. Sometimes, brilliance has its costs.

In the book Finishing School, the textbook for the course I lead in five-week sessions, there's advice from Cary Tennis about following such a high-wire path. Cary says you should study writers whose methods you can learn and practice, instead of the geniuses who nobody could ever emulate. Simplifying anything is genius. We can work with someone we trust to assay our simplicity. That starts with setting aside thousands of words for another day.

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