Friday, May 19, 2006

WRITING CATEGORY or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word Count

The other day, in the comments of another thread, someone (Betty, I think) mentioned receiving advice to write the story first and figure out later whether or not her book was a single title or a category book. Don't worry about writing to the word count.

It's good advice, especially for writers who aren't writing under contract, or who aren't sure whether or not they're writing category-length books to begin with.

But if you know you're writing category books--if you're under contract--that good advice is impossible to follow. When you write specifically for category, you have to learn to write to the word count. You have to learn the expectations of the line, the length they're looking for, the sort of language you can get away with (and what you can't get away with). And you have to learn to write a full, engaging love story (and in some lines, a twisted, compelling mystery) within a very short number of manuscript pages.

This used to be a big problem for me. Left to my own devices, I write long. Very long. In fact, some of my earlier books, written for category before I knew what I was doing, came in around 400 manuscript pages, which translates to 100,000 words. The book I sold, FORBIDDEN TERRITORY, had been trimmed from 320 pages to 300 to fit Harlequin Intrigue. My editor then asked me to cut another twenty or thirty pages.

Once I stopped sobbing and tearing my hair out, I got my mental scissors out and started slicing. And you know what? It's a better book for it.

As restricting as category's lower word counts may seem, they can really force you to make every word, every scene, every character count. When you're staring at 300 pages and you know you want to come in at 260 pages, it's amazing how much tighter you can make a book.

You learn that a scene that doesn't accomplish at least two things for your story is a wasted scene. If your scene isn't moving the plot forward and revealing character, or revealing character and providing vital back story, or doing all three at the same time, then that scene either needs to be cut or conflated with another scene. Your scenes must do double or triple duty.

You learn when characters are necessary and when they're not. When I was working on my most recent work-in-progress, I had created a pair of characters designed to reveal something about the hero's character. But the subplot required too much set up, took up too much time from the storyline, and did nothing significant to propel the story forward that couldn't be accomplished in a more streamlined and organic way. So I cut those lovely characters from the story and went a different direction. (I may bring those characters back to life in another story if they fit better. Or maybe I'll give them their own story).

You learn just how flabby a first draft can be When a story is flowing straight from our brains to our fingers, it's hard to edit as we go. Stopping every few minutes to question word choices or dialogue lines slows down the process and irritates the muse. But when you're finished, and you're staring at 300 pages that need to be cut by forty pages, unleash that internal editor! Read through your manuscript with mental machete in hand. Hack away at the redundancies, the repeated information, the extra adjectives and adverbs better replaced by strong, specific nouns and verbs.

So if you're thinking about targeting category, but you're afraid that writing to guidelines or a shorter word count will be creatively limiting, remember that there are valuable trade-offs involved. What you may sacrifice in unlimited creativity you get back in learning a valuable lesson about writing tight, crisp and compelling prose.

It'll make you a better writer when it comes time to write that bigger, longer book.


Carla Swafford said...

I've heard from other authors that category is a great training ground for discipline. And I know of one single title author (I love her writing) could have used the discipline in her last book. Nine hundred plus pages of sex and death would've been more powerful if broken down and condensed into two or three books.

I type short and then go back to flesh it out. My critique partners help a lot by saying "Why did he do that? or What is she feeling here?"

Paula, I'm so looking forward to reading your book.

Angel said...

Personally, I write short, so the word counts are often a target for me. Though I find that the more I write and the more I learn, the longer my manuscripts get. But at the moment I can't imagine writing a single title. :)

This is really interesting, Paula. So many times we are told to just write the book and worry about everything else later. Maybe that's good advice for the first book, but eventually you have to come to terms with market expectations and keep them in the back of your mind, at least.


MaryF said...

Great article, Paula! Though I have the opposite problem - writing short.