Does word count really matter

This post stemmed from a conversation over on the Editor Chat page, and since it is a question we’re emailed several times a week, I figured it would probably be a good idea to post it here.

The question was whether to use Microsoft Word’s word count tool, or to use the manual page x 250 formula.

…He gave a rule of thumb for newbies on word count as somewhere around 80,000 words for a first book, but he reccomended against using the program “Word’s” auto- count function saying it was wildly accurate. Instead he recommended calculating the word count using a formula…

In my opinion, both methods are not foolproof. Word picks up on items that aren’t really words, many times giving you a larger word count than the manuscript really is, but overall it’s fairly accurate.

The other method–multiplying the total number of pages by 250 (not 225 like the agent advised) is also inaccurate as far as word count because of the way text is laid out on the page.

For example, when it comes to dialogue, many times you will have several lines of only a few words each in an exchange that can last three to ten lines. This would skew the word count with the manual count because while the sentence “Are you serious?” is only three words, it takes up an entire line on the page, as opposed to a tight sentence of description. Both take up one line on the page, but their word count is very different.

Here, take a look.

Example 1:
“Are you serious?”
Max nodded. “Yup.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Well you better, I heard it myself.”

Example 2:
The moon hung low in the dark sky, the waters of the black lake calm and silent.

See the difference in space that is taken up? Yet both examples are 17 words each. Same word count, but it will change the number of pages in a finished book if it keeps up those patterns.

So honestly, you can use either method. In my opinion, the exact word count doesn’t matter when a book first comes to us. Granted, we want an estimate so we know whether it’s a novella or a freaking epic that should be cut into four volumes, but that’s about as far as it goes. Especially, since no manuscript comes through our edit-happy fingers without going through some tweaking and multiple rewrites, the original word count doesn’t really apply anyway.

Once a book is edited and goes into production, word count doesn’t matter. The layout guys don’t really give a damn whether there is 84,209 or 91,659 words, they’re just going to make it look nice on the page.

Now, don’t get me wrong, exact word count is not important, but a rough estimate is. Like I said, there is a difference between a novella and a short story, just as there is a difference between a novella and a novel (and a novel and a manuscript that would eat up a redwood… ) and we do need to know what type of book we are looking at. A rough word count gives us an automatic general idea on how long the book will be, page count wise, in the finished product in multiple sizes (trade, paper, hard), which is something we do take into consideration. If you’re only talking a few thousand words, it’s not going to make much of a difference to us, just as long as you still stay in the “novel” versus “novella” categories, as we don’t even consider novella length pieces (sorry if I sound contradictory, but there is a difference between the two, and a very big difference in regards to publishing ).

So in all honesty, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If it makes you feel better, when submitting you may include both word counts on your cover letter so that the editor can go by whichever he or she feels most comfortable using.

A lesson on Tense

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style

Alright, I’m going to take a moment here and go back to high school English, and spell out a quick lesson on the difference between different tenses and the importance of sticking to just one throughout your book.

Why?

Because it’s annoying when a writer starts out talking about what a character did, and then suddenly a third of the way through the book simply talks about what the character will do. So pay attention.

I will be pulling examples out of the Chicago Manual of Style, so if you’d like to follow along, I suggest you go out and buy one. In fact, on second thought, I suggest that every writer (and editor) snatch up a copy of this wordsmith’s bible and keep on hand. It’s a godsend for nearly every question you could have about grammar, writing, publishing laws, language use, etc.

Alright, so on we go. Ready kids?

What is Tense?
Tense shows the time in which an act, state, or condition occurs or occurred. There are three basic divisions of time: past, present, and future. Each of those three divisions breaks up into the smaller subdivisions listed below.

Present Tense
Also called the present indicative, the present-tense form is the infinitive verb’s stem (simply add an s for third-person singular), indicating acts, conditions, or states that occur in the present or a habitual action or truth. In literature, it may also be used to narrate the plot of a fictional work.

Examples include:
I read
The editor edits every day
Bad grammar is a health threat (kidding…but not really)

Past Tense
Uses the basic inflected form, also called past indicative. This tense indicates an act, state, or condition that occurred in the past.

Examples include:
We picked up yesterday’s mail
He opened up the first submission slowly
He tossed it away

Future Tense
Form the future tense by using will with your verb’s stem to refer to something that will or is expected to happen.

Examples include:
I will write this post even it if kills me
Some readers will actually pay attention
I will burn the next manuscript I see that doesn’t follow these basic guidelines…

Present Perfect Tense
This tense uses have or has with the principal verb’s past participle (a word formed from a verb and used as an adjective) showing something that has now finished or continues up to the present. This tense is different than past tense because it is more vague on time, while past tense is more specific.

Examples include:
I have read all the manuscripts
It has been a long day at work
I have been dealing with bad grammar for far too long

Past Perfect Tense
Also known as pluperfect, this is formed by using had with the verb’s past participle referring to an action, state, or condition that was completed before another specified past time or action.

Examples include:
The writer had submitted his manuscript before he edited it
By the time the writer realized this, the shit had hit the fan

Future Perfect Tense
You can form this by placing will have before the verb’s past participle. This tense refers to something that is expected to be finished before another future act or time.

Examples include:
The editor will have read fifteen manuscripts before the end of the day
The writer will have written five hundred words by two o’clock

So why is it important?
Verbs describe action, a state, or a condition. Your verbs help you tell the story, and you want the reading to flow naturally, in the correct order that they happen. It’s important to use the correct tense because if you mix several tenses up, your reader is going to get lost:

She jumped over the log. Wait, did she jump or is going to jump? The dog walked…no, he’s walking toward her–he’s not there yet. Does she stab the dog as she’s jumping or before…wait, why the f*&# is she stabbing a damn dog anyway?

You see? It’s distracting and can be confusing, and will get your manuscript trashed if it happens a lot. So make sure to go back and double check your tense before submitting.

Rounding your characters: the hero(ine)

One important thing to remember when creating your main character–which in most cases (though not all) turns out to be the hero–is that they need to be real. What I mean is creating a character that is believable, despite all of the amazing–if not fictional–acts and accomplishments they achieve over the course of the novel.

What does it take to make a character believable? Read on.

Strengths and Weaknesses

When creating your characters strengths, its ok to make the character stronger, faster, smarter, or heartier than a real person in real life. That’s one of the reasons people like to read, right? They want a break from the mundane, the ordinary, the reality of real life. So go ahead and make your hero be able to lift a truck to save a helpless child, or to have him wrestle bare-handed against a tiger…just don’t over do it.

Keep it “realistic” without being real: Have your mage be the strongest in his town – but not in the land. Let your alien species be immune to every bio-weapon known to man, but not in the universe. It’s ok to let the fight go on a little longer as simple punches don’t hurt your “superman,” but one person can not take on a room of eight bikers and walk away unscathed.

There needs to be checks and balances in everything, including your characters strengths and weaknesses. All of the great heros of the past had them: Achilles and his damn heel, Heracles and poison, Oedipus and hubris, Superman and kryptonite, Thor without his hammer, Othello’s overactive trust issues. The point is, each of these characters had something (a weakness) that would bring them to the ground; thus, they are NOT unstoppable, unsinkable, or immortal.

A talented author (I’ll input his name once I remember, as my mind is just not here at the moment) once made an excellent point when discussing the laws of magic: basically, that there must be consequences for the magic user, or the world in which the magic is used. For example, a wizard cannot be all-powerful, otherwise no one would be able to stop him and then what’s the point of any kind of plot? There wouldn’t be, as there’s nothing at stake for him. So, to keep the plot interesting, there needs to be a side-effect of each use of magic; such as having the magic-wielder age each time he casts a spell–so that in the end when he needs to cast a massive spell to save the town, it’s a much more difficult choice (and possible sacrifice) that the character is up against. Make sense so far?

Minor Flaws

Besides the obvious strength/weakness issue, there are other little details that can be added to your character that makes him/her draw the reader in, so that readers can understand and relate to them, bringing your hero “down to earth” and keeping them from becoming an iconic ass.

How do you accomplish this? Easy. One of our upcoming books, Damewood, has a female lead character who enjoys hunting and slaying demons–and is actually so comfortable around them that she’s seeing one. So what did the author do to round her character? Fear. Nadia, the main character, can slay demons and stand her ground at the sight of gallons of blood, but cannot stand to be in the same room as a spider. Doesn’t matter what kind or what size of spider, even if it’s dead, she flips out, lifts her imaginary skirt and cries for help from her guy-pals. It might sound funny in this short description, but it really makes the character believable in that–despite the demon slayings and boyish attitude–she is, after all, a girl, with real girl fears. (And no, not all girls are afraid of spiders, so before anyone gets all huffy and bitchy just follow me here.)

Another great example would be to have a character be an acclaimed space pilot–only to come out later that he’s afraid of the dark and can only navigate the ships because of interior lighting. Or, a heroine that will cross miles of open deserts and wastelands to save her sister’s kidnapped child, but will give up an hour of much-needed sleep at night in order to comb out her hair and meticulously clean her travel dust-covered gear because she can’t stand dirt.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, just give them personality quirks or characteristics that would make them stand out, and keeps them from being the “iconic,” or “perfect” character. Again, don’t overdo the flaws and make them unrealistically stupid, slow, afraid, or whatnot, just something to offset the “hero” image, and again, bring them “down to earth.”


Is the Hero Really a Hero?

You mean is your character a hero with all (or some) of the above-mentioned flaws? Of course. If anything, it REALLY makes them a hero because of the obstacles you’ve created that they must go up against. I mean, what would be so heroic about your character if there was nothing to stop him from walking in to a building and carrying out a crying infant? Nothing. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be more dramatic and climatic if the building was on fire, the infant trapped upstairs, and the man had asthma? See what I’m talking about now?

You need to build your character up (or down, whichever way you see it) in order to make the situation tense and intriguing. On the flip side, you need to write your character in a way that readers sympathize with them so that they actually give a damn whether or not he/she lives or dies, or saves the world, etc. Make readers care. Make them understand. Make your character “real.”

Character description worksheet

Okay, so we’ve been slacking this last week. A lot’s been going on over here, and the blog…well, the blog was not exactly in the top three of last week’s to-do list. So, while I’m putting together the article about writing character descriptions, here’s an outline/worksheet that lists many (but not all) of the characteristics you should have developed for your characters in order to make them believable, well-rounded, and memorable. Again, this is a starter list, and should be no means be the end to the depths in which you can describe your character.

P.S.
To expedite things, I’m writing as if all the characters are males. Sorry girls – it’s just a pain in the ass to have to jump back and forth from him/her, he/she, etc. Get over it.

    Character Description Worksheet

PHYSICAL/BASIC TRAITS

Full name (including middle if he has one)

Date of birth

Age

Address/or at least location where he lives (ie, California, Nebraska, Mars…)

Race/ethnicity/nationality

Height

If short, does he have a height complex?

Weight/build

Skin color (also natural, or tanned)

Hair (color, texture, cut)

Eyes (size, color, placement)

Nose

Ears

Size/shape of hands and feet

Wear nails long or short (cut or chewed)

Glasses/contacts?

Teeth (shape, color, size)

Distinguishing marks (birthmarks, scars, tatoos)

Health

Smell (yes yes, ALL of us have our own smell)

Voice (pitch, tone)

Posture

Walking style

Mannerisms

Nervous ticks/twitches

Favorite type of clothes/shoes/accessories

What he actually wears (ie, what he can afford compared to what he likes)

Favorite foods

Favorite drink

Eating habits

Smoke

Drugs

PERSONALITY

Occupation

Does he like his occupation?

Social class

Is he happy where he stands?

Views on money

Actual spending habits

Education/intelligence

Family

Political views

Religious y/n, how does religion play in life

Outlook on life/disposition

Favorite possession

Car/bike

Hobbies

Talents

Describe in three (3) sentences his average daily routine.

Fears/phobias

Major goals

What kind of self-image does he have?

Eating disorders

Physical disorders

Length of time on an average day it takes him to wake up and clean up

Showers daily?

RELATIONSHIPS

Married/single

Sexual orientation

Sexual preferences

In a relationship? Serious?

List people/characters he spends most his time with

Relationships with:
–Father
–Mother
–Siblings
–Grandparents
–extended family
**write a 2-5 sentence description of each family member he’s in contact with

If no father/mother, does he strive to fill that hole?

Have kids?

Their ages.

Best friend

How does he view his friends?

How do his friends view him?

How does he view family?

How does family view him?

Name his hero

OTHER ODD PERSONALITY TRAITS
(These apply only to fantasy/horror/sci fi novels)

Race (as in alien or humanoid…)

Magical abilities

Fighting skills

Survival skills

Types of training received

Work preferences

Is he comfortable around humans

Comfortable around large groups of people

Dead or undead

Weaknesses

Is he similar to others like him, or does he stand out?

Can he use a gun/weapon

Any familiars? (if so, describe)

Views towards his people/fellow creatures/race

Has he traveled much from his town/city before current plot journey?

Is he aware of “the bigger picture” or what “doom” is befalling his tiny village?

Is he comfortable dealing with alien species?

Has he killed before?

Has he killed another human (or another of his race) before?

Was it in cold blood or self defense

Will he break down, or will he do it again (and will he enjoy it)

List immunities

Contest winner

While I was a little disappointed that there were so few entries, I wasn’t with the outcome. So, to make this quick and sweet, the contest goes to:

*drumroll*

NearlyMello. (And, by the way NM, though we’ve chatted on several occasions, I don’t have your email. You’ll need to contact me to claim your prize)

Why? Well, because NM’s character description – though written in an almost bulleted outline compared to the other’s snippets from stories – gave the best overall picture of the character. Not only were we able to see the character, but we could just imagine his personality quirks, his daily habits, as well as a clear image of the friends and surroundings he places himself in.

What really stood out about NM’s character sketch were the specific – if sometimes unexpected – details that were added behind basic listed traits. For example:

He has worn the same pair of black tennis shoes every day for the past three years. They reek.

Not only did this give an image of what the shoes look like, it also gives hints to the characters personality. From the fact that he’s worn them for three years and they reek, show either he doesn’t care about the smell, doesn’t give a damn what others think, or has a mild case of Asperger Syndrome and refuses change.

Another example is his proffession. In an earlier bullet, NM describes his character as:

He is annoyed by people who make extremely particular requests, bad traffic, road signs, and most things having to do with weddings.

Yet, despite his dislike for “anything wedding,”

His most recent job is working as a delivery guy for an upscale local bakery. He’s absolutely thrilled to be delivering wedding cakes on a regular basis… Yeah, right.

The fact that the character is short with others around himself when he’s upset or annoyed really plays up on the fact that he’s unhappy with himself and what’s going on with his life (ie, Cystic Fibrosis) and though for the most part lives a fairly normal life despite the oddities of his personality, the descriptions of his habits and lifestyle show there is a deeper fear of what lies ahead (a possible untimely and “unhealthy” death) and is very aware of it and projects his fear and spite onto others in order to deflect from himself.

Several of the few things that should have been expanded on were his relationship and actions towards friends – other than what he does when he’s annoyed, what kinds of activities he did outside of work and medical checkups (besides visiting friends at their workplaces), and any other little “tidbits” that simply show personality quirks that set that particular character apart from every other character, and would therefore make that character memorable and unique.

Overall, it was a wonderful character description, which left almost nothing to be wanted at the end of reading it, by giving a clear impression of the character and his life. Congratulations, and well done.

P.S.
There will be a follow up article in the next day or so, detailing the how’s, what’s and why’s of writing character descriptions and creating usable character profiles for novels, as well as how to condense that information when writing a short story.

A Contest of Character

Hi everyone, today is the first day in a little contest I’ve decided to run, and yes, there is a point to all of this. So please, read on –

The Contest

I am looking for the most well-written and best overall character description out there. I am not going to go into details of what I’m looking for or how I want you to write it, I’m leaving it up to you. Nor will I list the required format or style in which you need to write your description, whether it be a few paragraphs or simply a list. Whatever works for you. It’s not the look of it – it’s the content I’m interested in.

The Rules

1. Character descriptions must be posted on this blog as a comment to this post. No emails – I’ll just delete them.

2. Descriptions can be no more than 750 words. And yes, I’ll check.

3. You may only enter once. If I catch you cheating all your entries will be disqualified.

4. You must enter your real email address in the form when adding your comment to the blog. I’ll need a way to get in touch with you should you win.

5. If you win, I’ll need your real name, address, and phone number so that I can send you your prize. And no, you don’t need to post that. We’ll do all of that privately via email.

6. You may not post questions regarding the contest on this post. If you have questions you may post them on the Editor Chat page. Whether I answer them is another thing…

And finally, the contest is open from now until this Friday (3/21) Midnight Pacific Standard Time. PST. And yes *sigh* your posts are time stamped, so no late entries will be accepted. Leucrota Press editors will go through all of the descriptions over the weekend, and we’ll announce the winner as well as the why’s early the next week.

The prize

I have a brand-spankin’ new (and shrink wrapped, too) copy of the Writer’s Character Traits Companion that’s up for grabs. It’s a nifty little notebook that you can carry around with you to keep notes on your observations to help you create more believable and well-rounded characters. The book is divided up into multiple little tabs that include things like physical characteristics, personality traits, interesting notes, etc. It’s to help manage your thoughts and raise questions about your characters you might not have thought of before. Oh yeah, and in case you’re wondering it’s black and silver and spiral bound….

The Why

Well, I’m doing this as an exercise for you (and everyone else that doesn’t want to enter but is interested in what the hell I’m doing) to really try to deepen your characters and learn how to write thorough descriptions of them.

So please remember that we are NOT judging this contest on how cool or how unique your alien concept is – we are judging on the writing of the profile itself; what is included, what kind of information was given, and what was left out. We are NOT basing our judgement on the character itself, but rather the description of the character. Make sense?

Why don’t I just post instructions on the “how’s” and “what’s” to writing a character profile?

Well, because I thought this would be more fun than just a single post. I do plan on writing a nice article on the who, what, and why of character descriptions, but I’m going to hold off until this little contest closes before I give my opinion on how to write the “ultimate” character description. This way, it’s a little more of an… interactive way of learning by letting you answer the questions first, and will hopefully spark some later conversations after I respond with my own versions.

Good luck.

Just as a reminder…

Alright people, I think it’s time to refresh your memory about the purpose of this blog:

This blog is for the Editors of Leucrota Press to discuss facets of the publishing business, tips for writers, and to blow off some steam. If any writers have questions regarding our press, the publishing industry, or about submitting and manuscripts in general, please view our “Ask the Editors” tab above.

By doing this, we hope to create more writer/editor communication and understanding. Please don’t feel threatened, skittish, or reserved about asking questions, making comments, or saying things that might offend the editors – hell, we won’t hold our tongues. Come on, jump in the conversation, get involved, and help us improve by letting us know what you, the writers, need.

Note: All articles, posts, and comments are opinions of that posting editor, and may or may not be the opinion of the entire staff. These opinions are by no way meant to cover every editor at every publishing house, merely ours.

Why am I bringing this up?

I’ve gotten several emails over the weekend, regarding our wants and likes concerning our submission guidelines. Several of the most common complaints are:

“Your concerns are different than other publishers….”
“You are a lot pickier than some of the larger houses I’ve submitted to….”
“Your rejection letters are mean….”
“Your example of query letters don’t match the ‘good’ ones that I read about in this book….”

Well, sorry. What else do you want me to say?

We are NOT every other publisher, and therefore we have our own likes and dislikes, and concern ourselves with different things than the small press down the road. We care about detail, character development, plot, and style. Not saying that other houses don’t; but as far as our press, we would rather turn out less books and make sure those books are of the highest quality than just accept and print something just to raise our catalogue numbers.

As far as us being mean…welcome to the publishing world. As editors, it’s our job to be critical, to be picky, and to say it like it is. As we’ve stated on both our blog and our website, every submission will be told WHY it was rejected. None of that “not at this time” bullshit. So if you didn’t like the fact that we said your plot had no substance, that you lack detail, or that the writing itself needed a million-dollar makeover, get over it. At least we tried to be a bit helpful and give a reason your book didn’t make it, so maybe you could actually think about that reason, and maybe do something about it to improve your work, either to resubmit to us or to another publisher. To make it in this profession you need to build up a thick skin to get over the pile of rejection slips you’re going to get in your lifetime. Be more like the faithful Lotto players – they buy tickets every week, hoping for that big one but knowing their chances are slim. But they don’t cry at each drawing when their numbers don’t show up, do they? No. They go out the next day and buy another ticket. Try it….

Lastly, to those who said we don’t conform to what they read in a book….

….Maybe I’m just deranged, or simply “out of the loop,” but that book was written by an author (or two). Just like every other book out in the rotating world has been written by an author. Does that mean that whatever is in print is the final law? If someone came out with a self-help book telling readers they can clear acne by swimming to the bottom of the Dead Sea, does that mean it’s absolutely and undoubtedly true? …I’m sure there are a few readers out there that…

The point I’m trying to make is that there is NO absolute law when it comes to publishing. There is NO absolute law when it comes to editing fiction. Granted, there are laws when it comes to universal things like grammar and spelling, but how does one define the laws of “fiction?” Well, truth is you can’t. Experts can set guidelines and boundaries, just as experts can give out “perfect” examples of query letters on how to “hook” editors. Let me tell you something – it’s THEIR opinion on what works, or at least what has worked for them. But it’s not a steadfast rule and obviously does not work all the time. Otherwise, all those people that have supposedly read that book that doesn’t coincide with the examples and guidelines I’ve set for Leucrota Press would have been grabbed by an editor by now and wouldn’t be submitting for the umpteenth time… right?

So, back to my original point.

What is read and posted on this blog DOES pertain to Leucrota Press and it’s editors, and MIGHT pertain to a lot of other smaller publishers – especially when it comes to style, submission reports, wants and needs. So when I say the editors here hate the SAW movies and anything to do with teen angst stories, you might get another editor at another house that stays up late after the kids are in bed to read fan-fiction stories online written by bored and unbalanced 15-year olds…

It’s OUR/THEIR choice. That’s one of the beauties of having so many smaller presses, because each one has a different eye for the thousands of books out there. You just need to make sure you find and submit to the right one.