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.

Disturbing writing prompts

I get the question of “how to overcome writer’s block” more than you’ll ever know. So, to help out a bit, below is a list of ten strange, unique…disturbing…prompts to help kick your butts in gear if you’re in a writing slump, carefully put together by our editors and strange-but-surprisingly-helpful friends.

**Note. This list is odd, and not meant for young adult or children fiction. Please be aware. There, we warned you.**

1. You wake up in your college dorm bathroom. The only light is that filtering through the filmy windows high above the showers. You’re alone. You try the door, only to find yourself locked in. Then you realize that it’s the first morning of Thanksgiving break, and since the dorms were cleared out and locked, you’re stuck for the next four days. How do you entertain yourself?

2. You’re at home. You just got out of the shower, when the bathroom door starts shaking. A seven-inch long spider leg comes exploring under the crack at the bottom of the door. What’s worse, it’s got your spouse’s wedding ring looped around it’s hairy appendage…

3. You accidently run over the next door neighbor’s seeing-eye dog. How do you tell the nine-year old owner?

4. Back in the bathroom. You’re sitting on the toilet, and you hear a splash, even get a few droplets spattered your behind. You look down – your penis just fell off.

5. You come home from work early to find your dog reclined on the couch with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cigarette.

6. Write an 800 word story about a small, red-headed boy named Claire. Though he’s nearly 13 he looks to be pushing eight, has a fear of anything that flies (especially hummingbirds) and is allergic to chocolate, peanut butter, wheat, strawberries, milk, and latex. He only has one limb (you get to choose).

7. You find a business card left under your windshield wiper that says: “Population controller and problem solver. 15% discount to all new customers, and an extra 10% for maltreated husbands.”

8. You’re at the hospital for your mid-term ultrasound. The doctor’s face pales and steps out of the room for a moment, muttering something to someone before he turns his attention back to you. With a slight frown, he twists the monitor so you can see. Your 20 week old baby has a five inch neck and a tail.

9. You’re falling asleep at your desk when your nose starts itching. You sneeze, and an earthworm slips out.

10. Imagine yourself inside of your favorite movie. Kill off the main character and take over his love life.

How to write a novel synopsis

Below is a kind of question-answer article on the basics of a synopsis, how to write one, and what editors look for in a synopsis. Any questions, please post!

Why do you need to write a synopsis?

It provides prospective editors/agents with an overall and detailed summary of your novel, introduces the characters, plot and setting, and gives a brief glimpse at your writing style and ability.

When should you write the synopsis?

Either before you write the book, during, or after. Though chances are, if you start writing it at the beginning, you will have to do some major revisions as your plot changes, characters come and go, or you scrap one of the scenes entirely.

If you start writing the synopsis before the book, it will serve more as a guideline or outline for your writing; just be sure to remember that it’s not set in stone, and that you can make changes to both the plot and synopsis. Though it does help to have a basic one-page “draft” of the “stuff” in your novel to refer back to as you work.

So, what exactly is a synopsis?

As stated above, it’s a short 1-2 page summary of your novel that provides prospective editors/agents with an overall and detailed summary, introduces the characters, plot and setting, and gives a brief glimpse at your writing style and ability. It’s extremely important because editors want to know exactly what happens in the book; it is not the same thing as the back blurb on a printed book. It gives out much more information and details, no cliffhangers.

What tense is it written in? What about perspective or style?

The synopsis is usually written in present tense—this way it makes a bigger impact on the reader, and will push the action forward more in such a small space. It can be written in either first or third person—that really depends on how your book is written. For example, if your book is in third person, you don’t want to write in first person. As far as style, try to mirror the style you use in your manuscript, this way the editor gets an idea of what the rest of the book will be like, and whether you have mastered that particular writing style. In other words, if your book is humorous, dialect-bloated, or dark, make sure the synopsis is the same.

What do you need to accomplish in the synopsis?

Several things, actually. And since you only have 1-2 pages (depending on the house) you need to do it quickly and cleanly:

1) Introduce your main characters

2) Introduce main conflicts

3) Explain the overall plot

4) Describe setting: time, place, world, etc.

5) Give a clear idea of what the novel is actually about

6) Include the conclusion. Tell who wins, who dies, what happens to everyone and why. Cliffhangers are hated—and will cause a manuscript to be rejected nine times out of ten.

Should I put characters names in ALL CAPS?

This really depends on each house. Some publishers like it to call out the names of characters, and to bring attention each time a new character is mentioned.

We at Leucrota Press hate it. We feel ALL CAPS belong in a script, not a novel, and that it’s distracting and unprofessional. You shouldn’t have to call out your characters name to bring attention to him/her—if you wrote the synopsis clearly and coherently, the writing should point them out on its own. You don’t need blinking signs and screaming kids to make an editor pay attention to your synopsis. That all depends on your writing.

How should I structure the synopsis?

1) Put your name, the manuscript title, and a contact number or email address in the top header. Be sure to keep it short—as you’re taking away space on the page from your summary.

2) Start at the beginning. Open your synopsis with the beginning of the book, telling what starts the plot moving forward, introduce the characters as they come, and the subplots as they arise.

3) Make sure your paragraphs flow logically and smoothly to the next, so that the editor isn’t distracted by choppy sentences, or has to go back and reread a paragraph if they get lost.

4) Use transition sentences. (If you don’t know what those are, stop now and break your writing hand so as to stop the madness.)

5) End with the ending of the novel. There is no need to explain the ending, why you chose that to happen, go into detail about the last scene, etc. Just say what happens at the end.

A Checklist for your synopsis:

1) Does your first paragraph contain a hook to grab the editor’s attention?

2) Do you mention all of your main characters?

3) Are the conflicts clearly defined?

4) Have you described where the story happens? When?

5) Are all of the main subplots mentioned?

6) Have you touched on every major advancement in the plot?

7) Have you said what happens at the end?

8 ) Check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

9) Check your tense—make sure it’s in present.

10) Is your name and the title of your novel on it?

11) Reread it. Sit back and think about it. Does it sound like a book you’d like to read? Does it stand up to some of the other books that you’ve read and loved?

What’s in a name? – Titles for your novel.

So you’re finally finished writing it – the thing that has taken up all of your free time for the past two years (or more), the monkey on your back that wouldn’t let you sleep, that had you pulling out your pen and paper while on vacation with your family because The Idea came to you…

Well, you’re finished. You want to print it out, slap on a title, and send it off.

Hold up, there partner! Pause, breathe, put the the manuscript down. Easy! There you go….

What’s the big deal with a title?

Everything! It’s the first thing that a potential reader will see, the line that will either catch an editor’s attention or send it straight to the trash can. Just as your name represents you, the title of your book must be representative and catchy for your novel.

The good, the bad, and the ugly…

There are three distinct groups of titles.

The first is the good: the ones that catch attention, make a reader pick the book up, scan the front, turn it over and read the back, and then on to the checkout stand. Examples: Empress, Boiling Point, Crown of Thorns, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Feast for Crows.

The bad: have a hit and miss chance of grabbing a reader, with good enough cover art and some fantastic quotes from the New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly, they may be read. They probably won’t be the first book a reader picks up, but it’s possible. Examples: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, War of the Gods, Secrets of Droon: The Hidden Stairs and the Magic Carpet, Maximum Ride: the Angel Experiment.

Then the ugly: get the response “how did this ever get onto this shelf?” “What was the editor/author thinking?” Examples: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl…

So how do you name it?

Unfortunately, while there is a plethora of baby-name books flooding the market and internet, there is no “novel-name book” for authors. So, you must be creative. Which really shouldn’t be that hard – hell, you wrote a book, didn’t you?

Coming up with the name of your novel should be a process started at the same time you write the firs paragraph, and honestly, will and should go on until you’re done with your final edit. It’s not an easy task – parents may argue and pine over it for nine months – why should your naming process be any different?

Following are several tips to help you come up witht the ideal name for your “baby.” These are merely brainstorming techniques to hopefully help something click in that creative cavity you have sitting between your shoulders:

Make a list

1. the names of your main characters
2. the major places in your book
3. any special talismans/objects that play a specific/important role (ie. The Sword of Shanara)
4. creatures, animals, aliens, names

Your plot

1. what is the point of your book?
2. is there a journey? To where? For why?
3. are you writing about a deeper meaning?
4. can you tie in your book with current events or popular topics? (ie the Davinci Code)
5. what are your characters trying to do?

Google is your best friend

1. search for pictures of a theme, character, creature, place, etc. that you feel represents your book. You’ll come across some cool (and weird) things, and may give you direction.
2. see what others writing about similar topics are using for titles. Make sure your title isn’t too close to another’s.
3. get some more backstory on an item, relic, place, or animal in your story. Again, think muse…

Have fun

1. play up on words and items in your book (ie One of our newest books due out next summer is “Of Quills and Kings,” in which the villan is a demonic and sadistic hedgehog that overthrows the crown…)
2. be witty. You are trying to grab science fiction/fantasy/horror/etc fans, not collegiate professors that enjoy spending all of their waking hours with their pet rock. Uh…
3. be original. You want to stand out, but don’t be too off-beat that you scare people away.

Writing Classes

Are they worth it? Besides college credits, which ones are recommended?

Well, really it depends. Mostly on what you want the classes for. In my opinion, rather than classes, you’d be better off joining a writer’s group, or going to a retreat, in order to interact with others and to get feedback, commentary, critiques, etc. from others that are interested and write on items/topics similar to yours.

While taking a writing class for a crash course in writing: such as background on the novel, understanding fiction, history of fiction, or a marketing class with emphasis on book marketing, the problem really (and don’t take this personal if you’re a teacher) is the professor.

Why? Well, because whether the class is online or in a classroom, you are learning from one person. One person who has their own particular interests, style likes and dislikes, genre preferenes, etc. When you’re experienced with writing, and have finished your book, short story, etc., it’s fine to work with someone one on one (like with an editor or agent) because you already know what you want in your story. Yet if you’re getting prodded into a specific direction when you’re first starting out, then many times you don’t learn to create your own voice or style, and tend to be more restrictive on your writing style and even your plot.

On the other hand, with writing groups or communities, you can write what and how you want, and then post it or bring it to the meeting looking for critique from several writers. This way, you’ll get varying opinions and suggestions, and you can pick and choose what to take into consideration for your next draft and which ones to ignore.

Though don’t get me wrong, not all classes are bad, and some really can be helpful if you’re looking to delve into a new genre or style that you’ve never experienced before. They’re also a nice refresher if you’ve been out of the loop of literatue for a while.

Below are a few links to both online writing communities, as well as courses that you can take online in the traditional one-on-one setting.

Classes:

http://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/
Hosted by Writer’s Digest, this is a very legitimate writing school and has a large variety of classes and workshops available.

http://www.writers.com
Listed as one of Writer’s Digest top 101 sites for 2006. Site has been hosting online classes since 1995.

http://www.writingclasses.com/
Gotham Writers’ Workshop, teaches more than 6,000 students a year. Breaks classes up into different genres, styles, and lengths.

Writing Groups:

http://www.writing.com
An excellent writing community with free author portfolios, forums, and a nice critiquing system.

http://www.thenextbigwriter.com
Another nice community, not sure on whether they charge for memberships.

http://www.firstwriter.com
A forum-style community that allows posting of work and critiques.

http://www.deviantart.com
Not only a writing community, per se, it also includes artwork, but it has a nice posting and free portfolio, and a simple to use critique and comment system.

A tip for short stories

I received several emails about my previous post regarding the Abaculus 2007 story list. Questions as to why those stories were chosen, and not theirs, what made those stories stand out, and what they can do to their story to make it better.

Tip #1

First off, the most simple and straightforward tip I can give is proofread. We received many submissions that looked like the writer whipped it out and emailed it to us without rereading it. Incomplete sentences, lots of misspellings, bad or no punctuation…it’s all very distracting, and when there’s a pile of manuscripts as high as you are tall to get through in the next week, it makes the editor toss it aside.

Tip #2

Follow directions. If we say we only take science fiction, fantasy, and horror submissions, we don’t want to receive a story about a romantic getaway, or about their baseball camp experiences…

Also, for future reference, all of the editors at Leucrota Press hate the movies Saw, Saw II, Saw III, The Hitcher, Hostel, and anything remotely similar. So do not send us a story simply full of torture, rape, making grated skin-cheese as a hobby, or a hack-job version of Dragon without any plot, characterization or meaning. If you’re into sadistic machoist crap, keep a diary or play with dolls. Don’t bring it here.

Tip #3

Our favorite aspect of a story is characterization. Bring the characters to life, round them out, give them unique personalities and voices, and you’ve already piqued our interest.

Tip #4

A suggestion for a rewriting your story or for future stories – what you need is an angle, or a twist that is new and off the beaten path. You’ve read or at least heard of several different versions of Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella. It’s the same basic storyline, yet certain versions stick out in your mind, as well as the public’s. You need to do that – take a story and pull out certain facets that would be unique and completely different from what the next guy would do. Then, you will have your edge.

Overall

Most of the stories we chose were not necessarily the most epic fantasy, the fastest or most high-paced space chase, or the gruesome murder…no, they were ones that were different. They stuck out in our heads, because they hadn’t been done before, or the author had tried something new with an old story. And they worked, and that’s why we chose them.

That’s what you need to do to catch our attention.