I wonder about time. I don’t mean in the ethereal, cerebral kind of way. But literally how long it takes to do things. I’m that person who times different routes and averages them to find the best bet for efficiency over reliability, and the person who sets a timer just so I don’t have to keep looking at the clock between now and when I need to go.
But in writing, I mean the time it takes the reader to do something. I get having a time slot for TV shows, as the money is literally made on how long you can keep a person glued to the screen. Even movies are slotted for how long the bladder can hold its contents before the viewer is forced to hit pause or leave the theater.
But there’s no limit from a piece of paper. The book won’t be bothered by your reading speed, fast or slow. The actual time it takes to read a book varies greatly depending on the reader.
So why have a word count limit at all? What’s wrong with a fantasy novel that’s only 50k words long? Or a murder mystery that’s 200k? If you’re familiar with the business, you know that the numbers given above are absurd. But why? I know so many writers who have difficulty sticking to the word count indicative of the genre. Strangely enough, I don’t feel like I’m one of them. My action novels fall right in line with the 50-70k guideline, and the fantasy novels stick right around 85-90k. It doesn’t really make sense to me that I even have that instinct. I say instinct because it is far from intentional. I tend to just write until I feel like the story is completed.
I think in film, instinct plays a large, yet unacknowledged, role in the storytelling. If the characters find the murderer 15 minutes in, we know it’s not the real culprit. If we’re 3/4 of the way through the movie and the good guy gets knocked down, we know he’s coming back, as compared to at the end of the movie, and we accept he’s a martyr of some kind.
When you have a book in your hand, I think it plays a bit of the same role in the audience’s mind. The thickness of the paper in your right hand compared to your left does influence how you understand the story. Maybe that’s why digital publishing fascinates me so.
This doesn’t just come to my attention in the wider perspective either. I pay attention to how long it takes to read me something unspoken, especially in dialogue scenes. Where I put the she asked in a sentence can completely change how the reader imagines the line to be delivered. Those short words can indicate a breath, a stolen moment to think, or merely a tiny distraction in the character. This is why adverbs are so important to me. (I’m sure I’ll rant eventually about the value of adverbs and how annoying it is that the industry hates them. When that happens, I’ll link rant to that.) Adverbs are an efficient way to portray how the character is feeling by tying it to an action.
I think one of the most interesting differences between writers, even if they’re telling the same story, is when they set the scene. My guideline is to only mention a visual detail if the character notices it. The trees, the character’s physique, whatever. If you’re not tracking with the character in that, then it’s not worth wasting your time in the grand scheme of things. If you’re going to spend equivalent screen time on the sunrise, sure. I know I’m in the minority on this one, and that’s okay. Many greater authors than me have spent pages upon pages on a single blade of grass. Dickens, Steinbeck, King. They all spend a great deal of time on something the characters never really recognize. Lovecraft was known and adored for it, often spending the first half of the word count setting up the world, setting the scene for the story told in the second half. Not my thing, but hey, you do you.
The exception to this rule in my writing is the opening lines of a story. Without yet being introduced to a character, from whose eyes you see the world, it’s kind of a scene-setting moment. But those first few words are so important, I’d rather spend them on dialogue or a physical action. Something that makes the reader lean into the text, needing to know more.
One of my biggest annoyances when being edited is being called out on incomplete sentences. I know my rules, and how to break them. I like it.
The last thing I’m going to go on about is sentence length. This is something I’m becoming increasingly aware about, and a step I’m taking to actively improve my writing. Much of my favorite writing comes from the late 19th century, when commas were favorited by authors and long sentences were a thing. I enjoy it. But I also understand that varied sentence length can make the text sing, and rhythmic writing helps maintain momentum. Still working to put that concept into practice. But it’s fun!