Words. They are what we writers do, the end result of our efforts, the outpouring of our psyches. The quality of your words and the order in which they appear combine to make your final product, your story, your book. But this post is not about which words you use.
This post is about the number of words.
When first starting out, would-be novelists are often perplexed to find that manuscripts are not counted in pages. After all, isn’t that what the end product is? Pages? But no, manuscripts are counted in words. Many of our friends become confused when we speak to them in word counts. They ask: “But how many pages is that? Why must you count the words?”
The answer, of course, is simple. Trim size (the physical dimensions of the page), font size, and many other things such as margins, leading, and kerning all affect how many words fit on a page. Many of these things can be intentionally manipulated to inflate or deflate page count. It’s like when you were in school, and your teacher asked you to write a four-page paper. You, of course, immediately set your font size to 24 and set to work. Until, that is, you realized your teacher had also specified the formatting: Times New Roman, 12 point, double-spaced. Oops.
And so, the book industry (and just about every other writing industry) uses word counts to measure length. But how many words should your book be? Chuck Sambuchino has a great article that goes into greater detail here.
Now that you’ve gotten a handle on how long your book should be, the next question arises: how long should your chapters be? Your writing teacher will tell you “as long as they need to be”. That’s a useful answer in that it encourages you to not worry about length, and it encourages you to tell your story adequately—no longer and no shorter than it needs to be. But it doesn’t really give you much to go on.
There are two fundamentally different approaches to “when to cut”—that is, when to end your chapter. Many authors will mix-and-match these techniques together throughout their book.
Concluding the scene
When your scene is over, the chapter is over. I don’t necessarily mean one scene here—you could have several viewpoints or several scenes in a row, all within one chapter. The key thing here is that you let this portion of the story conclude, reaching a natural ending point. Then you end the chapter and move on to the next story.
This technique is often used in epic fantasy, as it’s a more laid-back approach. Chapters using this technique are often in the 4,000 to 10,000 word range.
Cutting on a hook
Your protagonists are talking. They’re having a great day, maybe eating lunch, maybe gazing at the beautiful sunset and smelling the flowers. Then they turn and find themselves face-to-face with a loaded gun. Cut to chapter two.
This is the technique called thriller pacing: short chapters that all end with a hook. This keeps readers reading and engaged. There are some who find this style exhausting, and prefer the more laid-back approach above.
Combining the two
Most authors will use a combination of these techniques. Sometimes it’s awesome to throw out a great hook and then cut. Sometimes you don’t have a hook, or maybe you’ve done three of them in a row already and it’s time for a break, so you just let the scene end naturally. Variety like this is great.
So how long should my chapters be?
Let’s just cut to the chase on this. Ordinary books (not thrillers) should usually aim for around 2,500 words per chapter. Longer epic fantasies could hit closer to 4,000 to 8,000 words. Chapter 37 in A Memory of Light is actually 80,345 words long—that’s a full novel in one chapter!
Personally, I prefer thriller pacing, even for my epic fantasy books. I aim for 1,200 to 1,500 words per chapter. I’ll allow them to go as low as 350 words and as high as 2,500 words. My scenes are usually short, in the 800 word range, so many times I’ll combine two scenes in one chapter. It depends on where my best hooks are and what I’m trying to accomplish.
Writing teachers will tell you to have a beginning, middle, and end to every chapter. I don’t subscribe to this at all. Instead, I make sure every scene has a reason to exist and feels snappy. Then I use scene and chapter breaks like I’m editing a film—to control the emotions and to keep the reader pushing through.
I’ll have a longer post up next month about thriller pacing, why I think it’s the future of books in every genre, what it accomplishes, and how.
Words per day
Now we come to the final question: how many words should you write per day?
This varies a lot from author to author. Do you write as a side project? Is it your full-time job? Do you release twelve political thrillers a year, or one epic fantasy every two years?
In general, you should start with a goal of 1,000 words a day.
This may not seem like much, but consider this: if you write five days a week, you’ll be done with the first draft of your mainstream novel in four months. That’s not bad!
Some days, a thousand words can be deceptively long, feeling like a hump you just can’t get over. On other days, the words will flow out of you like water through a sieve, and you’ll have written 2,500 words before you know it. (If only every day was like that!)
So 1,000 words is a good baseline. You may choose to write seven days a week, but I’ve found that forcing myself to take a weekend away from writing (which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the actual weekend), helps recharge my batteries.
Scrivener and word goals
Scrivener is a fantastic tool for writing books of any sort, and I couldn’t live without it. Scrivener has a handy feature called Project Targets that lets you choose a couple targets: how many words per day you want to write, and how long your manuscript should be in total.
To open the Project Targets screen, go to the Project menu and choose Project Targets. A dialog box comes up and floats over your workspace, sticking around until you close it. It looks a lot like this:
From there, you can click into the two word count goals and edit them. You can also click the Options button, which presents a dialog like below:This lets you get access to some of Scrivener’s more advanced word count features. If you set a deadline, tell Scrivener how long your manuscript should be, and tell it to “Automatically calculate from draft deadline”, Scrivener will tell you how many words you need to write each day in order to make your deadline. You can even tell it which days of the week you want to write on! Then, each day, Scrivener will recalculate your goal for that day in order to keep you on track.
You can get a lot more info about Project Targets by reading this post.
That’s all for now. I’ve given you a lot of information to digest in this post, and hopefully some of it was useful. How long are your favorite books? How long are your chapters? How much do you write per day? Feel free to sound off in the comments!