Friday, October 28, 2011

I Write Fat

By John Gilstrap

After receiving the email to which my manuscript for Damage Control (July, 2012) was attached, my agent wrote back the following: “Only 110,000 words? For you, that’s a novella.”

Smartass.  But she has a point: I write fat.
One of my critique partners who writes full-time and produces one book a year (plus maybe a short story or two) writes books that are only 70,000 words, and she does quite well with them. Granted, her genre is humorous mysteries, which always run shorter than thrillers, but still.
Even my contracts call for books that are approximately 100,000 words, and I've never once clocked in at under 110K. I don’t think I’m capable of telling an entire story in 70,000 words.
I’ve given this some thought in preparing for today’s blog post. While I don’t really write to a formula, I do, I believe, have a pattern to my storytelling rhythm.
The first 10,000 words are dedicated to the opening sequence (the hook) and the final 30,000 words or so are dedicated to the final climactic sequence. That middle 60K is where all the work is done--all the backbreaking plot development and backstory revelations that have to feel to the reader like real action. It’s not easy to do, but there are shortcuts that make it less hard:
Keep scenes short. Expository scenes in particular need to be as short as possible. I’ve heard it explained as starting the scene late and leaving it early. If characters are meeting for coffee, for example, start with them already in their seats and the coffee in front of them. If it’s important to have them enter or exit on screen, make sure to use that action for some kind of conflict or character development.

Use space breaks. On average, my chapters run about 12 pages, and they each consist of two scenes, and those contiguous scenes typically come from different parts of the story.  They almost always present a different point of view. I think this gives a feeling of motion to the reader. Also, by looking away from the action of one character for a while, you build suspense in the reader who’s anxious to get back to it after the space break.  (Oh, yeah.  And the scene you break away to has to be as compelling as the one you leave.)

Remember that shorter feels like faster. As the pace of the book picks up toward the climax, my space breaks become shorter. Sentences, too. Bang. Toward the end of the book, those 12-page chapters may have as many as four or five space breaks.

End chapters on cliffhangers. You need to be a little careful with this one, because if overused, cliffhangers can feel cheesy and manipulative. Of course, they always are manipulative; but the trick is to make them not seem that way.

So, dear Killzoners, what am I missing? What other tricks are there to give a sense of motion to your writing?  And how long do your manuscripts run?


  1. I so wish I had your problem. I actually just wrote a post on my own blog about going too fast, or too "thin" I guess, and not knowing how to round things out and slow them down. I'm working on my first novel, and I'm hoping I can break 80,000. Which is totally fine, but still. It would be nice to have more to work with.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. My stories typically run in about 90k - 100k. But I cheat to get that size...sorta.

    My main story runs about 65k-80k, and the rather extensive back story that runs parallel to it comes in about 20k. At first I wasn't sure how people would take that format, basically two independent stories combined to make one, the main being defined by the back story. But, once folks started listening/reading to the stories they claimed they liked that format. So I kept doing it. At least one more will be done that way, my current WIP. But the next I don't know. It may well have enough material to be two or three books on its own without much back story at all.

  3. How about foreshadowing? Readers are well aware that a pistol shown in act one must be used before the end (though I was in a seminar recently in which a literary author disagreed violently. "Sometimes a gun is just a gun," he said). Either way, the expectation is there. Dangle a symbol of danger to come, and the reader will want to chase it. It's a ticking bomb.. maybe literally.

  4. Hi, John!

    I'd be happy if I ran over. I write short -- the longest book I hit was 90K. I would love to be able to weed whack a book down rather than to write upwards. I'm usually hitting 50K. Very, very hard getting it to a standard publisher's word count. The story has to be pulled completely apart and put back together longer. Takes forever to revise. The worst part is every time I try to add more, I'm in danger of making the story too complicated. It's at the point where I'm considering Indie because it is so difficult getting the word count to the proper place.

  5. I do not write "fat." I write expansive. My current project is clocking in at about 400,000 words. I surrendered. I will not try to whittle it down to 70,000, or even 100,000, and lose what makes it fun. The solution I am using is to divide the work into five volumes.

    I think about Lord of the Rings and how it could have been told simply by jumping onto an eagle, flying to the mountain to drop off the ring, and being back home in time for dinner. Something would have been lost if the story had been told like that.

    I did write a shorter work.

    Chapter 1
    I came.
    Chapter 2
    I saw.
    Chapter 3
    I failed.

    I am thinking about rewriting chapter 3.

    I do not know if any reader in any market at anytime in the future will want to read my story, but I am having a blast telling the tale.

  6. Very informative post, John. I read two to four books per week for review; short chapters, frequent p.o.v. shifts,and the other elements you mentioned move things along nicely. Obviously, the speed with which one can get from first page to last is not the only quality one looks for in selecting reading material, but few things are worse than 1)feeling like turning each page is like a 20 mile stiff-legged march through a marsh or 2) finding yourself on page 35 and having no idea what you've just read.

  7. Thank you for the tips!

    I write YA fantasy and science fiction. These are not thin genres, they are fat genres. Still, because it is YA, I can get away with my manuscripts being shorter. I hit around 100k.

    Moving quicker? The only further advice I can give is to write shorter paragraphs. Just as with shorter scenes or shorter sentences, chop up the paragraphs.

  8. John Gilstrap teaches the craft of writing! I stand and applaud.

    Re: cliffhangers, one tip: you can leave the character on an emotional cliff as well as a physical one. A nice variation.

    Fitzgerald said there are two kinds of writers: taker outers and puter inners. I tend to write lean on the first draft and then "put in."

  9. I try to start and end each paragraph with a short sentence, to give some rhythmic oomph going into the graph and a "push off" to the next one. Overall, I think it's important to vary your sentence length and structure. Otherwise the reading gets monotonous.

  10. I have written every length except shorts which I'm adding to my repertoire for 2012 to give readers something between novels. I hover between 70-85k for full length novels. I use the plot and structure format to plot my research takes longer than the writing because by the time the "index cards" (I use Liquisd Story Binder" are prepared I just sit and write what I see. I do 700-1500 per scene so the genre and scene goal determine the length of my books. I write Christian fiction awareness novels and CS Lewis inspired urban fantasy.

  11. No matter how hard I try, I can't write a long novel. The longest one I have is 64,000. My current one is 50,000. The one before it is 51,000. The upcoming one is 51,000. And the one after that weighs in at a paltry 44,000, but I'm still trying to add to it.

    In each of these cases, the novel feels complete. The story does not seem hurried, and there's no subplot padding. I've increased the word count in each one by adding little bits of meaningful dialogue here and there, but I can't seem to reach the 70-80,000 word stratosphere.

  12. Thanks for the tips, John! My novels vary a lot in length. Some are 79,500 while some go as high as 80,800. Maybe I need some more explosions to get me to 100,000.

  13. I've never had a contract that called for a specific word count although I know there are some genre that do. My books have varied in length from 80k to 100k. I keep writing until I finish the story. That's my word count. And I love cliffhanger endings on chapters--I like to read them and I like to write them. I also use short chapters, many averaging around 1000 words. As a result, I get a lot of email from fans saying they read the book in one sitting or on a cross-country flight.

  14. I've learned I really have to condense my story's timeline to keep in humming along. An investigation that lasts 2 weeks? Try 2 days. The bad guys show up the next night? No, they should show up before that last scene even ends. Somehow, compressing the timeline adds to my wordcount and ups the action.

  15. Great ideas. I like the two scenes with two POVs per chapter. I'm trying that approach on my next draft. First draft of the WIP came in at about 105,000 words. Then I whittled it down to about 96,000. The real goal is not length, but to arrange the words in a way to remove the ZZZs from the margin.

  16. Love this post. Very informative.
    I really appreciate the KZ topics relating to the craft of writing.