How Many Words?

August 10, 2010

When I talked with an editor about my first memoir, she asked me a disconcerting question.

How big a book do you plan to write? she asked.  How many words do you think this subject will take?

She’d asked me to write a memoir about my life as an Italian American girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey and Ridgefield, New Jersey; she wanted me to chart the unlikely story of how I became a Virginia Woolf scholar.  This was a book I wanted to write; this was one she wanted to publish, and I was honored that she wanted it.  I had written a memoiristic essay she’d read so I had the bones of one piece.  I had some ideas, some notes, a few previous attempts at memoir, some lists.  But I had no idea how to answer her.

This wasn’t my first book, but it was my first memoir, Vertigo. I’d learned that knowing how long a book you want to write is essential at some point during the writing process.  Knowing that tells you when to stop – and we writers need to know when to stop one book and move on to another.  But until now, I’d not been asked to decide this at the beginning of the process, so I didn’t know what to say, and I told the editor that I’d think about it, and get back to her.

I went home.  Typed a few double-spaced pages of prose into my computer, calculated how many words I’d written – my computer had a word count feature, as all computers do – calculated how many words per page I’d written.  I’d always thought of my books in terms of pages, not in terms of words.  Editors think of books in terms of words, not pages, so I had to shift my thinking.

I looked at a bunch of memoirs I’d read.  Picked the few that were about the length I thought I wanted mine to be.  And I counted the words in a few sample pages and calculated how long the books were.  The ones I chose were all about 90,000 to 100,000 words.

I knew I’d have to write a proposal for this book soon.  So I decided there was great merit in figuring out, this time, how long a book I wanted to write at the beginning of the process, rather than in the middle, or toward the end (which I’d done in the past).  If I knew this, I could gauge my progress all the way through the process.  Instead of feeling lost in an amorphous mass of pages, I’d know that I’d drafted one-third, say, of the words I’d contracted for.  I thought this would help me move the book along more than if I did what I usually did – write, write, write, and write.  Get panic-stricken.  Figure out how many pages I’d written, and fashion the book as I went along.  I’d gotten to the end of a number of books that way.  But that way caused anxiety in that I never knew where I was  – something I wanted to avoid in writing this book.  (For example, in writing my Virginia Woolf biography, I discovered, to my horror, that I’d written over 300 pages about Virginia Woolf’s sister and her two half-sisters – I was supposed to be writing about Woolf’s childhood, and I wasn’t anywhere near Woolf’s own childhood!  Her sisters became part of the story, sure, but 300 pages?)

This time, I took my list of possible topics.  I started brainstorming around the idea that she wanted me to deal with in the book and added more.  I started calculating how many words a possible chapter might be.  I started figuring out how many chapters this book might take.  I started estimating how many words this book would take.

And I settled on a book about 100,000 words long. That would be long enough to tell my story.  But not so long as to permit me digressions from the central theme.

By the end of a few hours’ work, I had a list of possible chapters (not their titles – that would come later).  A list of how many words each chapter would contain.  What I knew from writing my previous books – and what many beginning writers or many writers beginning new books forget – is how many words we need to tell someone who doesn’t know our story what we take for granted because we know it, so I jettisoned some potential chapters, and lengthened others.  (Rule of thumb in my practice: it takes, I’d say, five to six times longer to relate something that you imagine it will take.)

Now, I was in a position to answer my editor.  I could now write my proposal, which I did.

As I worked, I calculated my progress regularly.  It helped me enormously.  At any given point, I knew how much of a draft of the book I’d written; I knew how much more I had to write.  Somehow, these numbers became touchstones for me.  They urged me along; they told me I’d done real work, that there was work ahead, but also, work behind me.

I’ve continued this habit until now.  I still decide how long a book I want to write.  I still map out a strategy that includes how many page numbers each chapter, or each part, or each section will have.  I still chart the progress of my work.  And it still comforts me.

The book I’m now writing, the one about my father during World War II, for example, will be 80,000 to 90,000 words; I’m 37,197 words into my current draft (the penultimate, I think).  (I have thousands of words in earlier draft form that I’ll continue to revise.)  I know that I’m either about 41% or 46% finished, and that makes me happy.  I know that each chapter is about 7439 words – I’ve polished five chapters.  I know that the book will be eleven or twelve chapters long (do the arithmetic).  So I know I have 6 or 7 more chapters to polish and/or write.

At this point, the focus of the book starts narrowing.  Material I’d hoped to include, I will no doubt drop.  (I might use this for a future book, or an article, just as I’m using material from a previous book that didn’t fit in this one.)

Writing is hard in many ways.  One of the hardest things about writing – at least to me – is not knowing where you are in the process.  I’m not saying that counting words, counting chapters, calculating how much you’ve done, how much more you have to do, is a panacea.  The process is still a mystery, often.  But I need something to hang onto.  And knowing how long a book I’m writing, how much I’ve written, how much I need to write, provides me with a profound sense of comfort.  I might not know everything about this book under my pen, but this much, at least, I do know.


One Response to “How Many Words?”

  1. Michelle Cando Says:

    I wish I’d gotten to this post earlier. I’m floundering through my memoir final and I think it’s because I never thought to look at it from a very structured perspective. The things that I most enjoy writing are essays, which I usually spend a lot of time organizing and shaping before actually beginning. I like and benefit from the process of creating a kind of map and keeping track of my progress. But I guess I just felt conflicted about setting boundaries around expressive writing, like I was breaking the rules or something. It’s like you said though, “I need something to hang onto.”

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