I live in a culture that loves measurements. Resumes, job descriptions, salaries, developments – America loves to count. When I cleaned houses for a living my work was measured not just room by room and task by task, but in bathtubs leaned over and showers leaned into. Rags dirtied and washed and folded and dirtied again. Sponges falling apart, their yellow bits washed down suburban drains. Work was measure in blown out, leaking rubber gloves, and shredding mop heads, and the nubs of feather dusters. In backaches and sore knees and Epsom Salt baths and Tylenol and hours spent on the heating pad, on the couch.
Now my work is measured in how many books I’ve published, in awards received or not, in Tweets and blog posts and movie deals (present or lacking). It’s measured by Oprah and the New York Times Bestseller List, and Youtube channels. These are big, public measurements and there’s not much a writer can do or not do to achieve them. These sorts of measurements are the work of the Gods and Goddesses, and Fate with a capital F. All I can do is show up and write.
I don’t take daily measurements of my writing. I don’t count words or even pages. The daily question I ask myself during each writing session is: Have I moved the story forward? Yes could mean a paragraph or three pages. No could mean ten or more pages, pages that do nothing for the story, pages that stall it out and go nowhere.
I work with writers and many of them study writing in a way that I do not and never have. They study trends. They know the industry standard of word count for a YA book, or a literary novel, or a sci-fi book, and they write to meet those standards.
But asking how long a novel must be is like asking how long a piece of string must be. The answer of course is that it depends on many things – mainly what is the string to be used for. A string to tie one’s shoes will be shorter than a string to tie up one’s tomatoes. A string to tie a 10″ box will be different from a string to tie a 2′ box. A string to wrap around a story will depend on the story, and if the story is dependent on the string, then that string better be cut to fit. And so it is with page count and word count.
The publishing world is a place where you can find a definitive answer to whatever question you ask, but I don’t believe it’s good to look for definitive answers. Nor do I believe the book world should be a place for industry standards. The book world, the world of story should be a place of exploration. But writers just starting out are scared of all the nebulousness. They yearn for information, anything to help get started and keep going. I’m not trying to keep information from anyone, and I understand the urge to search for answers. It’s frightening to me too when I face a story I don’t yet understand, and haven’t yet written.
In answer to my own question of measurement: Have I moved the story forward? there’s an easy answer. Has something happened that is significant? If not have I written something that contributes to the character’s development, or to setting? Am I building a believable fictional world? Does this section contribute or is it just there.
I know the answers to these questions when I ask them, which isn’t to say I know the solution. But it does mean I can recognize a problem and not write into it, not dig post holes and build a wall around it. Acknowledging that the story is stalling is the first step to moving it forward.
Readers want stories that move forward and so do editors. Editors dare not say so though, because they work in an industry, an industry that has gone awry with measurements and bean counting and shiny objects. Pay no attention. Do your work and do it well. The most important measurement of all is how you feel about it, and how your character feels about you. In the end, do you and your character respect each other? If so, you’ve done well, and you’ll be in a better place to defend your work against random suggestions having to do with fattening a book for market.