Thursday, January 5, 2023

How Much is Enough?

 Editing began last Tuesday on the still untitled work in progress. (Working title: Forte 6.) The current length is 58,427 words. With time on my hands and being a statistically minded SOB, I decided to see where that fell in context with my other books. I knew it was relatively short by my standards, but how short?


Fifteen minutes of research showed it’s shorter than every book I’ve written except its predecessor in the Forte series, Bad Samaritan. Let’s take a look of the numbers and see if anything pops.


Forte novels are shorter than Penns River books by about 16%. (67,037 words vs. 80,154. Everything is rounded to whole numbers because, while I may be a stat nerd, I’m not Rain Man.) This is to be expected. Penns River stories have subplots, tangential anecdotes, and are told through the eyes of multiple characters; Forte’s stories are his alone.


This is unplanned evidence of something I suspected for quite a while: PI stories work better when they’re shorter. There’s only so much heavy lifting one character can do.


All the Penns River books are longer than any of the Fortes, with two exceptions. Forte’s The Man in the Window is a little longer than a few of the Penns River books, coming in just under the PR average. (77,665 vs. 80,154.) The fourth Forte novel, A Dangerous Lesson, is the longest at 81,199. It is also my least favorite of the Fortes.


Much of this is due to it being a serial killer novel, which I wrote because it seemed like I should, breaking one of my cardinal rules, to wit: Write the story you’d want to read. The book is also artificially long, as I was about to publish when a plot twist came to mind. Looking back, I’m glad I made the addition. The book is better and goes a long way to showing Forte’s growing darkness of character.


(Side note: My sole standalone, Wild Bill, is 76,928 words long which is between the two series, though much closer to Penns River than Forte. This also makes sense, as it is a multi-POV story with a lot of moving parts.)


I suspected going into this little project that Forte 6 was my shortest book and learned that’s not the case. Forte books are getting shorter, though. Bad Sam and Forte 6 are 23% shorter than the average of the first four.


Numbers are fun to play with but they’re only important if they teach, so now that I have empirical evidence of things I’ve suspected for some time, what conclusions can I draw?


My writing and storytelling have become tighter. The first four books I wrote were Fortes, and I had an idea in mind of what should be “in a book.” I included tropes that, while not injurious to the book, didn’t really add much. The multi-POV books could get out of hand if I didn’t rein that in.


It didn’t happen right away. PR-1, Worst Enemies, came in at 96,800, by far the longest book I’d written. (And still the leader in the clubhouse.) Grind Joint was 73,763; Resurrection Mall gobbled up 93,076 words. I’m proud of all three, but Grind Joint is my favorite for multiple reasons, not least is that I told a complex story and got out quickly and cleanly. I never thought consciously about that, but my longest book since Res Mall is 80,387 (White Out).


Among interesting (to me) sidelights I found is that I have now written over a million words in novels that have been published or are pending publication. (1,120,429 to be precise. I have that much Rain Man in me.) Elmore Leonard said a writer’s voice should be set once he has a million words under his belt. Things I used to agonize over are more quickly resolved. There’s a pace and rhythm to my writing now that comes naturally, and it’s about time. I’m not as young as I used to be. I no longer feel like everything that isn’t hard is cheating.



Ef Deal said...

My first novel, almost 45 years ago, was over 120K. My next was 100K, and the sequels about 80K each. Then I began writing flash fiction, drabbles and such, and the novel that's coming out now is about 70K, as are the sequels. For me, the difference is high fantasy versus the historical steampunk. Less waxing poetical about magic and declaiming things like, "Behold, the Red Mountain. Behold, the Tower of Reghath Minatra."

Dana King said...

Good point, Ef, and something I should have mentioned. I can attribute at least some of my shorter novels to how writing flash fiction forced me to write tighter. I always strove for an economy of words, but I look back at some of my earlier books now and cringe at what could have been said in fewer words. I credit Patti Abbott’s flash fiction challenges and Noirs at Bars for this positive development.