When I was a copyeditor at Vogue, one of my duties was to return to the articles editors any stories that needed to be cut to fit into the allotted space. On one occasion, shortly after an editor whittled down an article for me, I was told that a half-page had opened up, and she needed to add some of the cut material back in. When I informed her, expected her to be delighted, she looked at me mournfully. “Now that I justified cutting those sentences,” she said, “I don’t know how I can justify putting them back in.”
I’m in a similar situation now, with my work in progress, 100 Days.
Fairly satisfied (is a writer ever completely satisfied?) with my latest version, I ran a word count. The novel comes to 65,000 words. From what I’ve read online, a novel should ideally be at least 70,000 words.
My conundrum: Should I try to add another 5,000 words before submitting it to agents? Should I keep it as is and in my cover letters fib that it is 70,000 words? (I loathe lying, so I probably won’t do that.) Or should I keep it as is, mention in my cover letter that it’s 65,000 words, and hope that the word count doesn’t automatically turn off the agent? (For what it's worth, my recently published novel, Beyond Billicombe, is a spot-on 75,000 words.)
I’m sure I can add another 5,000 words. Of the two narrators of 100 Days, Steve is perhaps my favorite of the characters I’ve ever created. Writing in his voice is a pleasure; I love hearing from him. But he suffers from undifferentiated schizophrenia; the book chronicles one of his breakdowns, and among his symptoms is alogia, or poverty of speech. I take literary license in presenting his narration—a book told by someone suffering alogia in its purest form would be a struggle to read—but I hesitate to have him speak much more than he already does.
The other narrator, Cat, is highly social and verbal person. She could easily contribute more to the story. But by having her add another chapter or two, the novel may become unbalanced, and the reader might feel more distanced from Steve than I’d like.
Right now, I think I have the right amount of words for the story that I’m telling. But as a professional writer and editor, I know that sometimes the right amount of words for the story isn’t the same as the right amount of words for the assignment. When I need to hand in a 1,500-word article, I need to make it roughly 1,500 words, even if I think the story would benefit from being 1,800 words long, or if I can communicate everything that needs to be said in 1,200 words.
I’m going to ponder this a bit. And I'm heartened by a blog post from two years ago in which industry veteran Colleen Lindsay writes, "lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short of 65,000." I’ll go over the manuscript again, see if there are areas that should be expanded upon. Usually I focus on tightening—I like to think of myself as a concise (though far from Hemingwayesque) writer. But if any of you have advice or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
(Above is a photo of Bistro Benito in Earls Court, a favorite restaurant of mine since my sister lived in London, back in the '90s. It's also a favorite of Cat, one of the narrators of 100 Days.)