Writing by the Numbers

Calculating Story Lengths

Cat hating the numbers.

When you draft a novel, you just write, right? Sure, but at some point, you’ll need to adjust for overall and chapter length. A writer asks, “How long should my novel be and how do I write it to match a word count?”

Writing Tip for Today: Many different methods exist, but I’ll focus today on what I do for fiction and nonfiction book-length projects which are on deadline.

Divide and Conquer

Before I sold a novel, I still gave myself deadlines. Now, the publisher sets the date to turn in an acceptable manuscript. Whether you’re still chasing a book deal or you’ve sold a whole series, during the drafting phase you can do some simple arithmetic to ensure you can make a deadline.

Divide your target word count by the number of days, weeks or months before the deadline. The answer gives you a guideline for how many words you need to produce every week or month.

For instance, a mainstream novel should run somewhere around
80-90k words. If I want to finish in six months (a common deadline delivery
date), I’d divide 85,000 by 24 weeks. My weekly goal would be around 3500 words—although
I’d try for more to allow room to revise. But at least I’d have a finished
draft at the six-month mark.

Play around with the number—I often shorten the deadline so
I’ll have some time at the end for rewriting. Stay on track as much as possible—you
never know when illness or other concerns will interfere. The more you have
written before some interruption hits, the better off you’ll be in reaching
your goal.

Three Scene Structure

I’m also often asked how long chapters should be and if they
all need to be the same length. In my writing style, my chapters often wind up
having three scenes. This helps me move the story faster than if I wrote one
long scene, where I’d be tempted to wander or march in place with the story. My
three scene chapters tend to run about 3000 words, or about 10-12 double-spaced

Chapter length does vary according to genre. For shorter
novels such as category romance, overall word count is about 50-60k, so each
chapter will likely need to be shorter too. And genres such as murder mysteries
tend toward shorter chapters.

Also, chapter length is a concern for writers. I’d say it’s
fine to include a brief high-tension chapter here and there, especially to
heighten tension. But readers like patterns, and that’s why most published
novel chapters are roughly the same length.

Percentages by the Book

Writers must also divide their story in terms of structure and story pace. An excellent approach to this idea is The Plot Skeleton by Angie Hunt. In it, Hunt shows you how to know if your story is unfolding at the optimum rate to keep readers engaged.

The first 20% of a story should be getting to know the protagonist and making us care. Then, the Inciting Incident sets the character on the story’s trajectory. We spend the next 60% on the ups and downs, the complications and rewards—with each scene rising action and tension. The next 10% deals with the ALL IS LOST (or so the protagonist fears) scene(s) and the climax scene. The last 10% is the story’s resolution.

If the story spends too much time setting up, readers will
flag. If the climax doesn’t appear when readers expect it (i.e. if it comes too
soon or too late), they’ll be disappointed. Although some writers balk at
writing stories by these percentages, the numbers correspond to the pace readers
like most.

Of course, all these numbers are only tools to help you make
word count progress, understand structure and write a story that readers can
most appreciate. Some writers hate working with any structure, and that’s OK
too. Find the method that works for you and keep writing!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing by the Numbers

  1. Hey Linda
    I thought I would check in.
    How is your sons girlfriend doing?
    I always enjoy your blogs. loved this last one.
    Just a quick update and my writing.
    I would love to pay you to beta read the whole thing. I am still probably 4-6 weeks away at this point. My editor is editing the first 60%. While I am finishing and rewriting a few scenes in the remaining 40%. Then we will switch.
    Then beta read.
    Hope to see both you and Diana Flegal at Mt. Hermon.

    • Hi Michael,
      First, I apologize for letting the updates go–I’m on a March 1 deadline for my next book. Nikki is doing a lot of physical therapy. Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication, there was about a 3 week period after her release from the hospital when she wasn’t getting any post-stroke help. Her damage is left-side and still profound, but she can speak and walk aided by a cane. Thanks for asking.
      As for Beta reader, I could possibly do it before Mt. Hermon but it depends on how I do with my deadline and a couple of other commitments. Email me.
      Keep Writing!

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