October 9, 2010

Writing: Should it have limits?

There was a meeting about plot development for the novels people are pursuing this November for NaNoWriMo this morning.  Me and a few other people in the Chicago area got together and just talked about our plots and figuring out certain things.  It was really helpful for all of us.

I got to talking to one other author who is also working on a fantasy trilogy of sorts.  I don't want to give away everything he mentioned, but the classic ideas of destiny were there along with a long journey, and it is definitely something that was compelling.  But he was mentioning to me his experience with publishers, and giving me great tips on the system.  One thing he mentioned was word count, and how you need to be aware of it.  It's definitely something that would be taken into account depending on your story, and certain genres have certain standards.  If you are submitting to a publisher and you have a certain way you want your story published, you need to keep in mind the word count they're expecting.

At first I was a little scared, but then it made sense to me.  After a while a genre has a standard set, whether on purpose or not, and you have to know that your readers are expecting that much of an experience.

But then on an art level, is that fair?  You could say that in some ways, you're limiting the art if you do that.  Shouldn't the writer be able to write his story at the length he sees fit?

There is an argument for that positon, believing that no story should be limited.  Some times a good story has to take it's time, and the reader will appreciate it more because of that.

However, a lot of the time a story is longer or shorter than usual because the story has yet to be refined.  People forget that writing is a skill, not just a talent.  Rarely do you have someone that writes well enough to be remembered for a significant period of time, like Shakespeare, at a considerably young age.  I doubt Shakespeare had his gift at age ten.  It's not to say that anyone can write if they practice enough, but it is to say that it is a skill that has to be nurtured over time.

What parts of writing involve skill?  Well, being able to describe the idea effectively and efficiently is important.  Effectively meaning there is a clear picture in the reader's mind what the author of the piece is getting at or talking about.  Efficiently means without putting in too much or too little information.  A lot of the time writers can get caught on either side of that spectrum, and don't tell the story in a way that engages the reader.

And that's where the limits come in.  Writing in many ways is meant to be the opposite of the visual arts. Your painting can be as big as you want, you can make it  structure that can be tiny or huge, and you can  have be as interactive or as isolated from touch as you want.  Limits are not really as much of an issue as they have to be in writing.   I couldn't start telling you about my ridiculous dreams of pink elephants with wings in the middle of this post.  It wouldn't let you in on the idea I really want to tell you.  Sure, there's a style that would let me utilize some crazy tools of language that could still get you to the same idea, but the goal is to get one point across, and one's skill in writing helps determine how good one is at that.

I agree that most of the time, you need word limits or goals.  Page counts.  Something of that nature.  Because if anything, it helps determine that you are at the skill level necessary to tell your story well.


  1. Paranoia kicks in.. lol

    What's the word/page count supposed to be for a fantasy novel these days?

  2. I am posting this after a beer and without my reference books at hand, but I remember reading where Stephen King makes himself write several thousand words a day. Some of his books show this (getting to the damned point is a virtue, Mr. King) but it also shows personal discipline and a work ethic.

    I also used to be a newspaper reporter and I got to the point where I could tell "most" stories in 500 to 600 words.

    Novels and short fiction are different than newspaper articles, but order, discipline, staying on topic and getting to the point are good things.

  3. Migellito--the advice given to me says longer than your average book, at least 60,000. Don't quote me on that though, I'm no expert. I haven't even gone through the submission process.

    GrumpyCelt--is that in his book On Writing? I need to read it but I haven't gotten around to it.