It’s the hot topic for agents today, and for writers as well. High word counts. Ideal range for a novel is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. It should be no more than 120,000 and that’s if it is a really good book. 180,000 word books and 200,000 word books are laughed at and rejected on sight.

What about the 25,000 word books? Why do I never hear gentle reminders that books can be too short also?

My first draft for Life of a Suburban Unicorn was 25,000 words. Yes, I know that’s too short. I also realized looking at my query letter (a previous blog post you can read here) the reason why is because my writing is too thin. I’m a skinny person in real life, and my stories are just as stringy as I am. We both need to gain weight, and my recent edit is making that happen.

Since no one sees fit to help the skinny people out there, I shall step forward. Listed below is my easy 3 step process to helping your novel gain weight.

Step one: Question everything.

Print out your novel, and pretend that you are a nosy journalist trying to squeeze a story out of this mysterious lump of text. Ask every question you can possibly think of that relates to the novel. Here is the list of questions I used to help me get through Chapter 5, in order to give you an idea:

Why is Peter in the woods?
Why would Joseph Thunderhead send a unicorn?
How does Elizabeth react to seeing Peter?
How does Peter react to seeing Elizabeth?
How does Elizabeth find Peter?
What is Peter doing when found?
Why would Mom shoot a unicorn?
What are they feeling at this point?
Where are they in the woods?

There are tons more questions too. Ask about the senses. What do they smell? What do they hear? What plants and animals are present? Do they notice them?

The point isn’t to add all this information into your novel. It’s to make sure you are aware of the information. I came from a background of short story writing. I’m used to focusing on one thing, and excluding everything else from my focus.

If you’re artistic, drawing a sketch of the scene helps too. The whole scene. Including the background, what the people are holding, how they are posed, etc. Even if you’re not artistic but suitably enthusiastic, you can make it work with stick figures and weird boxes that represent furniture. (You can even label them so you remember what those blobs are the next time you look at the picture.) Filling in the details helps fill them in your mind too.

Step Two: Highlight Telling

If, when questioning your novel, you come across a particular sentence so vague you can question it, that’s probably telling. Here’s a sample from an unedited portion of my novel, telling in bold:

Her finger touched the trigger, her whole body quivering with tension, and then she dropped the gun at his feet. It wasn’t worth it. Nothing could make her kill another person. Even Joseph Thunderhead.

Joseph stooped and picked up the gun. “Come on,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

Anyone here know what a resigned person looks like? He just had a gun pointed at him and thrown in his face. Does anyone here think a single word should sum it up? When I get to this part in my novel, I’ll detail what “Resigned” looks like on an aging unicorn hunter.

This may not seem like a big deal, but when you replace a single word with a whole sentence every other paragraph, that’s a lot of words.

Step Number Three: Replace Adverbs and Adjectives

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. I do a highlight search in word for anything ending in “ly”. Almost every time a ly word can be questioned, and that questioning offer a wordier, stronger sentence. Example: What does “casually” look like? I’m sure you’ve got a vision in your head. Describe that vision, in detail.

These three steps are really all the same step. Question everything. You may find a huge plot hole you never noticed before. (Why is my character walking into a trap again?) You may just clean your writing up a bit. (Because if you can sing the song “Here a Lee” from the musical 1776 and find every word in the song, you may have too many ly words.)

What are your tips for lengthening word count? (Filler doesn’t count!)

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