A Novel Spreadsheet

by aengelson | August 27th, 2010

Seen at one of my favorite Hanoi writing hangouts: Tadioto.

As many of you know, I’ve been writing a novel while living here in Hanoi. I’ve been at it for about a year now. I’m in a great writing group, The Hanoi Writer’s Collective. They’ve provided great feedback and encouragement. Plus, just having a deadline is priceless.

So, one year into it, how am I doing? Well, the other day, a I had a good spell of writing–over 2,000 words. And this prompted me to wonder, “how many words have I written so far?”

Now at this point, you might well ask: “hasn’t he been keeping track?” Well, the simple answer is no. I have a strange phobia of numbers, and while I knew how many chapters I had and how many pages in Microsoft Word I had, I’d never decided to totalĀ  the whole thing up. So I did. I have eight “chapters” so far and I’ve written 50,700 words.

This was a pretty stunning discovery. Because after that, I decided to search the web for “average novel word count” and things like “average words per printed page.” And what I found was a bit disturbing to say the least.

The average novel, according to several web sites I searched, runs about 80,000 to 110,000 words.

Now you may be saying “great! You’re halfway there!”

Trouble is, I’m not. Not even close. I knew I’d been meandering and going off on tangents and taking my time getting to the crux of the story, but I really had no idea how much so. According to some other web sites, the average printed book page contains about 250 words. So right now I’ve got about 200. At this rate, I’d have a 1,200 page doorstop when I’m finished.

I’m no David Foster Wallace, so it was clearly time for a gut-check moment.

If James Joyce could write a book with 265,000 words, so can I, right? Um, no.

It was good to have the “view from 30,000 feet” as “they” like to say. I’ve created an Excel spreadsheet (who knew you needed flippin’ Excel to write a novel!) and I’ve started to map out just how my book will get from beginning to end. I’ve learned that chapters generally range from 14-17 pages, and that anything longer than that (most of mine are) is difficult to sustain (there are exceptions, certainly).

My advice to writers starting out is to look into this before you start writing.

With that said, I’m not really disappointed: I knew that in writing my first novel there were going to be missteps and stuff that got cut in the final book. I find I have to create a lot of raw material–either in my manuscript or the pages and pages of handwritten journal notes–to finally get to a polished, readable narrative.

What’s my ultimate page target? I’m not sure. A friend’s book group only reads books with 300 pages or fewer. I don’t think I can hit that target. Right now, I’m thinking 450 might be doable, but perhaps less. I will say it’s a pretty epic story, taking the characters from the days leading up to World War II through the war and after–until about 1999. So that’s something that can’t be done in a quick novella.

One little exercise I did was to look up some novels I admired or have read recently and find out how many pages were in them. Granted, this isn’t an inexact science–obviously some publishers choose to print more words on each page.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 528
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami 624
Ulysses by James Joyce 768
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard 240
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie 533
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 250
Moby Dick by Herman Melville 656
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino 165
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 576
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis by Dave Eggers 436
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson 590
Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine 453
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 367

One thing you see right away is that I have a taste for books with bigger-than-average page counts. I was shocked to see that The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo was 590 pages–I suspect there are fewer words per page, plus that novel was extremely-well paced. Some recent popular literary novels (which I have not read) are in the sub-400 category: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: 352, Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close: 368, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog: 325 pages.

One interesting statistic from the Wikipedia page on James Joyce’s 1922 avant-garde novel Ulysses: the book is 265,000 words long and uses a lexicon of 30,030 words.

So anyway, that’s my novel-writing statistical analysis for you (perhaps I need to start following baseball again so as not to bore you again with all this…). I’m still writing, and I’ve mapped out a plan for getting to the end. We’ll see if it works. Write. Edit. Write. Edit. An aspiring novelist’s work seems never to be done.

4 Responses to “A Novel Spreadsheet”

  1. Andy, I believe your writing group would say the same here, but in case not: You are writing the book first and foremost for you. Why should you cower at the threat numbers and statistics to meet a “standard”. (Honestly, where creativity meets analytical math, my head explodes.)
    I believe the best written books were done without the bottom line in mind. So rather than focus on your marketability (or number count), focus on the honesty of your end product. IMO, you’ll end up better off for not having trapped yourself inside that box covered in dollar signs.

  2. aengelson says:

    Erika:
    Point well taken. But frankly, I don’t want my book to be 1,200 pages, and at my current rate of writing, and based on where the story needs to go, that’s where it would be if I continued at this pace.

    I certainly am not looking to the bottom line, but I’m also trying to be realistic. Maybe I’m a budding David Foster Wallace, and some publisher will be interested in taking on a 1,200-page manuscript, but I doubt it. And it was never my artistic intention to write a book that big.

    What this has done is give me a benchmark: to know what else is out there, which I think is valuable to the artist. If you know that gallery walls are generally let’s say, 10 feet high, you know you’re going out on an artistic limb if you create a canvas 20 feet by 20 feet. Not saying you shouldn’t, but be aware that most galleries won’t be able to accommodate you.

    What this exercise did was confirm my artistic suspicions: that the story was moving along too slowly for what I wanted to accomplish. This is independent of any sort of though of publishability (is that a word) or marketibility (I don’t think that’s a word either).

    Onward, though….

  3. Doug Beyerlein says:

    Think of your massive novel writing process as the beginnings of a series: you are writing both the original book and a sequel at the same time. Two books for the effort of one. That makes 450 pages only the beginning, not the end. You can decide later how to break it up into multiple books.

  4. I was just going to post the same suggestion as doug (above). Just a suggestion you might want to consider. You could have 2 novels written by the time you finish.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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