1,000 Words at a Time

How I turned an idea into an outline

Then I calculated how many scenes I need in which part of the story. My WIP is a YA or 12+ book, so I want it to contain about 75,000 words in total. I want my scenes to be around 1,000 words long to keep it snappy, so I need 75 scenes.

This is an interesting and useful post about how to plot a novel, and I appreciate that it succinctly cuts through the bullshit of so many mainstream writing guides that are often treated as one-size-fits-all industry standards. I tend to structure my plots a bit differently than the method suggested in this essay, but it’s still helpful to think of a huge project like writing a novel as “75 chunks of 1,000 words, give or take.” What this set of numbers means is that, if I can write a thousand words in a week, which is absolutely doable for me, then I can have the first draft of a novel finished in about a year and a half. Nice!

As an aside, I’m going to have to admit that I find the obsession with wordcounts a bit ridiculous. I understand that wordcounts help writers keep track of the progress they’re making, but it bothers me when it’s taken for granted that wordcount defines genre. What I love about literary fiction, as well as fiction published outside the United States, is that it defies the unwritten rule that something needs to be a certain number of words or pages in order to have market value. I actually really enjoy novellas and longer stories and essays that don’t fit into neat American categories! I resent the expectation that a manuscript needs to weigh in at 130,000 words in order to be taken seriously, but I can start evaluating the market once I have something to sell. Until then, I might as well enjoy myself without worrying too much.


A list of some novels with an average number of chapters & word count per chapter

I tend to write (and enjoy, and translate) shorter novels and novellas, so it felt validating for me to get a bit of perspective on word counts. There tends to be a major privileging of massive word counts in certain communities devoted to writing and publishing, and this has always bothered me. Like, it’s not a test score; more words does not equal more better.

This is not a criticism of people who write longer stories, of course. I love huge novels, but diversity is good.

For me personally, I think the sweet spot for a book is around 50k-60k words, although I also enjoy French and Japanese novellas and short story collections of around 30k-40k words.

This is one of the many reasons I appreciate fanfic, by the way. Although I actively seek out the publications of small presses, these presses tend to be extremely male-dominated. Mainstream English-language publishing houses promote way more women, people of color, and other minorities than a lot of liberal-leaning critics give them credit for, but the books they put out are still depressingly homogeneous in a number of significant ways. There are a lot of online fiction magazines that do fantastic work, but they tend to be strict about word counts, with anything above 6k-8k words being immediately rejected. It’s therefore wonderful to have access to such a wealth of interesting writing that falls entirely outside the number-driven standards of what would ordinarily be published.