When I was first starting on my novel, I estimated the final length at about 80,000 words.
It was a minimally informed estimate. I had a vague sense of how much stuff needed to happen over the course of the story. I looked at a few other novels that had about that much stuff in them and counted how many words they had, and 80,000 words was a typical length. I also looked at other first novels that had been published recently, and saw that 80,000 words was not unusual. The size of the “story” is a much more important determinant of manuscript length than what seems to have been marketable a few years ago, but if I’m going to have a target, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that it’s not wildly out of the norm.
I’m not sure that having a length estimate is even useful for a first novel, but I thought it might be, for two reasons.
The first is a holdover from a book I read, back when I did software, on software process. It modeled a process where you’d make a length estimate up front, use it to produce an effort estimate, and then track daily progress. At the end of the project you’d compare your estimates to what actually happened, and use the result to improve your estimates for the next project. The claim was that, after a few projects, you could produce quite excellent estimates, and could make accurate predictions for when you’d be done.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I sure hope my start-and-stop progress on this novel doesn’t predict a similar profile on future novel efforts.
A second reason I came up with a length estimate was to give me a sense of whether I was on track.
Some years ago, I went to a workshop on screenwriting. The guy teaching the workshop pointed out that a considerable amount of knowledge about pacing flows directly from the fixed form of a screenplay. A feature-length movie is going to have a script something under 120 pages. If, for example, you’re writing a movie about a road trip from New York to California, then along about page 60 you’re going to be in the middle of the country. Maybe you’re in St. Louis, maybe you’re in Kansas City—but if you’re in Philadelphia, you’re doing something wrong. Thinking along those lines has been helpful already.
Today I passed 40,000 words, so I’m at the midpoint of my estimated length.
In writing 40,000 words, I’ve learned a lot about this novel. (I’d hesitate to claim that I’d learned much about writing novels, but I’ve learned a lot about this novel.)
Happily, I think I’m past the stage of going back and fixing first-draft stuff to conform to my evolving ideas of the structure of this novel. That’s a combination time-waster and procrastination technique that many people warn against, but that I was unable to resist while working on the first third of the novel. (And it did waste a lot of time; I now see that a lot of stuff that I labored over isn’t going to make it into the second draft.) Worse, reworking those bits got me out of the habit of writing new stuff. Only just lately have I been writing entirely new prose—which is, for me, one of the fun bits. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, until I finally got back to it.
Hopefully, the second half goes along more smoothly than the first.