I come to the world of books as a semi-fugitive from the world of film. I have an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, I worked in film development for a few years,I’ve taught the craft to kindergartners, teen mothers, military veterans, and the legally blind, and I’m currently a working screenwriter. Hollywood gets its fair share of ridicule; if you have a wisecrack about the industry, rest assured I have heard thirty different versions of whatever hilarious thing you have to say.
Still, today I want to talk about something I think Hollywood gets very, very right, something I feel like the publishing industry so often gets so very, very wrong.
(Screeching wheels sound effect.)
Hollywood being right and the publishing industry being wrong about something?
Gasp! Shock! Horror! Velvet reclining couch! Chinese fan! Smelling salts! Underpaid servants freaking out that your nervous breakdown is going to get them booted off Downton Abbey and sent straight into a Charles Dickens novel!
Let’s talk about page count.
So let’s say you’re writing a screenplay. That screenplay needs to be 90-110 pages. That’s going to time out to approximately an hour and a half to an hour and fifty. That’s it. No arguing. Well, okay, if you’re Spielberg or Scorsese, you get to do whatever you want. If you’re a household name in ANY industry, you get to do whatever you want. Proceeding under the assumption that you are a nobody (or almost a somebody but you’ve still got the Caul of the Nobody half-covering your face), you’ve got to get your screenplay in at 90-110 pages. The first thing any development exec (or film school intern doing the reading/work of that exec) is going to do with your screenplay is flip to the last page. If your document comes in at 120 pages, or 130 pages, or 225 pages (I received this screenplay once and it was the worst Saturday afternoon of my life), you’ve almost immediately pissed off your reader.
This algorithm doesn’t seem to have much of a counterpart in the world of publishing. I’m constantly picking up books in stores and seeing the page count tally up at 350 pages. 380. 420. There are page counts I don’t even want to talk about, but I’ll give you a hint, they start with the number 8. These are books that have been through several gatekeepers, edited a hundred times over. A bunch of people have decided those 380 (or 420, or more) pages are necessary. It’s a cliché in writing that a writer must kill her darlings. Still I have books on my shelves that could double as doorstops, or sandbags for flooding areas, and I can’t help but wonder “Pal, exactly how many of your darlings DID you kill?”
I’m not saying that I don’t love big books. Some of my favorite books have sizable junk in their trunks. I just think I would love those big books even more if they slimmed and trimmed down a bit. Even Gone With the Wind. Even Anna Karenina. Even Harry Potter.
(Repeat gasp, shock, horror, smelling salts.)
So Hollywood says 90-110 pages for screenplays? I’m saying 280-320 double spaced Microsoft Word document pages for book manuscripts. I think that’s 80,000-to-100,000 words, word count of course being the unit of measurement in publishing. Don’t whine. Don’t complain. And please don’t cry. You can get your story told in 100,000 words. If you can’t, make like George R.R. Martin and write yourself nine sequels.
Skinny-fying your book is a selfless act. You’re doing it for your reader, who has a lot of books to read. Kicking your book’s ass at the Literary Gym is also a selfless act. 99 times out of a 100, your skinnier book is going to be a better read.
I don’t want to yell at you, Publishing Industry. Truth be told, I’m way harder on myself then I will every be on you. This post came in at 674 words. I was aiming for 500. Few of us achieve our literary weight goals down to the word count number. We still need to try to get a little bit closer.