12.27: Choosing a Length

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

We discuss the ways in which we decide upon the length of the stories we write, and at which point(s) in the creative process we make that decision.

Liner Notes: This is the story-length formula that Mary shared with us:
Ls=((C+L) *750)*M/1.5
(In English: Add the number of characters and the number of locations. Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by the number of MICE elements the story incorporates and divide by 1.5.)

Or, here’s a handy infographic that she developed later.


Take a big, complex story, and re-tell it as a children’s story—something you’d read at bedtime, like Are You My Mother? or Goodnight Moon.

Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries, by Howard Tayler
(Note: the book is shipping now to Kickstarter backers. You can order it now via Backerkit, but it won’t appear at Amazon or the Schlock Mercenary store until August.)

27 thoughts on “12.27: Choosing a Length”

  1. I feel really awkward about word count, because I tend to be a very terse writer. A flash fiction I did recently was just over 1,000 words and works well! But going even by the most constrained concepts of character and location, it “should” be about 5 times the word count.
    I understand that everyone has their own style and it varies how many words they can get away with while still having a working story. It just makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to write a proper novel when getting over 2,000 words without feeling annoyingly verbose is about the same as putting nutella on celery for me; it ruins something I like and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
    Any tips from folks who are more descriptive or just tend to go over their writing goals more often than not?

    1. I have to confess, I’m having a little trouble identifying what you feel is the problem-that you are too wordy (rambling, maybe?) or that you are going over goal or maybe both. I say: if the words are needed to tell the story, they are needed to tell the story.

      Your concern, though, makes me wonder if you’re inner editor is only pretending to sleep while you draft? I wonder if it isn’t whispering something along the lines of ” too many words,” while you write?

      Maybe the solution is simply don’t try to fit your story into a pre-determined length? Instead just draft the story, and let the word count be what it is. The prose can be tightened in editing.

      Our friends here at Writing Excuses did a couple of podcasts on line editing which might also be helpful for this: Season 4, episodes 29 and 31.

      1. My problem is actually the opposite. I’ve been trying to write longer pieces, and it hasn’t worked out, because adding description or extra characters or the like after I have things set down always just feels superfluous, but there isn’t really any other ways to add words without the prose itself feeling unwieldy.

        It might not bother me except for the fact I sometimes do light writing commissions in an online community I’m part of, and since I price by word count, being able to reliably reach a word count would be really helpful.

        1. Hi Teagan,
          Hmm…That is a different problem altogether. Personally, If I need to bump up the word count, by say 50-100 words, I usually expand descriptions of what’s already written. If the sentence reads “Joe felt cold.” I might alter that to “Joe shivered in the chill, biting wind.” It adds a little extra tactile sensory information. This should be done sparingly, otherwise, you end up turning your prose a not-so-lovely shade of purple.

          Something, though, tells me minor bumps in word count aren’t necessarily what you mean. You want a longer form story which organically lends itself to a higher word count…but how to go about developing that sense of story? Maybe consider studying the character, plot and setting elements of two or three stories that’s at about length of what you’re aiming for? Investigate how those additional words were used by authors you respect – was there more conflict? a broader character arc? multiple character arcs?

          Hope this gives you a place to start.

  2. Does the formula work for pantsers? I have to be fairly structured/outlined in order for this to work at the outset, correct? Just go back and redo the formula of I add anything in?

  3. Out of curiosity, I went back and looked for the last time this podcast has actually been 15 minutes. Turns out it was back in Season 9 (it should be noted that Season 12 *did* have a 14-minute episode, but everything else this season has been at least 19 minutes so it’s definitely an outlier). I’m not complaining–more minutes means more to learn from you guys, after all–but it miiiight be time to update that tagline.

    1. When you subtract the plugs for books, and the bumpers at the beginning and end, we usually have 15 minutes of content. Our goal is to always provide at least that, so a true 15-minute, start-to-finish episode is too short. At least by our standards.

  4. Am I writing wrong? I have a few short stories that I thought were about the right length, but according to the formula they should be more than twice as long.

    I sometimes try to add more detail, but it often feels like padding for the sake of it. I usually start by writing an outline, then add dialogue, then gradually add more detail until I have a finished story, so I very rarely have the experience of having to edit something down.

    Do I need to keep adding at the point where I think I’m done? If so, what do I add: more description of settings, or characters, or backstory?

    1. You’ve asked two questions, and the most significant of the two is “Am I writing wrong?” I have several answers, which all boil down to two enumerated points:
      1) If you’re enjoying the writing, and it is fulfilling a creative need in you, then you’re doing it right.
      2) If the story that unfolds in the minds of your readers is the story you set out to tell, you’re doing it right.

      Point #2 is a paraphrasing of the gold standard by which all written communication is judged, whether it’s technical writing, journalism, personal memoirs, email, website comments (*ahem*), fiction, or shopping lists. Did the words do the job the writer wanted them to do?

      So… back to the formula. In my own writing, when the formula says my story is too short it’s because I’m keeping details to myself. I’m assuming that the reader will fill those in the same way I do, which, unsurprisingly, is almost never the case.

      The problem isn’t solved with padding. The problem is solved by identifying which pieces of your story (usually subtle elements of the setting, like the sounds of a crowded restaurant vs the sounds of a sidewalk cafe) are important to its telling, but which are not present.

      Your second question is specific to process, and it can’t really be answered until the Gold Standard bit has been addressed. If your process is creating a story that satisfies your readers, and if you additionally feel that they’ve gotten the bits you wanted to get across, your process works. Yay! If, however, readers feel like something is missing, or you feel like your readers are missing something, you may need to add a feedback loop to your process: identify (with the help of alpha and beta readers) where there are bits missing, and then go back and put those bits in.


      1. “The problem isn’t solved with padding. The problem is solved by identifying which pieces of your story (usually subtle elements of the setting, like the sounds of a crowded restaurant vs the sounds of a sidewalk cafe) are important to its telling, but which are not present.”

        This is helpful. I have a story that an editor rejected for publication because she “couldn’t picture the setting” and I’ve been putting off revising it because I don’t know what to add. It sounds like I need to figure out which parts of the setting relate to the theme of the story (losing vs hanging onto tradition) and describe them, rather than just going around describing random stuff. Thanks.

    2. I guess I’m not the only one with stories that run considerably shorter than what the formula says. I’d be happy to hear if there are answers for either of us but I’m starting to think when they say guideline, it’s very general.

  5. How many words could a writer write if a writer could write words? As many words as the writer would if the reader read the words? It all depends on characters, locations, and plot threads! The original quartet got together and sang… okay, talked about the length of stories, with several verses about when stories expanded or shrank. Just remember, a runaway story can be words in the bank! So, right now, go read the transcript, over to the archives or here


    and keep those words coming!

  6. Excellent cast; I always enjoy the ones where we get a deeper insight into the casters’ own writing approaches. Very rewarding.

    I fear I am guilty of ‘keeping details to myself’, my alphas and betas seem to think so!

  7. I’m laughing at the writing prompt, because I did this *all the time* as a camp counselor and assistant 1st grade teacher once I ran out of classic fairy tales to tell during car line. It was actually easier to do the less I remembered/cared about the original story. I wonder if that was because I was better at sticking to the meat of the story then, or because I was better at creating an entirely different story from the bits I liked? I notice that most adaptations do more of the latter, whether drastically simplifying for children or expanding a short folk tale into a novel.

  8. Wait a minute… I don’t need to assign a MICE category to every single scene in my book? I can just say “this is a Millieu story wrapped inside a Character story” and leave it at that?

    This… changes… EVERYTHING.

  9. I’ve noticed lately that whenever Mary refers to the MICE quotient lately she most definitely pronounces it MACE. When will she clear that up? What does the A stand for? It’s slowly driving me crazy.

  10. Next Q&A, could someone ask Mary to explain why she went from MICE to MACE? I don’t think we’ve ever heard what Idea has changed to… Action? Attitude?

    1. I believe it turned into “Ask-Answer,” which seems like a good way to describe an “idea” plot, but I agree with you that I don’t know why it changed and I’d love to hear about it!

    2. Mike, the A stands for Ask/Answer. These elements begin when a question is presented to the reader and end when the question is answered. Mary explains it well here: https://youtu.be/yAJT_-gpG4U?t=1m37s. If you don’t have time to watch, the example she gives are the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The question can be “Who dunnit?” or “How dunnit?” The stories end when Sherlock solves the mystery.

      Mary also explains her word count estimator a little slower in that same video, which may be helpful for anyone looking for that.

      1. That makes sense. It’s the burning questions you need to provide answers for. It makes more sense than ‘idea’, anyway.

  11. First, thanks for the podcast, it’s been a great help!
    I have a question about word count. I have recently heard that when publishers refer to word count, they are not referring to the actual number of words delimited by spaces. They are actually referring to a number that corresponds more directly with the page length of the book (one word equals 6 character spaces).
    When Brandon mentions his book is ~500,000 words, is he talking words as in 6 characters, or words as in the word count that shows up when you click Tools–>Word Count in a document editor? More importantly, which word count do authors/publishers in general actually use?
    Thanks in advance for any insight!

  12. I found this episode very helpful. I personally would find it very beneficial to go further in depth on the subject of length and word count, specifically when it comes to marketability and what publishers want. I know this was discussed in an episode years ago, but perhaps this would be a good topic/question to cover now that we have some new guest podcasters and the main stars have the benefit of many more years more of experience.
    Thanks for everything!

  13. I was curious to find out how many words this formula would give me on the trilogy I’m currently writing. Ended up with 342 000 words for the whole series. Curious how accurate that is – but it might be that the numbers I put in are not completely accurate. It’s not 100% plotted, and even if it were: While drafting it, there is always changes. :P

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