A matter of scale

Originally, the Urban Dragon books were commissioned by Cliffhanger Press, and that meant I needed to write them according to a very particular set of instructions.

Among those instructions was a wordcount: each of the nine stories had to fall between 18,000 and 25,000 words, and so I got very good at marking exactly how long each act of each story was going to be. Even after I got the rights and I was able to tweak it without restriction, it was difficult to stretch out a 24,000 word story into anything much larger than that.

Tatter and Shine was even shorter in its original incarnation, though you wouldn’t know it. Over the course of rewrites and editing, I more than doubled the length of that manuscript, but still the grand total was a smidge over 25,000 words.

This isn’t unfamiliar to me. One of my favorite short stories growing up was “Story, the Old Man Said” by Jane Yolen. As a kid, I would pride myself in writing ‘drabbles’– flash fiction that was exactly one hundred words (or shorter!). As a teacher, I would have my students write hundred-word drabbles every week just so they could get practice at coming up with ideas and writing them down. When I was working at Nuvo, my specialty was condensing full articles into short blurbs, each only a few hundred words, that would fit well in a blog post for the website.

I’m very good at writing things that are very short. I’d say it’s one of my biggest strengths as a writer– but it’s also one of my biggest weaknesses.

In a lot of ways, this is me pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and that means I’m learning not to fall back on old habits and ingrained instincts.

“Hm,” I said to myself as I wrote. “Do I really have room to add a minor character right now? Is there gonna be room to actually get to know her before we get into Act 2? I should probably be wrapping up Act 1 so we can get moving.”

And then I looked at my word count, and I realized I was only 5k into this new story.

In the Urban Dragon stories, 5k would be right around that place where I needed to wrap up the first act and dive headfirst into the second, and I could feel that in my bones. The problem is, I’m shooting for this current project to be between 80-100k, which means my entire first act could easily wind up being 25k altogether.

After the projects I’ve done thus far, that seems like a vast stretch of blank pages– what could possibly fill that much space? How much story could I possibly fit into something so impossibly huge? How many characters would I need to create to populate such a story?

Isn’t it exciting?

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