A Watershed

My daughter, Lea, has been a quiet but steady force behind the marketing of Rare Traits. She wants to see the old man published and she knows he is struggling with the brave new world of social media and with strutting your stuff online.

For Christmas 2011, she gave me two presents. One was to help me set up this website using her favourite Headway theme on WordPress, with Jonathan, her husband, chipping in with the design side. That was a present that has only recently been cashed in and I’m mightily pleased with it.

The second present was a one hour consultation with online writer, blogger and speaker Joanna Penn who runs the Creative Penn website.

The Creative Penn

Ever wary of the abundance of online advice out there, a lot of which is either copied from elsewhere or too general to be of much use, I checked out Joanna’s website and I was immediately hooked. It was, and still is, packed with no-nonsense common sense advice, much of it gained from Joanna’s own journey through writing and self-publishing.

Before scheduling the consultation, I got up to speed with buzz words and concepts by looking through some of Joanna’s interviews. It was there that the topic of ‘how long is a novel’ reappeared and I was stunned to find that the perceived wisdom rates 100k words to be quite enough. I was sitting on 400k.

So when Joanna wrote and asked if there was anything in particular I  wanted to discuss over and above the general nuts and bolts of sorting out the text and formatting it for the Kindle etc, I asked if we could talk about numbers of words. In order to assess the extent to which I rambled, Joanna asked for the first couple of chapters as a guide to my style.


We were now all set for the interview. At the time, I was in Phuket and Joanna in London. Fortunately my variable internet connection played ball and we had an uninterrupted session on Skype. After some preliminaries, we got down to the nitty gritty, which Joanna prefaced by asking if minded if she took the ‘kickass approach’. Not a problem, I replied, wondering what was coming.

Joanna talked me through a culling – it was more than an edit! – of my first two chapters, which she suggested combining into one. The length was reduced to a third of the original and you know what? – it made a lot of sense. Not immediately – it was a bit of a shock to hear her views at first – but once I’d mulled it all over, I accepted that something serious had to be done.

Joanna wondered, as others had, whether the book could be made into two books, or even three. I’d already considered this and rejected it. Even though it’s a mix of historical and modern, there was no natural point at which the story could end, albeit temporarily, in a convincing manner.

After the consultation, I thought about it for a while, talked it over with Gail and then with Lea. And then I got down to it. The original draft was about 250k words of historical chapters and 150k of modern. I knew that the modern was going to be more difficult to reduce than the historical, so I went for the historical first.


By this time, I had discovered Scrivener, thanks to a mention on Joanna’s website, and she also talked about it the consultation. If by any chance you haven’t seen it or don’t use it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It puts everything – all your chapters, drafts, references, summaries etc in one place, it’s elegantly arranged, and file sizes seem to be no problem – it doesn’t crash like Word when the file size gets large (400k words was a large file). And it can be used for poetry and scriptwriting as well.

So the first thing I did was reset the whole novel into Scrivener, chapter by chapter, and then set about the edit.

Less Is More

It took about two months, but once I got the hang of it, there was no stopping me. I looked upon my text in a completely different light and instead of being protective of every word and phrase, I took the line that they all had to justify their place in the novel.

250k of historical became about 90k and 150k of modern became about 110k. It wasn’t the 100k that I aimed at, but I’m still of the opinion that 100k is a bit short for some novels – there are many out there by well-known authors that are in the 150-200k bracket. 170k words is around 500 pages, which works for me.

The result is what I hope you have read on your Kindle etc. What? You haven’t read it yet? Waste no more time – click on the image in the sidebar!

The consultation with Joanna Penn was a true watershed for me in how I approach my writing. She was full of other ideas and tips that she wrote down and emailed to me immediately after the session. She also recorded the whole thing and sent the sound file. That was brilliant because even though I was scribbling some notes, there was a lot of ground covered and listening to it all again in the cold light of the following day helped enormously.

Wherever you are with your writing or your journey to publication, it’s very likely that Joanna Penn will have some pearls of wisdom that will help. Check out her website, join her mailing list and get in touch. Maybe the watershed will happen for you too.

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