Everybody knows superstition is stupid, even superstitious people. So, after about eight drafts of my novel, I Am Not Gog, I was surprised to find myself suddenly editing under the grip of a powerful and exacting superstition that was impossible to escape.
The grind of writing a novel is mostly in the process of rewrites and editing. The process is endless. The rewrites are many. The number of rewrites that I Am Not Gog underwent isn't strictly accurate, because in early rewrites of the whole manuscript, I would rewrite a single scene anywhere between one to ten times until I was happy enough to move on to the next scene (or was sick of it). My final edit has the title ‘30th Draft’, but it is more like the fiftieth in terms of actual work. It feels like the hundredth.
About a third of the way through these drafts, the body of the story became settled and the editing was more about typos, grammar, punctuation, sense, consistency, readability, euphony, naturalness, and so on. On completion of the eighth draft, the word count turned out to be exactly 80,700 words, and that coincided with my feeling, at the time, that it was finally perfect. I had no idea it would need another nineteen edits. So, when I re-read it and began to see that some more improvements were necessary and had to embark on another edit, I resolved to ensure the word count would remain at 80,700 words. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be perfect, would it? No. Obviously.
If I had to cut a word out, then I would have to add a word somewhere else, and vice versa. A professional editor would be aghast at this because how something is written should depend solely upon achieving the highest quality of prose and the most effective storytelling, not numbers. But my number criterion did not preclude that of quality and storytelling. This is because there are many ways of saying any one thing. My number obsession actually forced me to think harder about many issues and it most often resulted in an improvement. I was having to look more closely for a need to economise or add or reword than I would have otherwise.
The only downside was that it made the process of editing far more painstaking than it needed to be. Added to that, I was editing three versions of the manuscript at the same time because I didn’t want to have to keep adjusting the confusing settings for producing three different formats: Word document, mobi file, and epub file. This was fraught with the danger that some corrections might not be applied to all of the manuscripts because of simple human error.
To guard against this, I had to keep a precise tally of character count, as well as word count, so that if I failed to apply a correction to one of the three, the character count would most probably be different and so alert me to the problem. Even the empty spaces were accounted for. This system wasn’t foolproof, of course, as not all edits resulted in a change in character count, but the vast majority did. I wasn’t making things easy for myself, was I?
I have shown my tally-sheet below, as evidence of my madness. The reason the SW/KDP column always has one character more than the manuscript column is that the e-book scenes needed to end with an extra carriage return for spacing. As you can see at the bottom of the tally-sheet, this 27th draft of the manuscript just so happens to have a total character count of precisely 422,000 characters. That immensely round number is totally accidental (or providential).
Numbers are important throughout the actual text of the novel, in that almost all of them mean something of importance to the allegory (even hidden numbers, such as the number of days, weeks, or months between some events), so it is sort of fitting that I slavishly worked to keep the word count at precisely 80,700 words. I’m not sure what meaning the actual figure might hold, beyond that the author is daft. A numerologist or cryptographer might see something in it.
I think the real meaning is personal to me. When I first embarked on the project of writing this, my first novel, I earnestly hoped it would turn out to be a respectable 80,000 words, which my research revealed to be the ideal length for publishers. I didn't aim for that number, I didn't design or pad the story to make it 80,000, it just turned out that way at the eighth draft. Seven is a symbol for completion or perfection, so that extra 700 is a special cap on the desired 80,000 words. Just perfect.
(That was 800 words. This is seven.)
[Edit 15-01-2019: I have finally escaped the tyranny of that number. I recently felt compelled to do a major overhaul of the final climax in the story, which would necessitate the addition of eight and a half pages of new content, so I had to totally disregard the word count. The final tally of the 36th draft happens to be a perfectly random 83,406 words, 435,992 characters. Never again will I submit to any perfect numbers.]