Part of the Indie Author Series
Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long? Are you cringing at the potential cost of getting your long manuscript edited?
Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and smaller reading devices, so sales are increasing for shorter fiction. Also, freelance editors charge by the word, page, or hour, so of course you’ll be paying a lot more to have your longer manuscript edited – especially if it’s rambling and needs a lot of tightening, so a lot of editing input.
Cutting your word count can gain you readers and save you a bundle on editing costs. And can be a great exercise in learning to write tighter and making every word count.
The current preferred length for thrillers, mysteries and romance is around 70,000–90,000 words. Anything over 100K is definitely considered too long in most genres these days. Well-written, finely crafted fantasies and historical sagas can run longer, but newbie writers need to earn their stripes before attempting to sell a long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction needs to drive the story forward. There’s no place for rambling or waxing eloquent or self-indulgent extras or asides in today’s popular fiction! Thrillers and other suspense novels especially need to be fast-paced page-turners.
Here are some concrete strategies for cutting your word count. It’s best to proceed roughly in this order, using any of the tips that apply to your novel:
First, consider various reasons why your novel may be overly long.
- Do you have a meandering, overly wordy writing style? If so, you’ll need to tighten it up by cutting all unnecessary words.
- Do you have long descriptions of the setting or characters, or lengthy character backstory?
- Are there any scenes that drag, lack in tension and intrigue, or just don’t drive the story forward?
- Have you or others noticed repetitions of various kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words)?
- In general, can your scenes, paragraphs and sentences be leaner?
PLAN OF ACTION:
A. Start with big changes such as cuts to plot, characters, and chapters. Ask yourself these questions:
Do I have 2 or 3 novels in one? If your writing is quite tight but you have an intricate, involved plot, can you divide your really long novel into two or three in a series? But bear in mind that each book in the series needs its own plot arc and character arc – rising tension and some resolution, and a change/growth in the protagonist. Don’t leave readers hanging or they’ll feel cheated.
Can I cut out a few plot points? If the story doesn’t lend itself to being broken up, try making your plot less detailed. Cut or combine some of your less exciting scenes. Cut down on some of the “and then, and then, and then…”
Can a subplot be cut? Consider deleting one or two (or three) subplots, depending on how many you have. Save it for a short story or another novel.
Do I really need all those characters? Too many characters can be confusing and annoying to the readers. Consider taking a character or two out of this story and saving them for other stories. Or combine two or three characters into one. And don’t get into involved descriptions of minor, walk-on characters.
Am I warming up too long? Consider deleting or condensing chapter one. Maybe even chapter two, as well. Take out the warm-up, where you’re revving your engine, and start your story later.
Do I have too much backstory? Take out all or almost all character history in the first few chapters and marble in just the essentials as you go along, on an “as-needed” basis only. This also helps add intrigue.
Does every chapter drive the story forward? Delete or condense any chapters that don’t have enough tension, intrigue,and change. Add any essential bits to other chapters. (Save deleted stuff in another file.) Or condense two chapters and combine them into one.
Do any scenes drag? Delete or condense scenes that don’t have enough conflict or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) Summarize transitional scenes or chapters in a few sentences to tack onto another chapter.
Can anything else go? Take out any weak links, remnants from earlier versions, stuff that just doesn’t fit there anymore (if it ever did). This might be a good time to “kill your darlings” – those passages you love but just don’t fit in this story or drive the plot forward.
B. Then evaluate your writing style and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes:
Cut back on rambling or overly detailed descriptions of settings. With today’s access to TV, movies, the internet and travel, readers no longer need the kind of detail readers of 100 years ago needed to understand the setting, so just paint with broad brush strokes, and leave out all the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, and attitude of your point of view character.
Condense character descriptions. Just provide the most interesting details,those that contribute to characterization of both the character described and the observing character, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content.
Take out repetition of events the readers already know. Don’t have a character telling another character about something that happened that the readers witnessed first-hand and already know about. Skip over it with a phrase like “She told him how she’d gotten injured.”
Start scenes and chapters later and end them sooner. Cut out the warm-up and cool-down.
Skip over transitional times when not much happens. Replace with one or two sentences, or just a phrase, like “Three days later,”.
Eliminate or severely condense any “explanations” on subjects. Take out or condense any info dumps, self-indulgent rambling on pet topics, “teaching” sections, or rants. Keep these to the bare minimum, and give the info from a character’s point of view, with attitude, through a lively conversation or heated argument.
Eliminate repetitions and redundancies. Just say it once – no need to say it again in a different way. You may think that will help emphasize your point, but it actually has the opposite effect.
C. Finally, tighten your writing to create leaner paragraphs and sentences:
Streamline your writing. Try to delete one paragraph per page (or two); one sentence (or more) in each paragraph; and at least one word, preferably more, in each sentence. Cut out the deadwood!
Delete all useless words and phrases. Do a search for all those words that are just taking up space or weakening your prose, and delete most of them, like there is, there was, it is, it was, that, now, then, suddenly, immediately, and qualifiers like very, quite, kind of, sort of, somewhat, extremely, etc.
For better flow, condense wordy phrases: Instead of “For the simple reason that” just say “Because.” Instead of “despite the fact that,” just say “despite.” Instead of “In spite of the fact that,” just say “Although.” Instead of “take into consideration,” say “consider.” Change “the captain of the team” to “the team captain”; change “in the vicinity of” to “near.” Change “located at” to “at,” etc.
Reduce redundancies. Instead of “absolutely necessary” just say “necessary.” Instead of “advance warning,” just use “warning.” Replace “extremely unique” with “unique,” “final outcome” with “outcome,” “regular routine” with “routine,” “unexpected surprise” with “surprise,” and so on.
For more specifics on all above points and lots more specific tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see my book, Fire up Your Fiction.
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. When she’s not reading or editing compelling fiction, Jodie enjoys combining her two other passions, photography and traveling.
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About Captivate Your Readers: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction
This third guide to writing compelling fiction by sought-after editor and award-winning author Jodie Renner provides concrete advice for captivating readers and immersing them in your story world.
It’s all about engaging readers through the use of techniques such as using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, avoiding author intrusions, writing dialogue that’s real and riveting, and basically letting the characters tell the story.
Today’s readers want to put aside their cares and chores and lose themselves in an absorbing story. This book shows you how to provide the emotional involvement and immediacy readers crave in fiction.
As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes, “...get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”
So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow. This book provides techniques for making sure your characters stay unique, charismatic and authentic.
And like her other writing guides, the format of this one is also reader-friendly, designed for busy writers, with text broken up by subheadings, examples, and lists, and plenty of concrete tips.