…and tighten up your story without losing any of the good stuff!
Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long? Today’s readers have shorter attention spans, and publishers don’t want to accept long novels from new writers, as they are so much more expensive to produce.
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 first before attempting to sell a really 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 preening in today’s popular fiction! Thrillers and other suspense novels especially need to be fast-paced page-turners.
Some strategies for cutting the word count. It’s best to proceed roughly in this order, using any strategies that apply to your novel:
~ If you have a meandering writing style, tighten it up. Condense long descriptions and backstory; take out repetitions of all kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words); delete or condense scenes that drag, have insufficient tension, or just don’t drive the story forward; and in general, make your scenes, paragraphs and sentences leaner.
In general, it’s best to start with big changes to plot, characters, and structure:
~ 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? Make sure each book in the series has its own plot arc and character arc – rising tension and some resolution, and a change/growth in the protagonist.
~ 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 plot points. Cut down on some of the “and then, and then, and then…”
~ Delete one or two (or three) subplots, depending on how many you have.
~ Cut back on your cast of thousands. Too many characters can be confusing and annoying to the readers. Combine two or three characters into one. And don’t get into involved descriptions of minor, walk-on characters.
~ Consider deleting or condensing chapter one. Maybe even chapter two, too. Take out the warm-up, where you’re revving your engine, and start your story later.
~ Take out all or almost all backstory (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.
~ Delete most or all of any chapters that don’t have enough tension and change, that don’t drive the story forward. Add any essential bits to other chapters. (Save deleted stuff on another file.) Or condense two chapters and combine them into one.
~ Delete or condense scenes that lack tension or don’t contribute to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.)
Then evaluate your writing style, and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes:
~ Cut back on rambling or overly detailed descriptions. With today’s access to TV, movies, the internet and travel, we 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 and ears of your viewpoint character, with plenty of attitude.
~ Same with characters – no need to go into great detail. Give the most obvious, intriguing and relevant details, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content.
~ Don’t have a character relating the details to another character of 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, like “Three days later.”
~ Eliminate or severely condense any “explanations” on topics or people. Keep these to the bare minimum, and give the info from a character’s point of view, with attitude, or through a lively conversation or heated argument.
~ Take out any info dumps, self-indulgent rambling on pet topics, “teaching” sections, or rants.
~ 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.
Finally, tighten your writing to create leaner paragraphs and sentences:
~ 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!
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing and Killer Thriller, a short e-book, with an expanded print version coming out late June ‘13; and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. For more info on Jodie’s current and upcoming books, as well as a list of topics for workshops Jodie presents, please visit her author website. For information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her editing website.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)