How to cut a novel (and enjoy it)

7968121396_96df1a8d43_cI did my first bookshop  signing yesterday. Big landmark! It was a terrific day, lots of people (which was a relief).  The local writing group came in force and one question came up time and again. ‘My manuscripts end up so long. What should I do?’

Many of their novels were tipping 150,000 words. One gentleman was turning out whoppers of 500,000 and knew he needed to do something about it. But what?

How long is too long?

Actually, length is not a question of wordcount. It’s about pacing. No book seems too long if the material has been handled well. A tome of 100,000 words will read like lightning if it is well paced. A novel of half the length will be a tedious trudge if the pacing is poor.

Of course, the book may be considered too long because of the market and genre. That’s a whole subject in itself. But let’s assume for today that you can have any length you like, so long as it is, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right.

Pace

What is good pacing? It’s holding the attention of the reader. Plot revelations come at just the right speed. Not just plot, but emotional highs and lows, notes of comic relief, moments of growing tension. Well-paced novels keep the reader up past their bedtime.

Coherence

A novel also reads smoothly if it is coherent. Whether it’s a simple story of two friends or a sweeping epic with seven protagonists and a plot that spans a century,  it holds together as one elegant work. Like a well-designed room, everything has a place and it belongs. The material is under control. The more a reader feels the author has this authority, the more they will be gripped.

So when a reader, critique partner or editor tells you the novel is too long, they usually mean you need to fine-tune its coherence and pace. You need to make it a more compelling read.

Why do novels end up too long?

Three reasons:

  1. the writer was having fun and went off at a tangent – nothing wrong with that, it’s part of the organic growth of the novel
  2. the writer found it was more difficult than they expected to get their characters from A to B – again, this is good and will make your novel unpredictable, organic and true
  3. – and most important – it’s almost impossible to keep control of coherence and pace while you are writing. You have to tackle these issues once you have the manuscript complete, and can see what belongs and what needs emphasis. (Some of the writers I spoke to yesterday were surprised by the concept of revising. Especially that revising was an essential, radically artistic process, rather than a quick brush-down for spelling tweaks.)

Take a break, then make a beat sheet

Readers of my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence will be familiar with these two steps. To edit productively, you need critical distance. So take a break. Write something else. Lock your manuscript away until you’ve forgotten most of it. Most of us need at least a month, but the longer the better.

Then make a beat sheet. This is my ultimate revision tool. Before I start editing, I need a way to grasp the structure of the entire book. So I make a summary of each scene’s purpose – why it’s in the story, whether it advances the plot or our knowledge of a character. I use this to decide if I have scenes that aren’t necessary, or are in the wrong place or if they repeat other material.

carrielu2Take many passes

When I start editing, I’m feeling my way. With each pass, I climb further inside the novel. I understand what every scene and character should do, and realise whether to emphasise or condense.

It’s as if cutting is like marathon training. To start with, I make light, obvious  excisions. Repeated words, over-long descriptive passages, portions of scenes that go nowhere. By the end, which may be weeks or even months later, I’m hardcore. I’ll think nothing of reordering a whole sequence of scenes, downgrading a character’s role or merging them with another person. I will gladly let go of ‘darlings’ – scenes, descriptions, characters and plot developments that are there only because I like them, and not because they are needed. (I may have to add scenes too.)

Cutting is creative

Cutting a book can sound like a negative, dispiriting process – another reason why some writers find it difficult. In fact is creative, not destructive. Although the net effect is a tighter wordcount, we’re not throwing material away but discovering what’s not needed. It’s a process of refinement. I love it because it’s where the book develops its distinct personality and identity.

nyn2covsmlThe beat sheet is in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence 

And… announcement! You may have noticed a new cover has appeared in the sidebar. Nail Your Novel: Characters is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

Thanks for the swordsmen pics CarrieLu 

Do you like cutting your novels? Do you have any tips to add?

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  1. #1 by Carla Monticelli (@ladyanakina) on March 3, 2013 - 1:59 pm

    My novel tend all to be long. It mostly depend on how long I decide to take for writing the first draft and on the genre (my sci-fi novels tend to be longer and my thrillers). They are long because they are complex and a lot of stuff is happening in it. So I don’t think it’s a problem. My favourite novels are all long, so it’s fully intentional.
    I’m currently writing a novel divided in 4 parts. In the end I will have about 200k words. My favourite sci-fi author (Peter F. Hamilton) normally writes 300k-word novels, so what’s the problem?🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 3, 2013 - 11:36 pm

      Hi Carla! As you say, length is relative. If you as a reader are engaged enough, the writer can go on for 600 pages if they like. (Bet those novels still needed a lot of revision before they were ready to go, though…) Thanks for commenting!

  2. #3 by Katherine Hajer on March 3, 2013 - 2:05 pm

    This is a great summary of how to approach this — I’m definitely bookmarking this page — but I have a follow-up question. What do you do if your novel is too short? I’ve spent a lot of time reading authors like Samuel Beckett and Ernest Heminway and, while I don’t write like them, their approach to brevity has worn off. What that means, though, is that sometimes I’m missing scenes. Thoughts?

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 3, 2013 - 11:40 pm

      Great question, Katherine. And so involved that it deserves a post of its own, as I’m sure a lot of people will have this problem too. Watch this space…

  3. #5 by DRMarvello on March 3, 2013 - 2:58 pm

    When I first started writing I assumed I would have to do a lot of revision. When learning most things, you start off not knowing what you don’t know. As you learn more, you start to discover what you don’t know. Eventually, if you keep learning, you learn a lot of what you need to know. But then you still have to practice to get good at it.

    In retrospect, almost everything I have learned about writing so far has come through revision. Until I have a first draft, I can’t properly evaluate the story or identify my writing weaknesses. Just when I get a handle on adverbs, I discover that prepositional phrases are slowing down the pace. Or my dialog tags need trimming. It’s always something. I get the most out of writing books (including NYN) while I am revising.

    I try not to self-edit during the first draft and just focus on getting the story out. I do start with a beat sheet so I know where I’m going, but I create the scenes along the way as I need them (James Scott Bell calls this the “headlights” approach to writing–you have a destination in mind, but you plan ahead in detail only as far as you can see.) The second, third, and fourth drafts are when I evaluate what can be improved in the story and in my writing (with a lot of help from my beta readers and editor).

    But my revision process is not usually about cutting. It is about adding and twisting. I’ve mentioned before that I tend to write in “wire frame” and add detail later. An 85,000-word first draft can easily turn into a 100,000-word final draft. I tend to write “what” happens in the first draft and add “why” things happen during revision.

    I wouldn’t even consider publishing a first draft. I’m not that good yet, and don’t ever expect to be.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 3, 2013 - 11:46 pm

      Hello, hooded man! Trust you to come up with a contrary – and entirely logical – view. In fact your comment distils the journey of the apprentice writer – write a draft, discover there is a technical fault you need to expunge which sidetracks you, get back on track with the story, find another problem… Does it ever stop or do we keep finding points we can learn? Probably. We’re all apprentices to somebody in our writing journey. Thanks for the reminder that at some point, we’re all going to find there’s a writer we’ve read who has made us aware of our shortcomings.🙂
      Thanks for the homage to NYN, especially in the same breath as the excellent James Scott Bell. As to your point about adding in a draft, you’re definitely in the minority. Not quite a minority of 1, as I can think of some other writers who’ve said they have to add flesh with successive revisions. I like your idea of adding the ‘why’ with each go – and in fact I found the last revision of Life Form Three made it longer because I was delving into the context like that.

  4. #7 by mrdisvan on March 3, 2013 - 6:58 pm

    Novels these days frequently end up too long because authors mistakenly think they have to turn every event into a full scene. As you say, if there’s enough story to fill the pages, and if the pacing is right, there’s nothing wrong with novels as big as doorstops. Bleak House and War & Peace fairly crack along; thumping great Star Wars novels, not so much. Authors need to remember that the average reader may not be as obsessively interested in their world as they are, and that we rely on them to show the important parts and hide the development work. Few first drafts are not improved by a 20% trimming – in the case of modern genre works, make that 80%.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 3, 2013 - 11:54 pm

      Wise words, Mr Disvan. And you make an excellent point about how we must remember the reader. One of the things we understand with successive drafts is how the reader will approach our work – what they need to know and what they don’t need. In early drafts we can only cope with being the writer – inventing everything, understanding our characters and handling the setting and the plot threads. The more familiar we get with the book, the more we understand it and can start to see it as a reader does.
      And your 80% figure? Dear me, what have you been reading?

  5. #9 by Melanie Marttila on March 3, 2013 - 7:23 pm

    Cutting is creative. I like that. Seeing as I have some (more) cutting ahead of me I am totally getting on board with this one🙂

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 3, 2013 - 11:55 pm

      thanks, Melanie! I love this stage. I also love the fact that, deep into the process, I cut things I never imagined I would get rid of. It shows how my perception changes as I work with the novel.

  6. #11 by Robert on March 3, 2013 - 10:48 pm

    @mrdisvan “.. in the case of modern genre works, make that 80%.”

    This is sooo true. I have recently been reading some very well known top-selling fantasy novels for research (I wasn’t attracted to them initially even though I like the genre). My goodness, talk about having to work hard to get to anything that advances the story. Tolkien may have been wordy and descriptive but the story evolved on every page (IMO). Are these guys paid by the word or something? I always love buying and borrowing thick books, I read fast and often so it helps with pure consumption and entertainment but not if they are poorly paced – then it’s even more of an effort haha!

    Anyway, back on topic sort of; I’m only in first draft of first novel (@23k words so far), so I’m taking baby steps and have gotten past the “I’m writing crap” issue but I’m not looking forward to the revision process. I think a part of me will want to keep everything!

    I will certainly use a beat sheet and I think this will help – I am generally more logical than emotional, so “analysing” the overall pace and scene-advancements will probably convince me.

    I think I may have a tiny fear that once I’ve finished the first draft then I’m “spent” (to quote Austin Powers) and might not be able to produce any creative wonders in revision. I suppose that is the idea of taking a break … any ideas from those more experienced? (& Roz of course).

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

      Hi Robert! I realise there’s another good comment of yours that I need to reply to – don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I just need five minutes to do it justice!
      If you’re feeling wrung out by a book – and we all get to that stage – you definitely need a rest. It will work wonders. You don’t want to know how I felt about my books once I’d wrestled with them for long enough for them to run me ragged. Many times I got to the stage where I didn’t feel in charge of them, or able to take charge. But putting them aside made a huge difference. And I’ve got the finished works to testify to the recuperative value of a rest!
      So when you look at your ms again, will you want to keep everything? You may do at first. But once you start the analysis, I’m sure you’ll find things you want to change. Then it starts to snowball. Honestly!

      • #13 by Robert on March 4, 2013 - 12:29 am

        Thanks Roz – congrats on the book-signing too btw.

        I will steel myself to put it away for a bit too (and thanks for reinforcing that to Dave). I think it’s the excitement of completing a first draft (I’m not there obviously) that compels me to think “Oh I won’t put it to one side for a while, I’ll do it NOW!”.

        But I see that it will be well worth it … and a good time to start the next book😉

        You’ve been busy so I wasn’t expecting a reply to that previous comment – it was a bit indepth anway haha!

  7. #14 by Dave on March 3, 2013 - 11:27 pm

    Robert, the best advice I know is from Stephen King, who says you should leave the manuscript in a drawer for weeks or even months while you get on with researching or planning your next book. That way, when you pull the ms out for another look, you can read it with fresh eyes and (hopefully) renewed energy for the revision work. Roz may have even better tips, of course!

  8. #16 by Aldrea Alien on March 4, 2013 - 12:55 am

    Hmm, every time I revise, I make a work bigger, be it by a slight addition of 1-2k or something like my 28k work becoming 50k.
    Of course, that’s nothing like my first novel (a science fantasy), it started out at 135k and now, fifteen years after I first wrote it and many revisions later, it has jumped over the 200k mark. Granted it follows the life of the MC and his family for 34 years, but it’s still climbing … -_-

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 4, 2013 - 9:09 am

      Hi Aldrea! Gosh, this post is bringing out the longform aficionados. But fantasy is a genre where readers positively relish a huge saga – look at George RR Martin.

      • #18 by Robert on March 4, 2013 - 10:34 am

        Hey Roz – Martin is the “he who shall not be named” I was referring to in my first comment above. I tried reading Game Of Thrones and honestly could not continue, which is exceptionally rare for me.

        I have no idea what people see in it – I was excited to read thinking I’d get a good idea of how a current top-seller is put together …. I’d have to agree with all the one-star reviewers on Amazon. I love longform too …😦

        Now there’s a man who desperately needs to “cut” … err 80%. And read “Nail Your Novel”.

        Then again, he’s selling and I’m not😉

        • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 5, 2013 - 9:40 pm

          LOL, I’ve only encountered Game of Thrones in the TV version. I didn’t expect to like it but became addicted. Not sure I could wade through many fantasy novels, though – even slickly edited ones.

  9. #20 by Dan Vertrees on March 4, 2013 - 6:45 am

    So here I am – got 105,000 words and have had several beta readers who all seem to like the book. Problem is – I don’t particularly like the first part of the book. I have revised it a few times and it is better, but the rest of the thing is much better (for me anyway). Started the second novel and it is much tighter. Is it ever a good idea to find the place in the writing where you really start to like reading it. cut everything before it and rewrite? Oh yes, the second book is a continuation of first and there will be a third – otherwise it would be a 400K word novel –
    Thanks
    PS – have put in drawer for months while doing other things – that does help
    DRV

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 4, 2013 - 9:12 am

      Hi Dan! I think you’re talking yourself into a good solution here. I would do exactly as you’re suggesting – find the point where it starts to wake up, then rewrite everything up until there. It might help to try to rewrite the first part just from memory. You might find that if you have your original text in front of you it’s nagging you to put in extraneous back story or scene setting. But if you try to write it from memory you might get a much leaner version, with only what you need to make sense of the rest.

      • #22 by Dan Vertrees on March 5, 2013 - 4:25 am

        Hi back Roz – thanks for the timely response.I like that idea – also got your Nail book and like a couple of ideas in that I saw last night – one, the card thing will come in very handy and two, reviewing it scene by scene. I had a friend who did his editing by reading the work backwards. That way he avoided seeing what he meant instead of what he wrote.
        D

  10. #23 by acflory on March 4, 2013 - 8:18 am

    I’m not a very good seamstress, but to me, editing/cutting/restructuring are like the process a seamstress goes through after a garment is tacked together enough for someone to try on. That is when the garment is tailored to the person who will wear it – i.e. the reader. Does the waist need to be tighter? Is the hem too long? Does the bodice need darts?This second pass molds the garment to the body. Hand hemming, embroidery, sequins etc are cosmetic touches that make the whole garment ‘perfect’. And they always come last.

  11. #25 by JES on March 4, 2013 - 4:31 pm

    John Cleese did a talk on creativity (sure it’s on Youtube) in which he recalled misplacing a script he’d written — and loved. He was furious and panicky, but he had no choice other than to rewrite it from scratch. Sometime afterward he found the original, and was astonished at how much better the totally rewritten one had turned out: leaner, more pointed. (I can’t remember if it was a comedy script but if so, it was probably funnier, too.)

    I love that story.

    I do write long. Not staggeringly so, but the novel I’m most interested in selling right now is around 160K words. It assuredly needs a beat-sheet treatment. But part of my problem is probably microscopic as well as macroscopic: I tend to write in rather formal English, which tends to make for longer sentences to communicate ideas X, Y, and Z. I don’t do this in dialogue, at least — “just” (haha) in all the bits which fall between conversations.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 5, 2013 - 9:42 pm

      Brilliant story about Cleese, John. I’m sure I’ve heard of that happening to other writers too.
      As to your novel, does it need the beat sheet treatment because of the length or because you’re not sure it needs to be so long? Big difference…

      • #27 by JES on March 6, 2013 - 3:38 pm

        One thing about the “beat sheet treatment” goes unremarked, afaik: it’s good not just for improving the pacing/rhythm/structure of your novel; it’s good for simply reassuring you (the writer) that you’re in many respects just fine. That is, it makes the story’s STRENGTHS visible, as well as its weaknesses.

        I badly need reassurance like that, because I’ve worked so long on that book and hence don’t know if I can even get far enough away to evaluate it. Hence: the beat sheet, which turns that evaluation into something more objective than I can manage on my own.

        Does that make sense?

  12. #28 by Phil South on March 5, 2013 - 9:12 am

    Most people especially when they are starting out tend to lack the ruthlessness and killer instinct when it comes to cutting. Your point is well made about pacing, and I recommend your book to anyone who will listen🙂 but also I tell people that the extra weight is killing your story. You need to murder all those excess words for the good of your story, like a kind of life giving surgery. I say, if the excess weight in your book was bags of sugar tied to a rope and you were hanging off the edge of a cliff you’d cut them off then, wouldn’t you? Great piece, Roz.

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 5, 2013 - 9:44 pm

      Hi Phil – great to get a comment from you (and thanks for the nice words about my book)! You’re right about ruthlessness. When revising a manuscript you have to give it tough love. I want, above all else, the reader to be hooked. That spurs me to get more and more strict until the job’s done.

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