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Posts Tagged how to cut a novel
What is too long?
In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.
Too long for who?
You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.
So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.
1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.
2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)
3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.
4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?
5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?
6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.
7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)
NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)
Back to important matters….
Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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I 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.
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.
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?
- 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
- 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
- – 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.
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.
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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- 9 tips to nail dialogue – guest post at Ingram Spark July 8, 2019
- The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending June 20, 2019
- Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives May 23, 2019
- Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast May 12, 2019
- ‘Something elusively wistful’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Gwendolyn Womack April 28, 2019
- On interrupting the story for your brilliant philosophical ideas April 22, 2019
- Write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions – guest post at The Creative Penn April 5, 2019