by Jodie Renner, fiction editor and author of writing guides
Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long? Or maybe that it drags in places and needs tightening up? 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 before attempting to sell a really long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction need 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 of the tips that apply to your novel:
~ IF YOU HAVE A WORDY, MEANDERING WRITING STYLE, TIGHTEN IT UP. As you go along, condense long descriptions and lengthy, uninterrupted 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. See Chapters 9, 10, 11, 14, and 15 of my writing guide Fire up Your Fiction.
START WITH BIG CHANGES: CUTS 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? 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.
~ 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…”
~ Consider deleting 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 your first few pages or even all of 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 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 incite curiosity and add intrigue.
~ Delete (or revise) 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 don’t have enough tension or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense transitions scenes or parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) See my article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change" or Chapter 4 of my book, Writing a Killer Thriller.
~ Take out any weak links, remnants from earlier versions, stuff that just doesn’t fit there anymore (if it ever did).
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, we no longer need the kind of detail readers of 100 years ago needed to understand the setting, so it's usually better to just paint with broad brush strokes and leave out most of the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral (boring) language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, attitude, and mood of your point of view character.
~ Same with character descriptions – no need to go into great detail. Give the most obvious and interesting details, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content. See my article “Character Descriptions – Detailed or Sketchy?”
~ Don’t repeat info. Don't have a character relating the details to 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, or through a lively conversation or heated argument. See Chapter 8 of Fire up Your Fiction.
~ 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. For more on this, see Chapter 9 of Fire up Your Fiction.
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!
~ 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. Wherever you have "and then," use one or the other, not both.
~ For better flow, condense prepositional phrases: Change “the captain of the team” to “the team captain”; change “in the vicinity of” to “near,” etc. For more, see Chs. 14 and 15 of Fire up Your Fiction.
For more tips, with examples, for tightening your writing, see "Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing."
Copyright Jodie Renner, 2013
For more tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see Chapters 14 and 15 of Fire up Your Fiction.
Writers – Do you have any other ideas for reducing your word count?
Also, see my articles, “How to Save a Bundle on Editing Costs” and “Honing Your Craft.”
For many more valuable tips, with examples, for writing compelling fiction, check out Jodie Renner's award-winning fiction-writing guides, Writing a Killer Thriller, Fire up Your Fiction, and Captivate Your Readers, available at all Amazon sites and elsewhere. For Amazon, click on the links below.
For information on Jodie's editorial services, visit JodieRenner.com.