Monday, June 20, 2011

The Long And Short Of It

Most writers know that a typical novel is around 95’000 words. We also know that most publishers will not accept novels longer than 100’000 words. These guidelines are helpful. They give us a goal to work toward and help us avoid going over the usual word count. If you’re an author that has no difficulty with this, and your work general falls neatly into this range, it works out great. But how do authors stick to word counts if they have a tendency to be longwinded? Or how does an author expand their work when their finished product is not much longer than a novella? What if you’re the short and sweet kind of writer who cuts right to the chase and now you need some extra material to fill in the gaps and expand your finished product?

Don’t despair. It’s possible to fix this dilemma. All writers have struggled with this problem to some degree. In this post we will look a few simple tips that will help to cut down the word count to fit requirements of the publishing industry. Then, in the next post we will look at adding to the requirement in a variety of ways.

So for all you writers that produce work that editors can barely lift, and if knocked from a bookshelf could render someone unconscious, let me give you what I call the four unnecessaries.

Four Unnecessaries in Writing

1) Unnecessary Characters:
We all know them. They often are there for humor, or sometimes as foils or friends. But when we’re trying to cut word count sometimes our darlings have to go. If they don’t push the plot forward and are only in a few scenes, they can be cut. But take heart, they can always be put into later novels, maybe even as the main character, and if not that, their good lines of dialogue can be given to your current main character.

2) Unnecessary Scenes:
So you’ve deleted some non-essential character’s role in the story, now what? The next thing to go on the cutting room floor is scenes. Here’s an example. Say your lead couple decide to go on a trip to Europe and you have several scenes which involve their packing for the trip, getting plane tickets, etc. Now these scenes may be some of the most well written in the story, and they might have some of the greatest one liners. But they don’t pull the story forward one bit. What I suggest doing for these scenes is copying and pasting them on another document to save the writing and one liners. You might be able to be add them in later. Once your MS is clear of those scenes, check your word count.

3) Unnecessary Subplots:
These may or may not involve those secondary characters you‘ve already cut. If they do, then perhaps this step has already been covered. If not, then there may be more trimming to do. If one sub plot can be deleted to add emphasis to another, then cut it. I’m not saying to write a bare bones story without any subplots. But if you have a plethora, and are struggling with word count, cutting one or two may be better for your story.

4) Unnecessary Words:
At a writer’s conference I attended last year, I was privileged to listen to Jerry Jenkins speak on what he calls, “Thick Skinned Critiquing.” In this workshop he covered this topic in depth. Although I won’t be able to go into detail on everything he said here are a few tips I have found helpful.
1) Delete the words “up” and “down.” For example “Mary sat down on the couch.” If she sat we assume she sat down so we don’t need to say it.
2) Don’t tell what’s not happening. For example. “the crowd never got quiet,” or “she said nothing.” If we don’t see her saying anything then we can assume she didn’t.
3) Only use single adjectives. For instance, its not necessary to say “the blue aquamarine water.” Single descriptive words are actually more powerful.
4) Avoid “on the nose writing.” This is writing that mirrors real life. It can apply to both words and scenes. For example, since we’ve all driven in a car, we don’t need to go overboard on describing it. This sort of writing can very easily bore the reader.

These four unnecessaries might be just what it takes to shorten your novel. Go through your work and look for the above items. Some things may need to be added back in and then some may be better left out. Sharpening your pencil will make your novel into a crisper piece of fiction. It will also help you come closer to your dream of being published.

What ways do you use to shorten your work if it needs it? Pass on your tips so we can all benefit.

Happy writing--


Katie Ganshert said...

Great tips, Amanda! These are all things I do when I've gone over in my word count. :)

Tracy Krauss said...

Excellent! I had to do this very thing with my novel MY MOTHER THE MAN-EATER. I deleted an entire sub-plot along with several characters to make it an acceptable length.