How to Trim Down Your Monster Manuscript

· A guide to cutting excess. ·

There is no shortage of jokes about writers.

Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

  1. Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

  1. Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book.  See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplas

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

  1. Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.

August 31, 2020

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