Journey to a Bestseller: Cutting your Novel Down to Size (Series #45)

Hi everyone. Have you written your first draft, finally gotten it complete, only to realize you have 200,000 words? You are not alone. There are many reasons to “cut” or “trim” your writing. It makes things clearer, stronger, more concise, and streamlines the information that the reader needs to know. And of course, word counts–everyone has a limit.

First, let’s talk about word count. How do you know what the right word count is for your book? Take a look at this cheat sheet:

Realistic MG
Sweet spot
Fantasy MG35-75K45-65K
Realistic YA40-90K45-75K
Fantasy YA50-100K65-85K
Realistic Adult70-110K80-90K
Adult Fantasy90-125K100-115K

*Depending on your genre and audience, you will need to stick to the guidelines. When you’re making your plan to cut things down, if you have a word limit, shoot for that.

Though there are a multitude of reasons to shear your book, first you need to know what to cut, and where to start. This may sound strange but, I suggest you start cutting big and start going backward. What? I know, it’s a little strange, but hear me out.

{1} You want to start by looking at your scenes as a whole. The reason is, you don’t want to meticulously and painfully edit every sentence in the book and then realize you’re going to cut four of those scenes anyway. It’s a waste of your time. So first find scenes that are “extra” and don’t advance the plot. (You’ll hear this a lot.) That’s the goal to keep in mind. Don’t know what your scenes are? Make an outline. The best thing is to outline first and craft your story around those bones. When you write from it, you don’t write “extra” scenes because you are getting from point A to point B and all your scenes are planned to advance the plot. But, if you’ve already written something and need to cut extra scenes, let’s talk about what to look for.

For more on writing a killer outline, click here.

1| Pacing. Have your beta readers said that your manuscript drags somewhere? Did an agent tell you that you have a pacing problem? Pacing is the speed of action in the flow of your story. If all your scenes are fight scenes, the reader never has a chance to breathe, to react–it’s all “Go! Go! Go!” all the time. That doesn’t work. The reader doesn’t relax until the character does, and keeping them in “fight or flight mode” for long periods of time, will tire them. Conversely, if your first five chapters are all descriptions of your world and characters and there is no action, you will lull your readers to sleep. There must be a mix of fast and slow paced scenes; action, then reaction, repeat.

At the beginning of your book, you will need to let the reader know what’s going on, but you don’t want to take too long before the action begins.

2| Keep your plotline in mind when you are cutting, and if there are scenes that build the world or the characters, but do not advance the plot, you may want to cut them out. BUT save those scenes in a new file of “trimmings” that you may be able to slip in later or break up the information and sprinkle it in where it’s needed.

3| One scene should easily flow to the next. When going from A to B, make the transition as smooth as possible. Some parts may need to be longer and some may need to be shorter. Also do a little research into chapter hooks and learn how to keep the reader from stopping at the end of the chapter.

For more on how I make chapter hooks, and lots more, click here.

4| Extra subplots. If your writing is muddled with subplots and you need to trim, make sure to only keep those subplots that are important and advance the story. Of course, to us authors, EVERY scene or subplot is important. Yeah, it might be. To you. But not to your readers. Save that subplot and use it to write a companion novella featuring the subplot.

5| If you have too many side characters, you may want to consolidate to two or three friends per character and choose the most meaningful conversations to keep.

It is also a good idea if you wrote without an outline, to list your scenes on paper (or in Word). Then I suggest looking at the story structure you like the best for this story. Of course, if it’s about a boy on a trip to fight evil and rescue something, you’re probably going to use the “Hero’s Journey” structure. So take your scene list and see how well your scenes fit within the structure’s points. Any of the scenes that don’t fit are “extra.” It’s not that you can’t have extra scenes, but we’re looking for ways to cut here.

For more on story structure, click here.

Free fiction writing template to help you outline your novel (Word, PDF,  Scrivener, Google Docs, Open Office) – Creativindie

{2} Next step, you need to take a look at your paragraphs.

1| Repetitive dialogue. Stating things the reader already knows. Trust your reader. You only need to say it once.

2| Meaningless or explanatory conversation. If the conversation has no meaning to the story, cut it. If one character is describing the scene for another, or describing what’s going on, use your language skills to tell us in a better way. You don’t want one character saying to the other, “Well, you know, Bob, since that job promotion fell through and Peggy’s having a baby, as you know, I might have to go to Chicago for that expensive specialist and gosh, we can’t afford that plus the new mortgage. Boy I sure hope there are no glitches with the car!” Guess what? I can already tell you there’s gonna be a glitch with the car. Probably on the way somewhere very important. That’s heavy-handed foreshadowing.

3| Overuse of dialogue tags. Not every sentence needs a tag. Mix in action tags as well, and leave some pieces of dialogue alone. As long as you have a tag every three or four lines, that’s fine. Now, if there are four people having a conversation, you will need more tags, but sprinkle in their actions to keep from saying, “he said, she said, he said, she said.”

*Also, use “said” whenever possible as a dialogue tag. You can also use asked, whispered, yelled. But not only is “said” considered a non-word, just about any other tag is considered an “action tag.”

For example:

“He isn’t coming home.” She sighed.

Do you see the period and following capital letter in the tag? That denotes an “action tag.” You can probably sigh a word, but you wouldn’t sigh this whole sentence. Therefore, the sigh is a one-time action that happens after she speaks. You can have her sigh beforehand, or even in the middle of the sentence, but in each instance, it is an action. The same goes for laugh, hurrumph, gasp, etc.

What’s a non-word? A non-word is a word that you don’t actually “read.” Your brain sees it and knows its meaning without ever having to think the word. Therefore, “said” keeps conversation flowing. When you pepper the dialogue with tags like exclaimed, joked, cried, declared, etc. the reader has to slow down and read those words with care. As a general rule, your editor wants you to use “said.”

For more on tags and a bunch of other cool wordy stuff, click here.

4| Purple Prose. Speaking in flowery words… Purple prose is overly wordy description.

For example:

She swiftly crossed the room, like a breeze floating over the floorboards, and lovingly ran her fingertips over the oak cabinet door, sanded smooth as silk, to pull the shiny brass knob, and opening it she found a multitude of peaches in glass jars that caught the light of the sun in an orange glow, throwing fractals around the dusty room.

There is way too much description going on here. You could keep a lot of the words, but it sounds better to say:

“She swiftly crossed the floor and opened the cabinet, to find jars of peaches that caught the sunlight and threw orange fractals around the dusty room.” Honestly, I’d probably reword the whole thing, but we’re talking about cutting what’s there. If you think of an even better way to say it, change the whole thing.

(It’s worth noting that if she’s supposed to be crossing the room swiftly, the sentences should portray that action. If the character starts seeing things in slo-mo, then you want to lengthen the sentences, and draw out the description. Never forget, you, the author, set the pace with your writing.)

{3} The last step is to edit your lines or sentences.

1| Look for long sentences. Just like with scenes, your sentences should vary in length and cadence (Same with paragraphs. Hit “enter” every once in awhile to break up overly long paragraphs.). If all your sentences are, “He did this. Then she did that. Then he did this. Then the thing did whatever.” You start to sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown. Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah. It gets boring. The reader craves variety.

2| Combine weak sentences. Are there sentences that tell us something was done or did happen? Make sure that your characters are currently in the action of doing something.

For example:

I want to know who her teacher is. / Who is Gillian’s teacher?

It was a perfect day with clouds that were like cotton candy in a sea-blue sky. / Cotton candy clouds floated in the sea-blue sky on a perfect day.

I was wondering if you finished it? / Did you finish the paper?

The boat was being made by Tom. The boards had been cut, the nails were hit, and he was finally polishing the bottom with boat oil, a trick his grandfather taught him when he was little. / Tom crafted the boat. He cut the boards and hit the nails, then oiled the bottom–a trick of his grandfather’s from Tom’s childhood.

–You don’t want static sentences, that aren’t actively moving the story along. Which is kind of like saying, keep an active voice. Don’t end sentences with “it” or use vague descriptors like, thing, something, it, that. Don’t use too many –ing words or “state of being” words like, be, being, was, were, is, am, are. Make the sentences fresh, active, specific, and be creative. Changing weak sentences will reduce your word count, and free up space for more and better content.

3| Look for anything repetitive: words, gestures, descriptions.

For example:

“I’m really very cold. It just started snowing and I’m a popsicle.”

The two sentences say the exact same thing. First take out the weak words and it would say, “I’m cold. It’s snowing and I’m a popsicle.

In this instance, taking out the weak words made it much easier. Do we really need to say, “I’m cold” when we’re already saying “I’m a popsicle”? Right. It’s unnecessary. Just delete and leave it as:

“It’s snowing and I’m a popsicle.”

Another example:

“Her really good china broke and she’s very angry. When they broke her very old china, it made her want to really lose her top.

*If you delete the weak words you get,

“Her good china broke and she’s angry. When they broke her old china, it made her want to lose her top.”

*Both sentences say the same thing. This is where you can be artful and deliberately creative in your wording. I’d try something like:

“Carla discovered her antique china broken, and was furious.”

(Notice, I skipped “lose her top” and went with the “very angry” which can be better said with a stronger word: “furious.” And I changed “very old” to “antique.”)



4| Cut weak words in your narrative. And the reason I specify the narrative is because people speak with weak words all the time–and cliches–that’s normal, but your narrative needs to be crisp. Weak words are easy to tell, because if you remove them, the sentence still makes sense. They are words like: suddenly, really, very, quite, only, seem, just, started, definitely, somehow, somewhat. That includes many of the adverbs–those -ly words–like: brightly, shakily, merrily, shockingly.

For example:

“He went for a run,” can be trimmed to, “He ran.”

“I really feel quite fine,” can be trimmed to say, “I feel fine.”

Now, that’s not always going to work, but if in your case it does, trim it down. We’re looking for ways to limit word count, right? This eliminated five. Not much, but they add up.

5| Speaking of cutting words you like, have you ever heard the quote, “kill your darlings, and not known what it meant? It means to cut words you love. I always thought it meant killing characters. And sometimes, that’s the case, but more than that it means sometimes you write the best, most descriptive, flowery paragraph, that is right in the middle of an action scene, and you have to cut it. You don’t want to, you really like that paragraph, it shows your writing chops. But “if it impedes the flow, it’s got to go.” Made that quote up myself.

That’s all I’ve got this week, but I do have some news. I got an R&R (revise and resubmit) from an imprint of Macmillan for our WIP, The Clockwork Pen. They were very helpful in their letter. I’m just really excited about what I’m writing at the moment and I want to finish it and pitch it first. I’ll put Clockwork Pen on the shelf, though and I have the option of resubmitting it, so I feel really good about it.

Until next week, keep writing!


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P.S. If you are one of the romance fans out there, I am participating in a Romance Reads sale here:

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