As we writers know, some publishers set an upper limit for fiction submissions. There are several valid reasons for this. The limit can vary from 50,000 to 100,000. Rarely do they want in excess of 100,000. Yes, there are exceptions, though I haven’t found any when searching on my wife’s behalf for her 150,000 romantic suspense novel.
So how do you clip off those extra words, expunge all that precious prose?
Here are ten suggestions:
1. Break the novel into two books. This will only work if the plot and flow of the story permits. The ideal point to break would be where the protagonist encounters a serious obstacle that seems insurmountable. Not the final black moment, but similar. So end on a cliff-hanger. That will inevitably require some rewriting. If you’ve captured the reader for the first ‘half’, then ending in this way is likely to entice the reader to seek out the follow-up.
Some books previously published were chopped up into smaller units because of their size – notably The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – that ended up as a trilogy (to be followed by others!) Edgar Rice Burroughs ended on a cliff-hanger at the close of The Warlord of Mars, the second in what amounted to a trilogy. Dickens did it all the time with the magazine versions of his novels: leave the reader wanting more. But not all books lend themselves to this kind of surgery.
Be ruthless. Yes, a good author should ruthlessly edit anyway. But many just tend to tinker rather than excise. Follow these suggestions and cut, cut and cut; put the manuscript away for a while, come back to it with fresh eyes and then cut, cut and cut again.
2. Is every scene doing something to add to the plot or increase our understanding of the characters, or move the story forward? If the scene does none of those things, why is it there?
3. Is all that research that you’ve infodumped really necessary? Can it be condensed without losing the salient points in order to aid the story?
4. Repetition. Time and again I read where the same sentence or two is repeated, though using different words; the sense is the same, twice. Combine, or excise. Same goes for whole paragraphs.
5. Too many characters. This is a tough one. It depends on the type of story, naturally. A saga, or the first in a series, might contain a good number of characters. But do they all do enough to justify being there? Some need to be sounding boards, perhaps, for the main characters; others need to be there so they can meet a grisly demise that will signpost the threat to the protagonist. Fine.
Compare the screenplay of a novel; you’ll notice that some characters have been dropped, while in other cases two or more have been fused into one. (Yes, this is to save on actors’ pay, but it’s also to make the story less complicated). All your characters have to work or they don’t belong; in which case, send them to another work in progress.
6. Description. I believe description is necessary to put the reader into the scene. Admittedly, there are authors – and readers – who are happy with minimalist description; or none at all, relying on neat character-filled dialogue. That works, when done well. Though my argument is, it’s a novel that rattles in the reader’s head, not a radio play. Still, there can be too much description. Is all the description through a character’s eyes? Or is it imposed by the author? If you’re writing omniscient POV, then the description may tend to be too rich. If it’s character POV description, keep it tight and relevant, to create mood, foreshadowing or a sense of place and character.
7. Dialogue. Some characters can become irksome, running off at the mouth without let up. These folk need reining in. Does what they say have relevance to the story, to the forward movement of the plot? Occasionally, you can get away with ‘one sugar or two, Vicar?’ when the mood’s appropriate, but be ruthless where possible. Dialogue also falls into the repetition trap – beware, and if found, cut!
8. Scene shifts. Scriptwriting gets round much of the tedious bits by scene shifting. Do the same – unless it’s necessary, do you have to relate how your characters get to the next scene? Start the scene with them there.
9. Conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story. The conflict doesn’t have to be physical. It can be verbal, psychological, or even caused by the environment. Some scriptwriters arrive at the conflict slowly, letting us get to know the individuals first. That’s fine. But you’ll grab your reader faster and more firmly if you begin with the conflict and then get to know the characters through their actions. Cut the lead up to the conflict – go for the jugular straight away.
10. Tangent. If you don’t watch them, characters can go off at a tangent and take the plot with them. It’s interesting as you go, but is it necessary to the story’s main flow? Yes, you need sub-plots, but you can have too many of them. Be ruthless with the sub-plots and leave them only if they serve a purpose.
Finally, don’t discard. That might sound contrary, considering the purpose outlined. If you’re going to excise vast chunks of prose, that’s good. But cut and paste these chunks and save them elsewhere in another document. You never know, some or all of them may prove useful at a later date in another work in progress. If nothing else, it doesn’t seem as if you’ve entirely wasted your time on all that prose! [Whenever I decide to edit, I always start with a new copy, so I’ve always got the earlier version, in case I have an aberration and go too far!] Remember too that the time spent on those words wasn’t wasted; the simple action of writing improves your style every time, every day.
Of course, if you have a plot-plan and stick to it and monitor your word-count as you work, you’re less likely to exceed by too much that upper limit. I would estimate that 5,000 words over isn’t going to be frowned upon.
Truth is, you can always add more; the obverse is also true, you can always cut more.
Nowadays, of course, if you feel you cannot cut your prose to meet the upper limit of a publisher, you can always resort to self-publishing at reasonable cost – though bear in mind that usually every extra page of your masterwork will cost more in production and postage.
In my book Write a Western in 30 Days I discuss infodumping, plot-plans, conflict, description and character building.
On Amazon.com this book has eight 5-star reviews and two 4-star reviews; on Amazon.co.uk it has an additional three 5-star reviews.
This book is a very useful guide for anyone wanting to write genre fiction – that is, any genre, not only westerns. Those aren’t my words, but the opinion of reviewers on Amazon.
E-book from Amazon co uk bought from here
or paperback post-free world-wide from here