by Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer
Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long? 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 over100K 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 first before attempting to sell a really long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction needs 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 meandering writing style, tighten it up. Condense long descriptions and 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 & 15 of my book, Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.
In general, it’s best to 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 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 all or 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 add intrigue.
~ Delete most or all of any 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 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 just paint with broad brush strokes, and leave out all the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, and attitude of your point of view character.
~ Same with characters – 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 of 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 Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.
~ 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 Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.
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. Also, take out any other extra words that are cluttering up your sentences like “located”: Not: “The cafe was located on Main Street,” but: “The cafe was on Main Street.” And delete redundant add-ons like “in color,” “in size,” “in time,” and “in number.” Not, “The car was red in color” but “The car was red.” For more tips on streamlining your writing, see Chs. 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.
~ 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 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.
For more tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see Chapters 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.
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.”
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. Jodie publishes her craft-of-fiction articles here and on several other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services and her books, please visit her website.
Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.