Tag Archives: Word-length

The re-write is complete


Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.


The continuing importance of editing

I’m under 150,000 words now on the continuing project to bring my manuscript down to a publishable size. Given that the upper limits (especially for an unpublished author) are in the 130 – 140k range I still have some work ahead of me, but I feel it’s going well.

Most of the words cut so far came from some major changes:

I cut a character. In one sense he was minor, but I had a plan to develop him much further later in the story. When some of that got chopped he became even less significant in his earlier scenes, and so, brutally, I cut him. Not an early death… he never existed.

I have restructured the opening chapters. Originally they were all weighing in between 3 and 4 thousand words and most had more than one narrative POV, so I changed the structure of the chapters to have each be a single narrative POV. They’re shorter, punchier and arranged so that there is a more logical flow. I think it has done wonders for my pacing and has  also removed the last vestiges of their being a really clear dominant POV character, so that now several POV characters each progress the narrative and each give us insights into the events from their own perspective.

I also restructured the plot in the opening, partly to facilitate the narrative changes, and partly to streamline the plot. In one chapter in particular the various changes I had made over time had caused a great deal of confusion. This chapter was (and is) a crucial nexus for the characters and I think it now does a better job of drawing the threads together and scattering them, where before it just drew them in and left me with an ugly tangled mess.

So the process is a positive one. I have lost a lot of words to the cutting-room floor and many of these I believe were quite good ones. I’ve lost scenes I liked, because they no longer were needed, or no longer made sense. I’ve lost some nice prose, some sharp dialogue, some insights into the characters and how they maintain themselves in the world… but in return I’ve got a leaner, fitter plot, I have thinned out some of the exposition chunks into a nice exposition stew (there’s a better metaphor for that I’m sure. Perhaps I’m hungry? Certainly I’m tired).

So I need to cut at least another 10,000 or so, possible 15,000, and I’ve made the major changes. I’m back to the start and going through, chapter by chapter, finding superfluity and error. It’s difficult and at times tedious, but it’s necessary and ultimately a very positive thing. Today I cut 750 words from a chapter. That’s probably a higher than average edit.

If I can cut 500 words from every chapter by this process I’ll get to the end of the book having carved out another 17,000 words or so, and I’ll be right on target!

The revisions continue…

I’m struggling to find an appropriate metric to evaluate my progress on this project at the moment, so let’s just deal with raw figures.

I have 93 pages of completed (revised) manuscript. Currently that equates to about 30,000 words (I’m being really rough here).

The total word-count on the document is 197,698 words. That means I only have 167,698 ish words to revise in the next five weeks (when Genrecon arrives).

That’s the road ahead. The road behind though is a little more encouraging: that 197,698 figure is down from 240,141. If my maths is not mistaken (by which I mean my ability to operate the calculator app on my phone) I’ve cut 42,443 words. That’s a good chunk of writing gone. The original Word page count was 766. Now it’s 638. I’ve cut out 128 A4 pages of 12 point Times New Roman.

It also means that of the (approximately) 75,000 words I’ve reviewed through this process 56.6% of them are gone. More than half! In a way that’s liberating, but in another way it’s terrifying. Yet I have faith in the process. I must have faith in the process.

This manuscript was flabby and lazy. For year it had built up its corpulence until it was too sluggish and stubborn to fight back, but now I’ve come to whip it in to shape and by November I want it mean, lean and undeniably impressive!

Five weeks. 167,000 words. 545 pages.

*cue ‘Gonna Fly Now

Challenge accepted.


Fears, Neuroses and word-count

I am at the point where I am sitting on what I believe to be a pretty good query letter and I really need to send it out. I’ve researched an agent. I’ve made it clear that this query is specific and targeted for a reason – not some generic mail-out. I’m ready to go… and yet I’m not going.

Ultimately the reason for this is a sense of internal neurosis. I’m pitching to an agent at the very highest end of the business, so I’ve basically talked myself into accepting the query will fail. While high expectations often suck because they just set you up for the fall, the converse also sucks, because it’s not even sent yet and I’m already dealing with the symptoms of rejection.

The consequences of this are manifold.

  • I want to go back and re-write the first three chapters of the book. Again. For the un-knowable-illionth time. And I’m not just talking about tweaking the prose. I’m talking full re-tooling rewrite. This serves no purpose but grows from a fear that it’s not good enough.
  • I am obsessing over whether my three page synopsis in double space font would be more acceptable as two pages single-spaced, or maybe I should split the difference and go 1.5 spacing and trim some material to get it to two pages. This from a synopsis that’s already so lean I worry that I haven’t cut through the suet and into flesh.
  •  I fear that the wrong font / type-setting / format will get my query (submission) discarded out of hand as the obvious work of a rank amateur. This fear exists despite my repeated and detailed referencing of the relevant style and submission guidelines.

Mostly though my fear is that all this effort will be for nought because of a single sentence which I cannot change:

“It is complete at 241,000 words”

To put that in perspective the generally accepted length for a novel (particularly from a first-timer) is 80,000 – 100,000.

To put it in a different perspective I’ve cut that down from over 300,000 – so it’s not a case of failing to edit. I cut it by nearly 20% to get to this point. To cut further would require cutting out characters, scenes, perhaps whole narrative arcs. The flow-on editing from which would be enormous.

I’ve borrowed from the hard work of some fellow bloggers to compare my manuscript with some published novels:

By Nicole Humphrey Cook’s count mine would be the second longest of the Harry Potter novels, and longer than any of the Lord of the Rings. In fact it would be more than half the length of the total Lord of the Rings word-count.

At National Novel Writing Month there’s a list that shows my manuscript would outweigh those of Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky, be nearly half of ‘War and Peace’ and about a third of the Bible (Old and New testaments).

So is my manuscript too long? Colleen Lindsay at ‘The Swivet’ says it almost certainly is. She’s a former agent so she should know, and while she deals more predominantly in YA (which I don’t believe is the best target market for my writing) her points are well worth considering.

Have I written a long novel just for its own sake because I am used to seeing big Fantasy novels? I can’t rule that out, but I’d like to think not though: I’d like to think I have written a story and that I have used precisely as many words were required to tell it.

Is it long because I am just not a very good writer, and I need to pare it down to its essentials? Again I would be irresponsible to rule this out, but I have cut it back quite heavily already, and further cuts will change the structure completely. Perhaps this is what needs to happen. Perhaps I’m looking at something I consider beautiful and others are seeing something lumpen and fat? I have given the manuscript out to several readers: Two family members who are readers of the genre, a friend – likewise, a former classmate from my days studying writing at uni. None have come back with feedback that it needs cutting. I’m trying one more reader though. One I know won’t be afraid to be honest and critical, so perhaps that will answer the question for me.

Of course I could be the exception. Lindsay mentions Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ – a debut at 240,000 words – so it does happen. Why could it not happen for me? If the material is good enough, should word-count be an automatic deal-breaker?

Her final advice is to keep it below 120,000, even if that means splitting it in two. This mirrors advice I got from another critical friend as I was work-shopping my query letter. So perhaps the answer is in front of me all this time… find a cliff-hanger somewhere in the middle of the novel and split it in two.

I think though that that decision will wait for another day. In truth what I really need to do is stop worrying, stop playing out every scenario in my head, and start acting. Even getting further publishing credits will help if I’m seen as an established writer rather than an utter debutant.

The query is ready, and waiting… time really that it was sent.

Stay tuned.