5 What-To-Dos When Your Novel Is Too Long

1st draft of high fantasy novel. 200,000 words = NO

 We novelists slam headfirst into this particular wall all the time: Finish first draft, sit back with sigh of contentment. Languidly reach for mouse or mousepad, click “wordcount” in the dropdown menu of whatever word processor suits our fancy.

Sit back once more. This time with the horrid sensation of paralyzing shock.

As far as we’re concerned, the story is finished. It is complete as is. Major alterations would destroy the beautiful statue we’ve worked so long to carve out of that rough-edged block of marble called Idea.

But the wordcount generator tells us the awful truth: Our manuscript is 10,000…30,000…50,000 (…100,000? *ahem*) words too long. In today’s economy and with the ever tightening belts in the publishing industry, there no way anybody’s gonna publish this behemoth until we trim the fat.

“But,” we wail, “the story is what it is! How are we supposed to trim anything when there’s nothing to trim?”

Nobody said it would be easy. Writing the story wasn’t easy; trimming it won’t be, either. But here are a few suggestions that will at least get the process started.

5 Ways To Trim Your Novel’s Wordcount

1. Change your thinking
Here are the sad, unavoidable facts of reality, my dears: First drafts are drafts. They are not the be-all, end-all of noveling. Finishing a first draft is a great accomplishment, for certain — but the work doesn’t stop there.

That lovely statue I mentioned before? It’s got rough edges that you’ve overlooked (on purpose). It’s got odd lumps in peculiar places. Its face isn’t nearly as well-defined as it could be. When you type “The End,” the story might feel finished, and it might feel perfect. I hate to break it to you, but it is neither.

When we writers finish a first draft, our story needs us to work on it some more. The sooner we wrap our minds around this fact, the sooner we can start getting that wordcount down to something manageable.

2. Get beta readers.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You gotta get you beta readers. We writers are chronically unable to view our work objectively — especially when it comes to trimming it down! Forest-For-the-Trees Syndrome strikes again.

You can’t see the forest of Necessary Trimming, because you’ve got your writerly nose shoved up against the bark of the nearest tree. And that, sadly, is where the writerly nose generally stays from start to finish. We need somebody outside to look at our story and identify excess branches and superfluous shrubbery.

Writing can be lonely work, but we can’t do it alone. That’s a paradox I’ll save for another post…but maybe you get the picture anyway.

3. Edit for simplicity.
I grew up in Germany and went to German schools. Do you know anything about the German language? Without turning this into a grammar lesson, I’ll tell you this: One of the peculiarities of German is that the verb often comes at the end of the sentence. The result of this can be (and often is) long, convoluted sentences nested within more long, convoluted sentences. By the time you get to the action verb, you’ve forgotten who was doing the action and why — so you have to go back and re-read the whole paragraph.

And that’s the main language I was taught to write it. Did I develop some tenacious sentence-nesting habits? You bet yer patootie I did.

I had to break that habit. I had to simplify. I had to break up long sentences into two or three sentences. I had to replace flowery phrasing with straightforward description. I had to choose simple action verbs over the ones that sounded high-falutin’.

Simplify. I promise, your story will thank you — and your readers will too.

4. Get rid of adverbs.
Okay, brief grammar lesson this time. And yes, I am keeping this very simple, and my explanation here is not complete. But I don’t want to put people to sleep, so the purists are gonna have to deal with the incompleteness of my instruction.

Adjectives describe nouns. Blue, hot, solid, wet, and shiny are adjectives.

Adverbs describe verbs. In point #2, I used the phrase “view objectively.” Here, “objectively” describes the how of “view.” Other examples of adverbs are: lustily, happily, worriedly, and sideways.

“I got a new bike for my birthday!” she said happily.

Okay, so she said it “happily.” What does that look like on her? Don’t tell me she said it happily; instead, tell me that her eyes are wide, her smile is huge, and her teeth glisten in the sunlight like tiny bottlecaps.

Yes! Make it a hideous description, if that’s what it takes. I’ll read anything, just get rid of that clunky, boring, milquetoast adverb!

“But wait,” you say. “Wouldn’t adding description actually increase my wordcount?”

Well, yeah. Probably. But adverbs weaken your sentences, and overusing them will make your novel unreadable. I’m picking on adverbs because they’re a bad habit and because this is my list and I can.

5. When all else fails, re-write.
This one’s kind of self-explanatory. If you’ve trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, and the novel is still too long, it might be time for a complete re-write.

Yeah, I know. I hate even thinking those words, much less typing them and putting them where people can see. But sometimes, it’s the only choice we have. Maybe the story took off in the wrong direction in Chapter 2. Maybe there’s a side character who needs to be cut. Maybe there’s a side character who’s supposed to be the main character. Maybe the climax should’ve happened five chapters before it did.

Whatever it is, a re-write might fix it — and fix it well enough that your wordcount “magically” decreases (ahhhh, adverbs) by whatever percentage you require.

So, there are my five ideas for trimming the fat!

What do you do when your novel’s too long?

Care to challenge me on the adverb thing? Let’s talk!

6 thoughts on “5 What-To-Dos When Your Novel Is Too Long

  1. Aaron Pogue says:

    I would never challenge you on the adverb thing.

    I’ve got something to throw into the discussion, though! In the novel-writing course I’m taking, we’ve spent the last week talking about subplots (of which my professor is a fan).

    She strongly recommends knowing your subplots — not just giving yourself license to write them, but keeping track of them all. Charting them, if necessary.

    And every subplot should fall into a hierarchy. Your protagonist’s biggest story question is the highest level of the pyramid. If your protagonist has an inner arc of change, that will almost always be the second subplot. If your antagonist has viewpoint scenes, the antagonist’s story will usually be the third, and then on and on in decreasing order of character or event importance.

    The big benefit of knowing your hierarchy, she mentioned yesterday, is that when your editor comes back to you and says, “Cut 20,000 words out of this manuscript,” you know exactly where to start. Go straight to the lowest-level subplot, and start unweaving it from the tapestry of your story. Keep working your way up from the bottom, until you hit your target.

    Sounds awfully easy the way she describes it, but I’ve got my doubts it’s quite so simple in practice.

    • Aaron, I know you would never challenge me on the adverb thing. 😀

      And thanks for adding the subplot thing to the discussion! I agree, it sounds simpler than it likely would be in practice…but on the other hand, I bet approaching it from this angle would still be less complicated than facing a gargantuan manuscript and having no idea how to start cutting it down! Knowing that one could take it one low-level subplot at a time would eliminate much of the intimidation factor.

      So, my question to you is: How does this subplot thing change what you recommend for pre-writing?

  2. Keith Davis says:

    Hi Courtney
    I’d go with number 4 – ” Get rid of adverbs.”

    In his book “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”
    William Zinsser has a few things to say about Adverbs…

    “Most adverbs are unnecessary.
    Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly – blare connotes loudness.
    Don’t tell us that he clenched his teeth tightly – there is no other way to clench teeth.
    The same applies to effortlessly easy, slightly spartan, totally flabbergasted.
    Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the winning athlete grinned widely.”

    Looks as thogh Mr Zinsser goes along with number 4. LOL

    • Ah yes, Mr. Zinsser. I haven’t read him in a long time, but I do remember him fondly — and well. Back when I first read his On Writing Well, I was still possessed of that youthful arrogance that said I knew better than the experts. So when he said “most adverbs are unnecessary,” I thought he meant everyone’s adverbs but mine!

      I didn’t start getting over myself until an honest beta reader told me, “You need to cut your adverbs. They’re making your story look and feel cluttered.”

      Ouch. But oh so true. ; )

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Keith! (Sorry I don’t have a video for you, yet.) 😉

  3. Keith Davis says:

    What, no video!
    Plenty of time.
    With writing skills like yours, the videos can wait.

    Variety is the spice of life.


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