This is not a post for the writers who have trouble writing books that aren’t long enough. This is not a post for writers who say they’re going to write a short story and actually end up writing a short story. Nope, this is a post for writers who set out to write a nice little 100,000-word novel–and find themselves at the finish line with a 200,000-word behemoth on their hands.
Sound painfully familiar? Then this post is for you.
(And for those of you with the opposite problem of too-short word counts, this is post for you.)
An Adventure in Lengthy Word Count
That writer I was describing up there in the opening paragraph–the one who started out with a goal of writing a 100k-word novel and ending up with a 200k-word manuscript? Yep, totally me.
My historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer ended up being, by far, the longest first draft I’ve ever written. One hundred thousand words is my standard goal, although my medieval epic Behold the Dawn is the only book to ever end up right on the number’s nose. It’s a good length for most genres, a manageable time commitment for editing, and a reasonable size-for-the-price when it comes time to print paperbacks.
When I hit 100k at Wayfarer‘s Midpoint, I started to panic. What in tarnation was happening here? The book had the same number of scenes as in my reasonably-sized historical/dieselpunk adventure Storming, and yet it was huge. (That’s what I get for writing a Dickens-inspired fantasy.)
Ideally, stories should dictate their own length. Some stories need to be long. Others will say what they need to say in far fewer than 100k words. But that just because a story’s first draft turns out long doesn’t mean it’s meant to be that long.
My goal in my first revision of Wayfarer was to see what I could do to whack that unruly word count into shape, without, of course, taking anything away from the story. These are the methods I used, and the methods you can use to trim your book’s word count and create a story that’s all the tighter and more powerful for losing a few pounds.
Set Your Word Count Goals
Never dive into an edit, flailing blindly. Know your goals and break them down into still smaller goals you can actually get your head around. Here’s how.
1. Divide Word Count by Quarters
Start by considering your story’s structure. Ideally, you want your First Act, First Half of the Second Act, Second Half of the Second Act, and Third Act to each be a quarter of the book. The timing doesn’t have to work out perfectly, but examining the respective word counts of each act can help you identify which section is most bloated.
For me, it was the Second Act that got decidedly out of hand, as you can see from this Scrivener screen clipping:
(And, by the way, I know you’re going to ask, so I’m just going to tell you: there is no way to get the word count to automatically show up in Scrivener’s Binder. You have to type it into the file name by hand. You can, however, add word count as a meta-data entry in the Outline view.)
2. Estimate Average Chapter Goals
Once you know how many words you need to trim from each quarter in order to reach your overall goal, break that down chapter by chapter. For example, according to my calculations, I knew I would need to trim more from each chapter in the Second Act than either the First or the Third:
3. Estimate Average Word Removal Goal per Sentence
This is a little trickier, but you can further break down the goal by estimating how many sentences are in each chapter. Run a Find/Replace for periods in your manuscript. Give or take, you can figure this is how many sentences you have in your story. Divide those sentences by the number of chapters. Then divide that number into your word-count goal for each chapter.
To be honest, I think I fudged this one a bit, but I came up with the goal of trying to cut at least four words from each sentence:
Obviously, the four-words-per-sentence goal needs to be entirely flexible. Not every sentence will have four words! But it’s a good number to have in your head as you examine the worth of each word choice (more on that next week, when we talk micro-editing ).
How to Trim Your Book’s Word Count: On the Macro Level
In any type of edit, but especially a word-trimming one, you always want to start with the big picture. There’s no point in obsessing about word choice if your story has whole scenes and whole subplots you can axe.
Now, I will say that, for better or worse, I made zero macro word cuts on Wayfarer. The advantage of entering a first draft with a solid outline and structure is that you don’t have many major changes to make when editing. The disadvantage, of course, is that when it comes to word count, this means there isn’t much that can logically be sacrificed without harming the story.
However, since I got to enjoy this very fun (joking, joking!) experience way back when editing my portal fantasy Dreamlander, today I’ll be sharing these five tried-and-true methods for eliminating whole chunks of your story.
1. Examine Your Subplots
In every phase of the macro edit, you’re looking for anything extraneous you can pull from the story without changing the main plot. A good subplot will be so integrally woven within the conflict and theme of the main plot that it will be inextricable. But it’s easy to write not-so-good subplots that really aren’t adding as much as you think to the story.
Get ruthless with yourself and examine each of your subplots. If you killed any of these darlings, would it endanger the integrity and value of your main story? Be honest–because if you can start cutting subplots, you’ll see a major drop in your overall word count.
2. Examine Characters
Extraneous characters and extraneous subplots go hand in hand. Find one and you’ll probably find the other. Cutting unnecessary characters–or combining them with other characters–will help you eliminate whole reams of unnecessary description, narrative, and dialogue.
3. Examine Scenes
Every scene in your story should matter. If you can pull a scene without its affecting the causal logic or emotional flow of the story, then, by all means, pull it.
Take the time to deliberately look at each scene in your story. Do they each follow proper scene structure (which, by itself, should guarantee integrality)? Do they each contribute something that advances the plot? If you pulled any one of them, would the story still work?
Rate each scene’s importance:
0 for “Useless”
1 for “Just There”
2 for “Vital”
Chop the zeros, combine the ones, and keep the twos.
4. Examine Sequels
Same goes for your sequel scenes–the reaction half of the scene structure. These are every bit as important to the logical cause and effect of your story, but they can often be culprits of unnecessary bloating. Look for sequel scenes in which your characters just sit around talking, reflecting, or thinking. Some of these may be necessary, but often, you can take advantage of their mediocrity to slice off some nice word chunks.
5. Look for “Explanation” Scenes
In the same vein, hunt down “explanation” scenes, in which characters are doing nothing more than explaining things to one another. Fantasy novels are often guilty of this. Do not (let me say that again: do not!) spare your word-cutting knife from any scene in which your characters decide to “pass the time” by info-dumping about the setting, the conflict, or themselves.
These five methods for macro editing your story will not only help you whip your word count into shape, they will also help you craft a story that is stronger on every level. Be sure to stop back again next Monday for Part 2 and learn how to knock even more words (40,000, in Wayfarer‘s case) by trimming your book’s word count on the micro level.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s your favorite method for how to trim your book’s word count on the macro level? Tell me in the comments!
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