Friday, October 6, 2017

Hacking Away at Your Word Count

by Linda Thorne

If you’re an author who has ever entered a writing contest, you’ve been subjected to maximum word count requirements. I found this to be the norm in contests asking for part or all of a work-in-progress novel and in every short story contest I ever entered.

It’s amazing how you can reduce those words. I’ve managed to take a 3500 word short story and reduce it to 1000. I’m not saying the story was the better for it, but it can still be done without sacrificing the story.

My first book, Just Another Termination, started off at 120,000 words. It was awful. So much needed cut. I cut a couple of non-essential characters and their roles, but there was more fat to trim. I had too much detail on how some events came about. I described how my character and her husband moved from LA to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and gave information about her husband moving there first, where he stayed until he found a house to buy, and then my protagonist joining. Yuck! Those three pages of information dump turned into a two sentence summary blurb. That’s all that was necessary. When my book finally got published it was closer to 80,000 words.

I’ve heard that the current preferred length for mystery, thrillers, and romance is 70,000 to 90,000 words; although I personally consider 90,000 high. My debut novel is close to 80,000 and I would have liked to have reduced it to about 75,000 words, but I gave up on that.

Things I’ve done to reduce word count:
  • Drop one of the subplots. I had too many in the first draft of my first book. I’m currently working on my second in the series and hoping I don’t have to drop any subplots. I won’t know until I’m finished.
  • Get rid of a few characters. I had to eliminate a couple of characters in Just Another Termination and hated it. I may have one too many in my current work-in-progress, A Promotion to Die For. I don’t know yet.
  • I know you are supposed to take out back story in the beginning and trickle it throughout. I’m not sure I can do that in A Promotion to Die For, as so much back story is needed for a murder 29 years in the past that’s brought to the present. Critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Susan Isaacs wrote a book called, Lily White, where each chapter was either in the present time or in the past. The past chapters were in italics and the present ones in regular font until both stories met in time at the end. I enjoyed this. In A Promotion to Die For I only have a few chapters that are written in back story. The people and occurrences in that history from 29 years earlier surface soon in the present and the old cold case murder from back then is solved toward the end of the book in its current timeline.
  • Eliminate repeats. I can’t tell you how many times I can say the same thing in writing over and over. The reader gets it the first time. I’m not sure about other authors, but I find myself telling it to them again in a different way. This has to end and I usually get rid of it during the revision process.
  • No rambling over things you want to get in because of your beliefs. This is not about the author, but about giving the reader something interesting to read.

I’m interested in your experiences as authors and/or readers in words working without being too wordy.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice. my fantasy series all clock in around 70,000 words. I like that length. It is amazing how much you can cut just by tightening sentences

June Trop said...

I'm smiling, Linda, because I have the opposite problem. My mystery novels run a little short. My first was 65K and my third one 45K. Yes, I know I can weave in a subplot, add characters, and/or elaborate the main plot, but my natural tendency is toward parsimony.

Anonymous said...

As an author my word count pattern follows June T.'s. As a reader, I skim over repetition and details that feel like excessive padding.

Thanks for the practical tips!
Cardyn Brooks

Amy Reade said...

Great post, Linda. I have become familiar with the words I overuse and I'm getting much better about tightening my language. I've found that merely being aware of wordiness is a good way to make sure I'm using taut phrasing and lean descriptions. It's taken me a while to get to this point, and I hope I keep improving!

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you for your comments. I've got a fairly new day job (hired two months ago) and I'm neglecting my work-in-progress, but I'm going to spend time on it this weekend. I learn from comments as well as posts on blogspots like Novel Spaces.

Morgan Mandel said...

I have the opposite problem. I used to write longer books, but now write according to my attention span, which is shorter than it used to be. I tell the story, but don't elaborate a lot. Sometimes I'm too short on description and have to force myself to throw some in.

Mollie Blake said...

I too have to check for repetition, Linda. I try to ensure all my subplots are necessary in the story, and all my characters have a part to play - I may even let them play a bigger part in another story. Thanks for post - good food for thought x

Kathleen Kaska said...

Good advice, Linda. Rambling and repetition is what I notice most about books that are "over written."

Liane Spicer said...

My first novel was 78,000 words. When I discovered my targeted publisher demanded 90,000, I added subplots which took it to 94,000. I then had to edit down to the required word count. That's probably the only time I had to increase word count. My natural tendency is to write long then cut and tighten.

Beth Fine said...

Linda, you hit many ideas I've heard about and agree with most. I also find reworking sentence structure an effective but challenging method to reduce word count.

What I thought was curious was the exact time he chose to stop that old habit.

I thought it curious when he [suddenly] stopped that habit.