Monday, September 7, 2015

What Do I Cut When I Have Too Many Words?

by Alycia W. Morales
@AlyciaMorales

How long should a novel be?

Most posts I've researched give the following guidelines (these are averages, so books could go a little shorter or longer, depending on various aspects):

Women's Fiction/Literary/Contemporary: 80,000 - 90,000 words: Keep in mind that you could go as high as 110,000 and as low as 70,000. However, you risk being rejected for having too much or too little at those numbers. I recommend my authors play it safe at 85,000 words. Tops. At least for contemporary fiction. I would allow a bit more for a literary piece, but I don't see those often.

Romance: 70,000 - 100,000 words. Contemporary is the lower end of the scale. Historical is the higher end.

Suspense/Thriller: 90,000 words. Suspense tend to be a bit shorter than thriller/crime fiction.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 115,000 words (All because of world building...)

Historical: 110,000 words

YA: 65,000 words: Again, if it's a sci-fi/fantasy YA, you may be able to get away with more, like 80,000 words.

Middle Grade: 20,000 - 55,000 words: Again, there are variations, depending on how old the middle-grade audience is.

Children's Picture Books: 500 - 600 words for a 32-page spread.

Why do I have to stick to these word counts? I need all these words.

I can't tell you how many times I hear this from authors. "But if I cut that, the reader won't know..." But if you leave it in, the reader will throw your book across the room.

You don't need all of those words. I promise. That's why we writers say to learn to "write tight."

Trust me. If you leave them all in, the editor at the publishing house you're dying to write for will trash your book faster than you could have hit the delete button, so it's better to hit that delete button now - before your book ever has a chance to hit their slush pile.

So, what do I cut?

There are the basics: the pet words, "that," "of," and the excess adverbs. But these alone won't generally get your word count to where you need it.

Start with the back story and flashbacks. Truthfully, most of these are unnecessary if we are writing well. They're things we tend to throw in when we're unsure of whether or not the reader will understand where our character is coming from. We need to tell the reader some piece of information from the character's past so they will understand their current motivation. But if we write our characters and their conflicts, dialogues, and actions well, we don't need the back story. So hit the delete button on the back story and find a better way to write your character's current story.

Once you've taken care of the past, look to the present. What is your character reflecting on that could be slowing down the story? Are they pining over something? Are they regretting something? Are they struggling with something that they just can't seem to get past? These are the things that writers will tell the readers, typically through deep POV or inner dialogue, what is going on that we couldn't possibly figure out from a well-written story. Sometimes they are necessary to the story line, but I often find they are not. One way to tell you've got too much inner dialogue is if you've got a paragraph or more of it in one place. This is a telltale sign that your character is just reflecting, not driving the story forward.

The third thing you need to scour your manuscript for is repetition. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when I'm reading. Be aware, it shows up in a few forms. First, within a single sentence. It's usually the same word used more than once within the sentence. For instance, using the noun twice rather than using a pronoun the second time. The second type is found in the same paragraph. It's usually in the form of two sentences that say the exact same thing, only they're worded differently. The third form is when the character gets stuck in a rut. They are upset. Sad. Frustrated. Any other emotion. And we, the reader, need to hear about it in every chapter. At least twice. Just in case we forgot. Because, you know, the character really is distraught. Which drives this particular reader nuts. Because every character should have an arc, which means they should change and grow with the story line. Not stay stuck in the same rut they've been in since page one of the book. And just in case you didn't know this already, you can't drive the story forward if your character is stuck in a rut.

The one question that is most important to ask yourself is this: does this drive the story forward? And be honest when you answer that question. Because if your answer is, "No, it doesn't," you need to be ready to hit the delete button. Whether it's the best sentence/paragraph/scene in the novel or not.

If you're not ready to hit the delete button, be ready for your novel to hit the slush pile.

They're the exception to the rule. And we all know the exception to the rule doesn't happen often. Especially in today's digital, short-attention-span world. It's better to follow the rules and keep within a traditional word count than to break the rules on your first time out and end up in an eternal time out with the publishers and agents. Keep your dream alive by playing by the rules until you've sold enough books that you can get away with breaking them.

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