Your Book Social Media Profile Awaits
As an editor I, unsurprisingly, receive submissions that have been deemed, by agents or friends, much too long. While an acclaimed book like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch can run 784 pages, I would advise most writers not to scale such heights. The desired maximum length agents frequently cite these days is 100,000 words, or 400 double-spaced manuscript pages. If you have written 160,000 words, though, you have roughly 630 manuscript pages. You have to ask yourself: are my characters and plots strong enough to support that much reading? If you are a debut author, an agent or publisher will likely tell you: don’t think so. They may not read past that figure in your initial query letter.
You can employ a variety of strategies to pare down the length. You can comb through the draft looking for extra verbiage, redundancy, and the like. That’s what I do during a line edit. You will probably not achieve as much reduction, however, as you intended. I tend to compress a great deal as a line editor, and yet I expect to take out only 10 percent of a manuscript that way. In our hypothetical example, that reduces 160,000 words to 144,000. You’re still not even in the right ballpark.
You need to think in terms of broader strokes. One useful place to start is examining characters just beyond your top circle. If you are using an omniscient narrative voice, you will have maybe three dominant narrators. A triad allows you to cover a lot of ground while at the same time limiting the number of persons in which the reader deeply invests his sympathies. A character outside that circle may appear less often, carrying 5-10 scenes, say. The truth is, you may have written further scenes for her because once you started her plot line, you had to play it out to a satisfying conclusion. That is a prime candidate for reduction.
When I suggest this strategy to authors, a common response is: I guess you’re right. I’ll just cut her out of the book. Leaving aside the distress that such an abject submission connotes, I actually feel that only the point of view needs to be addressed. This is a character whose viewpoint has been running those 5-10 scenes. Cutting a character entirely out of a book can require significant rewriting, and all you want to do is cut down the length. She could be cut down so that she appears as only a supporting character in her early scenes. That way you as the author don’t need to worry about filling out her plot line—because she has been relegated to another’s plot line.
The other consideration here is: what theme is the character embodying? Many authors devise a character to convey an underlying message. You might want to study whether one of your major characters’ portrayal can be expanded to include that theme. In so doing you are strengthening a character in which you already want readers to invest their emotions. In the name of reducing the length, you are adding power to an aspect of the book you want to enhance anyway.
Exercise: If you need major cuts, start by looking at characters just beyond the players that are carrying the novel. You may well find that you don’t even like one of these signficant characters. You had an original conception of weakness, or the like, that you wanted to include, but he has grown into an unsightly weed in your book—just because you had to keep feeding the theme. That’s your guy—slash away!
“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Copyright @ 2013, John Paine
If you would like to read more posts from my blog, Building a Book, please visit www.johnpaine.com.