Long Story Short: 10 Tips for Trimming an Overly Long Novel Down to Size

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Big books are increasingly a thing. Some people love them. Some people hate them. As an editor, I say, if you've written an epic novel that requires 110,000+ words to tell its epic story, go on with your bad self. But before you send that beast out for consideration, make sure you haven't just included 30,000+ extra words. 

It's generally agreed that 80,000-100,000 words is a safe range for literary and commercial fiction. Middle grade runs considerably shorter; fantasy and sci fi can get away with longer. And YA can do whatever it damn well pleases. But regardless of which genre you're in, it's essential that your story requires all the words it's using.

The majority of the giant manuscripts that cross my desk are simply overwritten. Such books tend to get summarily rejected by agents and publishers—so, as an independent editor, who works in service of the author, I've developed a virtual Swiss army knife of tools for trimming those big books down to size.


1. Condense Your Paragraphs

Do you need every sentence in every paragraph? If your novel is overwritten, chances are, every single paragraph in that grand tome could be shortened without sacrificing any of the actual sense.

Perhaps the information currently contained in two sentences could be conveyed in one. Perhaps what you're saying is implied by something you've already said. Are you repeating yourself? Overexplaining?

Before you send that beast out for consideration, make sure you haven't  included 30,000+ extra words.

Remember the Dopeler Effect—the tendancy for dumb ideas to seem smart when they come at you quickly. The same holds true for smart ideas: the fewer words it takes to convey them, the smarter they seem. 

2. Shrink Your Cast

Do you really need every character? If you've got two people who are somewhat similar in either personality or function, probably not. This can be among the hardest changes for an author to make, but it tends to strengthen the novel on many fronts, because when you collapse two characters into one, the resulting hybrid is almost inevitably more complex. 

Also: Does every random neighbor child and servant and coworker need to be named? Every time you name someone, you're telling your reader that she will need to remember them. If that's not true, don't waste your reader's time by giving the character a name.

3. Cut Your Subplots

Do you really need that clever subplot in your big book? If it doesn't reveal some important character trait or set up some part of the main plot, chances are good that you don't.

In SFF, such sidequests, so to speak, often play a part in the author exploring the world of the novel and getting a handle on its norms, history, and cultures. But such developments can be like scaffolding; once the book is written, the info you've conveyed via a subplot can simply permeate the common knowledge of your characters.

4. Focus on Cause and Effect

Do the events of your plot unfold in a clear sequence of cause and effect? Do you have action, reaction, and response driving the story? Do developments have clear consequences? And do your characters respond to new information in ways that make sense?

Lots of questions, yes—but you should be able to answer all of them in the affirmative if your book is firing on all cylinders. Also: while this line of inquiry works well in trimming an unnecessarily big book down to size, it works just as well in making the many developments of an epic novel easier to follow. 

5. Jettison Unnecessary Exposition

Toward the beginning of a novel, it's customary for a story to explore the ground situation of the protagonist/main characters before the events of the plot really kick in to high gear. This is the place where we get to know the characters and the contours of the world as it stands. But if you think this a place where your characters can just sort of wander around, exploring the gamespace, think again.

If you're revealing backstory at the beginning of the novel, make sure we'll need to know it in order to understand the story to come. If you're introducing characters, make sure they're characters who will show up again. And if you're revealing information about the world, make sure it's clearly setting up the plot that's coming down the line.

In this, fiction is like a game of chess: every move should set up moves to come—and nowhere is that more important than in your opening game.

6. Focus on the Pacing

What is the pace at which information is revealed in your novel? Do plot developments occur at regular intervals? Do your characters have a mix of short-term and long-term goals? And are you answering the questions you've raised, even as you're introducing new ones?

Whether long or short, strong novels feature a consistent pace of developments and reveals, tension and release, questions and answers. Interrogating the pacing of an overwritten novel tends to reveal places where too much time elapses between these essential polarities. 

7. Tighten the Time Frame

What is the total time frame over which your novel takes place? If it's too long, there's a good chance that your reader's interest will flag.

A story with a distinct series of dramatic events taking place at different times can get away with breaking the book up into parts, but as a general rule in fiction, the tighter the time frame, the more tension and suspense the story can hold. (Tightening up the time frame also tends to increase the appearance of cause and effect: see above.)

8. Focus on the Turning Points

Unless you're going for a full-on blow-by-blow stream-of-consciousness narrative, no novel ever works in continuous time—and even in the case of such experimental work, you're probably still not going to describe every moment the character spends asleep.

All of which is to say that every narrative must decide what to dramatize and what to summarize, when to move fast and when to move slow. In overwritten novels, unimportant developments that could easily be summarized are dramatized, or summarized in too much detail. As a general rule, it's a good idea to dramatize the turning points of the plot and summarize the rest.

9. Get Out of Your Own Way

Neuroscience tells us that fully dramatized scenes are the places in fiction that most approximate actually being in the world of the story. (In fact, there's good evidence that our brains actually cannot tell the difference between such virtual experiences and the ones we actually live.) How annoying is it, then, for the author to keep jumping in to remind us that what we're experiencing is an illusion?

If some aspect of what's going on in a scene requires explanation, by all means, step in and explain it. But if not, consider cutting the editorialization. The more you get out of your own way in scenes, the more immersive a reading experience you will create.

10. Cut Your First Twenty Pages—and Your Last Five

Like everything I've described so far, this is not a technique that will work for every book. But when novels are overwritten, there tends to be a lot of throat-clearing at the beginning, as well as some unnecessary recap at the end. 

If you can cut the first twenty pages or so without sacrificing a whole lot of the sense, getting into the essential action of the novel sooner, do it. And if you can leave the story at a point where the future is implied, rather than described or summarized, it's generally a good idea to do that as well. 

Oh, and a final note: if you complete all of these steps and your novel  still passes the 110,000-word mark, there's a good chance that your beast of a book is exactly as long as it needs to be. 

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she was born and raised in rural west Michigan and spent fourteen years in the high country of Arizona before moving to Portland, Oregon, where she has served as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications since 2010. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a 2017 Gold IPPY Award; her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in more than thirty journals and anthologies. She enjoys mysterious books, strange weather, thinking machines, and sketchy characters.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 6, 2015 - 9:29am

Love the article, found some stuff that will really snap!

Question, what if you book isn't in an established genre, or more specifically is a sub branch of an existing genre? How would you determine length?

Like mine is "dystopian", though I've joked my work is closer to a myopian novella, ending at around 20,500 words. The distinction being that myopian focuses on the in character study of the mind at work in a dystopia, rather than the setting itself.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb June 7, 2015 - 2:47pm

This was a great article to read right now! I do massive novel drafts and then gut them, and I do a lot of the stuff you've talked about but it's always good to be reminded anyway, if only to feel like I'm doing the right things. I'm about the hit the 200k mark with the first draft of my current project and I already know I can cut loads of the stuff that was basically me working things out for myself through the characters. I'm a hardcore discovery writer and hardly plan anything until I have a completed manuscript in front of me, then I know what kind of draft 2 I'm going for.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa July 22, 2015 - 9:23am

Yes, it's common for "discovery" writers to heavily overwrite, then trim down to size--as long as you're a good editor, there's no problem with this. 

As for subgenres, I'm not convinced they matter much. The main thing, in any case, is that the story is only as long as it really needs to be.