While most people who read novels think of size in terms of pages, once you start writing, your gauge tends to turn to wordcount. Wordcount is a funny thing as it’s both unimportant and vitally important depending on how you look at things. If you look at a story from the viewpoint of craft and creativity, then wordcount doesn’t mean much: a story should be as long as it needs to be. However, if you look at a story through the lens of business and marketing, then wordcount can be vital.
For short stories, many markets target a particular wordcount or at least have a preference. They’re putting out a publication which needs to be around a certain length and with a certain number of stories in it, so it makes sense that they’d need a particular size of story to make things work out. Typically, it’s the longer stories that have a more difficult time finding a market.
Novels also have some wordcount issues to be aware of. Now, I’m not an expert, but my research has shown me that a debut novel should ideally be about eighty to one-hundred thousand words. A genre novel might get away with some more if the genre tends to have longer books, but about 120k is the limit.
So what do those numbers mean? Here are some books to gauge them by.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about 70k
Moby Dick is about 200k
20,000 Leagues under the Sea is about 140k
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is about 80k
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is about 200k
The Great Gatsby is about 48k
The Hobbit is about 95k
The Fellowship of the Ring is about 180k
War and Peace is a staggering 560k
The Golden Compass is about 110k
So with all the variety in book sizes, why is 80 – 100k so desirable? Well, publishing is a business and that represents a sweet spot where the reader still feels like he or she is getting a decent-sized book for the money and the production costs of that book aren’t too high. It’s understandable, but it’s frustrating if your novel is 40k or 140k. Now I don’t have a lot of experience with the whole too-short side of things, but I know an unfortunate amount about the too-long side of things. In fact, one of the goals for my current revision of Cog is to reduce the length a little.
So what do you do when you need to cut? Well, here is my less-than-expert advice.
- Let your readers know you want to cut – While professionals might be more inclined to point out what shouldn’t be there, casual critiques might be more inclined to suggest what’s missing. Clue them in to the fact that you need to cut and they might help you find things that aren’t really contributing. I know that’s the case when I’m reading for someone.
- Cut the dead-weight subplots and scenes – Question every subplot and scene and see if it contributes to the story. If it’s only there for color or humor, you’re going to have to kill it. When you have too many words, there’s no room for those clever scenes you love, but don’t really advance anything.
- Cut out explanations and demonstrations – Okay, in actuality, this is still my second point. Some of those scenes seem like they contribute to the story because they explain or demonstrate some point: the bad guys are really bad, the main character is really depressed, the situation is really desperate. If the scene doesn’t actually advance the plot or develop the characters significantly, then it needs to go.
- Get rid of characters that don’t matter – If you can remove a character without impacting a story, then that character can probably go. Words are like screen time in a movie and there’s only so much to go around. If you’re going to cut a character’s screen time, it’s best to leave the minor characters on the editing floor.
- Reduce locations – It takes words to bring a location to life, so if you don’t have them to spare, think about reducing the number of locations in the story. Perhaps instead of having a character go someplace to ask someone questions, have the interview happen in an already established place.
- Cut out backstory – This is always a good idea. If the reader doesn’t really need to know a piece of backstory to understand the story, then cut it out. Backstory slows things down, and often the reader doesn’t need it as much as the writer thinks.
Those are some of the things that come to my mind when I’m trying to get rid of words. Well, I need to get back to making some cuts