Right now I’m editing a novel that is about 200,000 words long but her agent wants the book to be closer to 100,000 words, so that it will be more acceptable to major Young Adult publishers. So, the question becomes, what do you cut?
Well, I’m ¾ of the way through and have managed to get rid of 50,000 words, but after that it gets tough. You don’t want to damage a story by deleting necessary plot points, nor do you want to make your characters too thin by taking out a lot of background and explanation for motivations. You don’t want to pare your description of the world down so that it becomes bland, either.
Face it: some books sort of demand to be longer than others.
If you’re plotting a novel, look at the following factors to discover how long it will be.
- How many major characters act as protagonists? If you have more than two protagonists, then you will often be dealing with dramatic relationships and romantic entanglements between the cast members, and that really can cause a book to “bloat.” In the book I’m working on now, we have 12 major characters—which is quite a large cast for the novel. Generally speaking, for a book of 100,000 words, I recommend that you try to keep your number of viewpoint characters to two or three. You want to give yourself adequate space to develop the character’s background, deal with their dreams and ambitions, and otherwise bring that character to life.
- How many settings do you have? If you’re creating a strong historical, fantasy, or science fiction setting, then traveling to a lot of places can really bloat your book. An average book has between about 70 to 120 scenes, and if each scene includes a new location, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time describing those settings. World creation can be pretty exhausting. The more extraordinary and developed your settings become, the more space you need to write them in. And if you write a truly monstrous epic novel with 200 scenes? Guess what, you won’t hit that 100,000-word limit. Now, this is important: the bestselling books of all time for each genre typically are those where the author does the best work of world creation. So bringing your world to life is also an extremely important priority.
- How many plot lines do your characters have? I typically have a major overall plot for a story, but I also will have a protagonist dealing with a strong internal problem in his/her “B story line.” Add in a third romantic plot line for a character, and I now have three plots running. But I might also have a mystery subplot, or maybe a budding friendship with an older guide character. So with any given character, I will run six plots per character, and if I’ve got four major characters in a novel, suddenly I’m running 24 plot lines just for the major characters—and that doesn’t include my antagonist and his various captains and henchmen. In short, each major conflict and minor conflict requires a certain amount of space.
- How many “side plots” or “subplots” do you have? Recently I’ve become intrigued by the profound effect that a well-developed subplot of quest line can have on readers, drawing them deeper into the story on a subconscious level. Tolkien taught an entire semester of classes at Oxford dealing with the topic of how to properly “break the narrative line” in a story, while master hypnotists recognize that simply overwhelming the mind with multiple “broken narratives” will force the reader into a deeper hypnotic state. So there is a good reason why you might send a protagonist on a quest or have him struggle to uncover a mystery, even though in the early stages of your draft it might seem . . . gratuitous. Given this, you may want or need to have some powerful side plots in your story that don’t progress the main action but act as stories within your larger story. The question becomes, how long and involved are each of those tales?
We can try to plot small books, and usually that is a pretty reasonable goal, but there are some times when you’ve got a large world, a large cast of characters, or an extensive plot that requires you to write longer books. You might end up like Tolkien, cutting your book into three parts, or turning that monster book into a series. Many indie authors are writing them in small chunks of say 50,000 words and simply calling each installment a “book,” and they’re finding success in part because readers love getting carried away into a well-evolved fictive universe.
I’ve had this problem a number of times. My first novel was well over its page limit but my editors decided to publish it “as is.” My second novel got cut in half by the publisher, which as my editor later put it “was a huge mistake on our part.” Another editor was always trying to me to keep my fantasies under 130,000 words, and so I fought to control length over and over again. My current novel is already over 200,000 words.
I think that you have to face it: some writers and many, many readers just love long books.
I will be speaking at Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium at the Provo, Utah Marriott. It will be from 9 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, February 13th. Lunch is not provided. You can register here.
My masterclass, “As The Plot Thickens,” will take place at the Hampton Inn in Provo, Utah from March 7-9. I only have a few seats left so click here if you would like to attend.
My YouTube video issues have been solved. You can watch the first one by clicking here.
Would you like the chance to win $1,000 with your writing? Do you have a friend who is an excellent photographer? Combine your talents and enter the People of Earth Contest by clicking here. You have until February 15th to enter.
In January, I will be releasing my latest book, Casting Your Novel which helps with character development. I also have had my Serpent Catch series bundled which you can find by clicking on this link.
One of my assistants, Diann, is looking for editing work. She is a published writer/editor and has a vast knowledge base of military history. You can email her at email@example.com