Cutting Down My Novel

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 21 2011

I know I’m years too late too, but I have a question about my latest novel, which is very long. It’s called “Broken Family Portrait, and it’s an unbelievable 303,400 words long. My character is a severe cerebral palsic who, among other things, cannot censor things he says in speeches due to a malfunctioning brain tumor.

Between all the drama between his family, the bullying he endures in his childhood/school years, and dealing with his own dysfunctional marriage, putting up with his sisters and their husbands who are abusive parents, and battling a pro-spanking society that seems to favour including children with severe physical and mental disabilities and retardation, etc., he sure has been through a lot.

I really don’t know how to get it down to 100,000 words or so without losing any plot elements or any part of my protagonist Robin’s sarcastic and witty nature. Yet, now I’m worried that no publisher will take it, and this is a novel I’m most proud of.

Some advice would be most appreciated. Thanks

It’s long and it’s not just long because it’s 300,000 words plus, it’s long because from your description you’re trying to include everything and the kitchen sink in there. I haven’t read your book so I have no idea if it reads long. Length based on word count is one thing, and it can be a problem not just for publishers but for readers too, but one of the reasons agents can get hung up on length is because it tends to be a symptom of an overwritten book, a book that isn’t concise and interesting, but starts to drag. I mean, frankly, and I realize it’s only a blurb, but what does a character with cerebral palsy who can’t sensor speech have to do with a pro-spanking society?

I’ll defer to my readers who have actually had to trim their own books, but my guess is that it can be done.


34 responses to “Cutting Down My Novel”

  1. Wow 300k! I'm not even going to ask how long it took to write! Good job!

    I'd say pick one particular goal for your protag (maybe 2-3 minor ones that revolve around one major one). One thing he wants to change in his marriage, for example. Then cut everything that doesn't add to that one goal. You can sprinkle in bits of childhood/bullying backstory and even things the abusive parents have done-as long as it adds to the scene (say your protag is weighing options based on the past/internal dialogue).

    Once you have narrowed your focus to one goal (2-3 minor) then you'll probably find much to cut. If not, split it up into a series. 🙂

    Hope that helps!

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What ONE BIG THING does your character want or need? What forces sustain your character's journey toward that end? What forces stand in the way?

    That's the heart of your novel. Anything not immediately related to the ONE BIG THING is a candidate for slash and burn.

    In other words, figure out what the real story is and what it can't live without. It's not a question of what you personally can't live without.

  3. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Read Lawrence Block's MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT. It will change your writing life.

  4. Avatar Sara says:

    It sounds as though there are several topics that are important to you and that you want to incorporate into the story. That's great. Many passionate ideas can be conveyed through narrative. Entertain and change opinions at the same time. But it sounds as though (and I only know from what you mention here) that because you are so passionate on these topics they are taking center stage in a lot of areas. Sometimes less is more.

    I've had to do a major overhaul on my novel recently (still in the midst) one thing I learned is to keep an original copy of the book, but on the copy you are editing, be brutal. Cut whole scenes, plot lines, or characters if necessary. And because you kept the original, you have a guide.

    It can be very difficult. Try writing the Goal, Motivation, and Conflict on a post-it for every scene. Don't forget to number the original order. Then lay out the story on a wall. When you step back and look at it you may be able to see where you can cut.

    Congratulations. You can do it.

  5. Avatar essay online says:

    Nice article! Thanks.

  6. Avatar Laurel says:

    Good on you for recognizing your word count might be daunting! I think you can do it. If you have a beta reader you trust that helps a lot. When you are very attached to a character, everything feels important to the story. A set of eyes with more objectivity can help you spot the things that aren't crucial to your main story arc.

    One thing that can help when you get depressed about trimming the scenes you love is to realize they aren't wasted words. All the extras help you get to know your character better. There are (and should be) things that you know about your character that don't make it into the novel. After all, you should know them better than anyone else, right?

  7. Avatar Cara M. says:

    I agree with everyone else here. You have to find the story, and then trim and prune for that purpose. I cut 40,000 words from my 140,000 word YA fantasy novel, and actually, that was just unnecessary transitions and cutting words and sentences to make the writing better and tighter. But after all those things had been trimmed I was able to realize that my MC never arced as a character. Forest for the trees, man, forest for the trees.

  8. Avatar Tonja says:

    I think it would be good to make it a series, but only if each story in the series has a focus and everything in it works. Like if you're going to do an Italian meal, probably better to make individual specific tasty dishes that work together instead of throwing everything into a pot. That sounds like a lot of work though.

  9. Avatar caraellison says:

    Based on the description, I know there are at least 150,000 words you can cut just from really trying to focus your work. If it is about a person with cerebral palsy, that's enough drama. I don't need to know your views of a "pro-spanking" society. I don't really care about the sister's husbands.

    You seem to want to pile everything into the manuscript and frankly sometimes less is more.

  10. You could always put it out as an e-book if you strongly feel it needs to be very long. My completed non-YA books are 348K, 406K (the sequel to the 348K), and 397K, and they were all planned and plotted as deliberate sagas spanning many years and containing many characters and subplots.

    The 348K was actually 342K when I pulled all the files off of MacWriteII and ClarisWorks, and I cut about 20,000 words, primarily from the original sections of the first six chapters. I added in a lot more words when I was extensively editing, revising, polishing, and rewriting it. I took out cluttery chat, stupid scenes that didn't move the plot along or that were historically and culturally inaccurate, or that was out of character. At this point, were I to cut anything more for no reason but to cut, it wouldn't be the same story anymore. It's that length for a reason.

    Not all books have plot trajectories that can be wrapped up within 400 pages, something I think a lot of modern-day folks have forgotten. I grew up reading very long books, and was very surprised to discover earlier this year that supersized novels aren't as popular as they used to be, at least among the mainstream. Since it makes me happiest and feels most satisfying to write long sagas instead of 300-page books, I'm putting my sagas out as e-books. If your long book is the same way, with a plot that can't honestly be developed and wrapped up within 400 pages and that wouldn't work artificially chopped up into a series, you might want to strongly consider that option.

  11. Wry Writer: That sounded like an awesome book, so I went to Amazon to add it to my list, but all I could find was a book called Make Every Word Count by Gary Provost. Is that the book you meant?

    As for the topic at hand, I would consider all the previous comments for trimming what you don't need. BUT if you really feel like the threads of your novel matter and add layers to your story, try reading a similar story to see how they did it. Two books that spring to mind are SHELTER by Susan Palwick and SHE'S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb. Both books have lots of side plots and layers, but everything adds to the main plot. Plus, they are just awesome books to read.

    Congratulations and good luck!

  12. Avatar Sara says:

    Great question!! Thanks for asking!

    First of all, congrats on actually corralling what sounds like an immense story with a lot of major issues.

    And as a quick aside, I love how supportive and nice everyone's been in commenting – yay for this blog community in NOT taking cheap shots and "internet bullying" which is something a lot of agents and bloggers have been writing/talking about lately! 🙂

    As for the overwhelming and dreaded task of editing…sigh. I understand. I've actually been blogging about the challenge of major editing for the past several weeks as I undertook a slash and burn campaign to cut 20,000 words from my 146K MS. I lost a lot I loved, but it felt good to trim it down.

    Then, just as I was feeling good about that accomplishment, I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite authors, who, amazingly, was even nicer in person, and she suggested that I needed to be in the 80-100K total range to be most-desirable to agents, which means cutting another 20,000-40,000 words. [nooooo!] [pounds head on table] [vodka shot]

    So here I am, back to the slash and burn. I'm basically trying to focus on making sure conflict/tension is in every scene, or that every scene moves toward the larger conflict/tension (again, her sage counsel). I've asked my critique partner to have another look and help me, because as Laurel said above, when you're attached to your character, everything feels so vital, and outside objectivity can be really helpful.

    One thing that makes the cutting a little less painful is that I keep another doc of all the stuff I cut and if it's really worthy, I plan to weave it into the next book.

    Take a deep breath, sit down, and good luck!!!

  13. Avatar Kristine says:

    You seem heavily emotionally invested in your novel. (Not that that is a bad thing or altogether unusual!) But one way to see it more objectively might be to do a diagram of it. Kind of like you would break down the grammar of a sentence? Perhaps start with your main character and branch the plot points out from him, including secondary characters as they relate to the main character. You may find some less well-developed "branches" that would be easy to trim.

    Good luck!

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This is one of those things that every writer experiences and the only way to "get" it is to keep writing and editing the book until you do "get" it. I know that sounds ambiguous and hard to understand. But if you work long enough you eventually "get" it and you know how to fix it.

  15. Avatar RobynBradley says:

    Oh, I feel your pain. I think most of us have been there, at least somewhat. I think most of the above advice is good, but I imagine you might be thinking, "But wait! I'm going to lose all this good stuff if I cut 200,000 words!"

    I'll share something I learned in a different industry — radio broadcasting of all things. I was a producer, and one of my tasks was editing down taped interviews between the radio host and celebs.

    My boss had a strict "90-second rule" — nothing could go on longer than that during morning drive.

    I remember one of my first times having to cut down an interview — it was Rod Stewart, I think — and we had taped for 10 minutes.

    "I can't possibly cut this down to 90 seconds," I lamented to my boss. "We're going to lose all this interesting stuff."

    And he said something to me that I'll never forget: "Only YOU will know what you've cut out. Your audience won't."

    (Of course, the nice thing about having all this extra content is that if the book takes off…you could release these "extras" as companion pieces later. Or maybe even turn the book into a series?)

    Anyhow, I wish you much luck! Oh, and have plenty of chocolate (or something stronger) nearby as you begin surgery. 🙂

  16. Avatar pauraque says:

    I think Jessica's initial response is dead on: You are trying to do too much in one book. Even a book that's not so long in word count can be too overstuffed with disparate plot elements, and that is not an issue that can be fixed by saying all the same things in more concise sentences. You need to actually not say so many things.

    Obviously I have not read your book, but for what it's worth, from your description it sounds like you're putting in a lot of "drama" without having a clear picture of why it's there. In real life, people go through a lot of crap with no rhyme or reason to it. But in fiction, that doesn't work at all. You need some direction. What does Robin learn from all this? How does he change his situation?

    I notice that the only time you mention Robin doing or thinking something actively is when you say he's "battling a pro-spanking society", which frankly sounds like the least interesting element of the plot. Who is Robin? Is he just a guy who "goes through a lot", or do we have some reason to root for him and care about where he's going in life?

    When you cut material, remember you don't have to delete it — just copy/paste it into a separate file and save it for later. Maybe some of it could be a starting point for a short story, a sequel to your book, or even an unrelated book.

    Good luck.

  17. Avatar Elissa M says:

    It's wonderful that you've completed a novel you're passionate about and want to share with others. However, if your goal is to introduce lots of readers to your main character and have them care about him like you do, you really will have to cut the story down.

    I think the problem isn't that the story can't be cut, it's that you're not yet able to let go of all the wonderful twists and turns you've put into the novel. I completely understand.

    As others have said, don't think of the editing as throwing something away. You're trimming an idea or plot line and putting it aside to use in another novel.

    As other posts have said, the only way to effectively cut this novel is to narrow your focus. I am an artist. When I paint a picture, I can't include everything I see in front of me. I have to focus on a subject and paint it in a way that reveals something new to viewers. I have to make the viewers think "Ah! I never saw it like that before." Not including everything in the painting makes it a better painting overall.

    You're an artist, too, but you're painting with words, not pigment. Focus on your main subject. Arrange the lighting (plot) and the supporting objects (other characters) so viewers (readers) say, "Ah!"

  18. Avatar Stephsco says:

    Wow, great advice for anyone in the editing phase here.

    All the backstory of the 300k word version can be great for honing in on a story arc. You can always save the "epic" version for yourself while you pare down to a more commercial version. Think of the best parts and what can be done to highlight those. Often chapters of backstory can be referred to in a line here or there later in the book without compromising the character.

  19. Avatar Jill James says:

    I love to prune rose bushes. Sometimes a branch has to go. It is too top-heavy with multiple roses on it, so pretty, but it has to go for the whole bush to survive and look good. Sometimes a branch is wandering in the wrong direction for how the bush looks as a whole. It has to go.

    I've found the same to be true of books.

  20. Avatar Shaunna says:

    If your letter to Jessica is an indication of your writing style, my guess is that you can trim about half of your prose and still convey every thoughs, every character development, and every plot twist. What does Strunk and White say? It's not that you should tell every detail — you just need to use the details that tell. Try rewriting a paragraph at a time until you can condense your prose by about half. Watch how that strengthens your writing style. Try some of Janet Reid's flash fiction contests or NPR's three minute fiction contests. Words are powerful. You must wield them as such.

  21. Wow, that's some commitment. Good job. I had to knock 25 000 off my book in a fortnight for a competition and it's not easy. Start with the overall plot and look at scenes/sub plots which don't move the story forward (if you feel that cuts some character development, drop the details in brief forms somewhere else). Then really consider every sentence and ask 'will this section make sense without it?' If so, cut. They say writers should 'murder their darlings' – get a beta reader to tell you what you can cut and don't be precious about it. Good luck! Sounds like you deserve it : )

  22. Avatar girlseeksplace says:

    I agree with the advice everyone else has given you. It will take time, but trimming it will be good. It will flow better and the story will be more cohesive. Just from what I read in your letter, you've included every event in your character's life. It's too much.

  23. If a book is really absorbing, I like it to be long. Sometimes I don't want to get to the end. When people choose a book because it is the shorter one, I wonder what they are there for. Someone asked me how many pages was a certain book and I said, "Just enough."

    But then, suppose Dave Eggers took out every frisbie reference in his book. What would be left? (Snark, snark)

  24. Avatar Lucy says:

    One thing I'll add: we tell and tell and tell writers to Show–not Tell, but there are times when the reverse needs to happen.

    If I have a character making a speech that runs up to an hour, I'm not going to let him have the floor the whole time. I'll let him get his first few sentences in. Then I (author)summarize the rest, let him say a concluding sentence, and move on to other people's reactions, which usually–*grin*–include a lot of eye-rolling, since "they've" been listening to the whole thing.

    And this is only one trick to save space. I suspect, however, that as others have said, you may need to tighten the focus of your plot.

  25. I've definitely been here before! Some advise:

    1) Take a break between writing and revising. I don't know how long it's been since you finished your last draft, but let the book sit for a month if you have to so you can gain some emotional distance. It'll be easier to cut things.

    1a) If, when you go back to revise, you find *yourself* getting bored with anything, seriously consider cutting it.

    2) Don't be afraid to cut plot elements. As others have said, it sounds like you have a lot here. Are all of them really necessary? Do they all align to your character's goals? Could you move some of them to a different book?

    3) I wonder if this might be an "issues" novel. Are there segments where you (or your character) are just spitting out your views on a subject? If so, there might be more effective ways to incorporate those into the narrative, and you can cut any long, didactic sections.

    Gary Corby did a blog post (that I've talked about on my blog several times, and am planning to try for myself tonight) about making a spreadsheet to track scenes and what characters appear in them. I plan to make one to track all the plot arcs in the novel I'm outlining right now. Perhaps something like that will help you see what the most important and universal themes are in your story and what scenes are necessary, as well as what's extraneous and can be cut (even if they're interesting!).

  26. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Here's a view that will go over like a fart in a spacesuit…

    Maybe it's 300k because it has to be.

    Doubting yourself is healthy. It doesn't mean every doubt you have is legit.

    If you take a quick look at many of the popular books of the past 20 or so years, some of them are huge.

    Some are tiny too… but who says one is better than the other??

    Maybe you are the kind of person that does 300k well.

    G RR Martin is getting away with it and last I checked he was pretty rich because of it.

    Taking a second look is good. Being fine right where you are is entirely possible.

    It is actually more than possible to make a book WORSE by cutting. Happen often? Maybe not. Happen at all – you betcha.

  27. I completely agree with Anonymous. I genuinely want to know when counting words became more important than just writing a story at whatever length fits the plot trajectory, be it 150 pages, 300 pages, 500 pages, 800 pages, or 1200 pages. I really dislike the modern trend towards books that are all of 288 pages. I'm fine with keeping most of my YA books down to 350 pages or less, but for my adult novels, the saga length is the one that works best for me and that I feel most comfortable writing.

  28. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "Holding the paddle, my hand shook."

    And voila! There! Done! your incredibly convoluted, totally boring book has been edited to six ***precise*** words, not including the quotes or period.

    My suggestion: now that your narrative has been published (& whoa! the globe didn't stop spinning on its axis!), I believe it's now time for to move onto something less, um, fanspastic & possibly less (underscore/bold don't work in comment fields) politically correct. Notice, I didn't write, "Clueless." But if the Cher fits …

  29. There's a lot of good advice here! I think I'll print it out for my next edit/revision.

    Another thing to think about: trust your reader's intelligence. Very few points need to be hammered home more than once.

  30. Avatar Kaitlyne says:

    As an overwriter and someone who has done a lot of critiques for length alone, I've seen two main reasons for this:

    1) Really wordy overwriting. This was always my biggest problem. I cut 65k from a book and the vast majority was just realizing places where I'd included unnecessary phrases and words. You wouldn't believe how much I can cut this way. I'd guess, even without seeing your writing, that you can probably cut at least 100k just by being very judicious with words.

    2) Some new authors tend to meander. This is a huge problem in terms of plot because it means rather than having a focus that the reader can follow, the story veers off in many different directions.

    If you can find someone to do it, a good beta read can be useful at helping discover where the problems are. I've read few authors who are capable of pulling off something that massive without it screwing with the pacing, and generally those have years of experience.

  31. Avatar G says:

    Sounds like a good trilogy in the making.

    I agree with the commenters that you should stick with one particular goal for protag plus a couple of minor ones as an appetizer.

    It's very easy to go off on well meaning but ultimately pointless tangents with a story, but if you stick with what the commenters say about on particular goal, you should be able to eliminate about 30-50K words right off the bat.

  32. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is kill your darlings.

  33. Avatar Rachel says:

    Cut out the endless descriptions in the story and the dress descriptions and any other descriptions. I have a romance work in progress of 121,660 and i am still trying to trim it down to 110,000.

  34. Combine minor characters who do different things into one person who shows up repeatedly and thus develops as a character/foil. Example: I had two different sets of buddies for my hero – why, I have no idea – but I axed the second set and had only the first group of buddies all the way through. I strengthened the hero's bro-mance, deepened the reader's emotional connection to them, and also saved space b/c I didn't have to write descriptions of whole new group of people. Sounds like you have a lot of characters and several might be able to be condensed, which also lets you delete "introduction" scenes when a new character enters for the first time.