Ah, the irony!
Having last month complained about wordcount conventions for aspiring authors, particularly the idea that their books should be as short as possible, I’m now devoting even more words to this topic.
This time I’m writing about my own novel that I’m querying; specifically, how I shortened it in an effort to better fit these very wordcount conventions, as requested in an R&R (revise and resubmit) for an agent.
Because for the record, I was never opposed to making my book shorter—to “murdering my darlings”, as the unnecessarily violent expression goes. I just didn’t know, after 11 drafts, how to do so on my own.
In my professional life, I often work as a program evaluator. I’m thus adamant about the importance of data in making decisions and changes to a program or process.
When it comes to writing, the best data sources one can utilize are beta readers. I’d had betas before. But in looking to lower my wordcount, I now sought a very special type of beta:
A writer of literary fiction.
Say what you will about literary fiction, rarely is it long and sprawling. Its writers are skilled at cutting to the heart of a matter.
I was lucky to have befriended a literary writer at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2019. More than once during our conversations afterward he expressed interest in reading my novel.
I was also lucky to know that while my wordcount was too high, the problem wasn’t the plot itself. The agent who requested the R&R indicated, at least in her opinion, that the plot and pacing were solid, but overwritten.
After receiving my friend’s notes on the entire first act (I asked him to stop after that because I could see he would just be pointing out the same problems over and over again), I identified my most egregious overwriting habits:
1) Too much history/backstory
This was one of the first flaws my friend pointed out, and the one that got me most deeply into my sulky feels.
As a writer of historical fiction, I do realize that not all of my research will make it into the story. But my friend’s frequent insistence that “this background doesn’t matter; keep the story moving” had me melodramatically asking why write histfic at all if readers care so little for the history that informs it.
But ultimately my friend was right. I really had included too much for modern storytelling conventions and it was weighing down the narrative. I cut a lot and moved other parts to much later where the reader would be more curious about these past events that came before the story at hand.
2) Over-explanation of events
I had an unfortunate habit of over-explaining (and also just plain explaining) both the significance and the outcome of events in the story where all of this was already obvious to the reader.
I did this, I came to realize, not so much because I didn’t trust the reader to “get it”; rather, I worried the reader wouldn’t trust me, thinking I didn’t know what I was talking about if I didn’t “show my work”. Leaving things to be implied instead of outright stated allowed me to cut a lot of words, and is just more artful as well.
3) Overly long emotional reactions/inner monologues
This relates back to point #2. My writing used to contain next to no emotional reactions. It was all intellectualized by the characters rather than felt. An early CP helped me learn how to write emotions, but then I went too far in the other direction, going on and on with it to prove to readers that I knew how to make my characters feel.
4) Too much description
Many writers can see the events of their story playing out in their mind, like a movie, which they then write down to produce a manuscript.
I, however, struggle quite a bit at visualizing my work, to the point that I’ll over-correct and describe the scene in detail to make sure it doesn’t read as blankly as it appears in my head. But what I’ve learned is that since most people are so much more visual than me, one or two key details is all they need to fill out the entire scene for themselves.
5) Repetition of known information
This played out a couple of ways on the page. Often I would unnecessarily both show and tell (i.e. summarize) the events of a scene, with this summary coming either directly before or directly after the events themselves played out.
But then there was also my attempts to remind the reader at key points in the story of things that had previously occurred. There’s definitely value in this, especially for situations that have a long lead time before the payoff. But I was overdoing it a bit.
I was also repeating a lot of general facts and descriptors at the sentence level with a goal of helping maintain the integrity of the reader’s mental image of the story. In reality, though, I was just being repetitive to the point that a reader would be well justified in shouting, “yes, I get it!”
All told, I cut more than 10,000 words from my manuscript and have since sent the new version to the agent.
I’ll have to wait and see what the end result is. But even if it doesn’t translate into an offer of representation, this process of lowering my wordcount has taught me valuable lessons on revision that I’ll be able to apply to future writing projects.
(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)