July 1, 2013 by kristin
I’m a rule follower, always have been. I can still feel the sting of humiliation from that one time my name got put on the chalkboard for talking in elementary school.
So naturally, when I decided to get serious about writing novels, I spent copious amounts of time doing “research” on the rules of said endeavor. I found there are many different versions of the rules, and trying to follow them all without knowing which one is exactly right has made me slightly crazy.
One area I struggled with was word count. The upper limit for debut authors of adult fiction seemed pretty standard across the internet – 100K. But I’m writing historical fiction, and several sources said going “a bit over” was acceptable in this genre.
I’m not known for my brevity, so I thought, “Awesome!” And yet, “a bit over” left room for interpretation. Too much room, as it turned out.
My first draft was 105K, but every time I addressed an issue my beta readers brought up, the manuscript got longer instead of shorter. By the last (Ha! Last!) revision, it had topped out at 120K.
I knew that was too long. I went through it beginning to end several times, doing the old choppity chop wherever I could. I took breaks, came back, and chopped more. I thought I was being ruthless.
I got it down to 115K and believed I couldn’t possibly cut anymore without losing important subplots. I convinced myself 115K was “a bit over” and began querying agents.
As time passed, and constructive comments from agents rolled in, I began to feel another major revision coming on. I brainstormed with trusted friends, had a lightbulb moment, rewrote the first chapter and chopped out 3,000 words. Then another 1,000 and another.
I felt good about 110K. That sounded more realistically like “a bit over.” Then I went to an agent/author “inside scoop” talk with debut novelist Marci Jefferson and her agent, Kevan Lyon, at the Historical Novel Society conference.
They gave many useful tidbits of information about writing and publishing, but the one that hit home most for me was about word count. I’d heard the question asked in a few other panels, but this was the first time someone gave an exact answer: “A bit over 100 for historical fiction. 105K at the most.”
My heart sank. I’d just painstakingly carved 5,000 words out of my book, and it wasn’t enough. I had to do it again. Another 5,000 words. Siiiiiiiiigh.
But, as if often has, being a rule follower served me well. Now that I had an official number from an official agent, I knew what I had to do. 105K, you say? All right. 105K it is.
I hit that number this morning, one week to the day from my return from the HNS conference, and my novel is better for it.
So if you’re struggling with cutting any of your precious words, my advice is twofold. First, get some totally objective opinions. Having agents – the ultimate objective readers – tell me the beginning was too slow lit a fire under me. I fixed the beginning (I hope), but I couldn’t speed it up and leave a languid middle and end, could I? So I cut out anything that could qualify as filler, anything repetitive, any thought bubbles that could already be inferred from the text, any scenes that could be summed up in one sentence without losing key character interactions.
Second, I stopped looking at the manuscript (mostly) for two months, while I waited to hear back from agents. That time gave me the distance I needed to let go of my darlings and go to town with the carving knife.
And you know what? Now I want to laugh at that silly sap who thought it was impossible to cut beyond 115K. Ten thousand words down, I don’t miss a single one.
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