All the posts I mentioned at London Writers Café on Showing & Telling
Freewriting: What is it? Why should you use it?

My story is far too long. What do I do?

A writer recently howled on a forum that his novel was far too long: it was 180,000 words when people were saying that no agent will look at a book over 90,000. He did sense that there were things to cut, but didn't know where to begin. And how on earth was he to get it down to half the length - lose every other word, effectively - and still have a novel, not a blood-sodden mess? There are an awful lot of writers who have faced up to this problem, but actually it's two relatively separate problems: what length you should be aiming for, and then how to get there.

First, the dreaded length question. In short stories, it seems very hard to find homes for anything much over 5,000 words, and many competitions are 2,000 or less, but submission guidelines on magazine websites should give you a steer. Novellas, notoriously, are impossible to sell, although the e-book is changing that since length is so much less evident. Anything below 15,000 is a long short story, anything between 20,000 and 50,000 probably counts as a novella, but in the overlap it depends more on the "feel" of the story - what you're setting out to do - than exact word-count.

On the length of novels, it is true that the great majority of commercial and literary-commercial-crossover fiction for adults falls into the bracket of, say, 90-110,000 words. But since the most important thing is that the book is the right length for its story and its voice - no words missing that the storytelling needs, no words in there that are doubling-up on the job - it's a mistake to get too hung up on that. If an agent or an editor loves the voice, the story, the premise and the writing, and thinks they're saleable, then if the length isn't ideal that wouldn't stop them at least saying "Let's talk". On the other hand most beginners' novels are not as tightly and vividly written as they could and need to be. I probably see one MS which is under-worded for every 10 to 15 which are over-worded. And the same is true of the slushpile; most people you submit your 170,000 worder to will suspect that it's really a 90,000-worder in dire need of liposuction; they may or may not bother to read far enough and hard enough to find out if their suspicion is mistaken. 

For what it's worth, in commercial fiction you're probably all right as long as it's somewhere in the range 75,000-120,000, for literary fiction you've got a bit more leeway: say 70,000-130,000. Don't judge the boundaries by your favourite very established authors, though, whether that's Wolf Hall at the fat end, or On Chesil Beach at the thin. As I explained in my post about earning a living from writing, the only useful comparisons for you are with writers who were first published in the last ten or twenty years. Creative/narrative non-fiction and memoir tend to be at the short end of the range. Certain genres - speculative fiction, historical fiction - are happy with things at the longer end, since readers love to feel they're buying into a great, fat "other" world. There are industry-specific worries which it's also worth knowing about, but not worth messing your book up for, such as the fact that significantly longer books start costing more to produce, while it's significantly harder for a publisher to create a buzz around a new author and his/her book if it's very short. 

So, having realised that the job on your hands isn't quite as bad as you'd feared, how do you go about it? There are several ways of getting rid of words in a story, and I think of them as Cutting, Condensing and Filleting.

Cutting is about taking out chunks. Are there scenes which don't really move the story on? Ask, yourself : "Why does the reader need to read this scene?" If the answer is that it shows a bit more of someone's character, or describes a setting, get rid of it. Then use scenes which do move the story on to also supply that stuff through character-in-action, and the way the characters experience the setting.

Subplots can create a lot of words which don't add much to the central story. Is this sub-plot scene - or this whole subplot - really earning its keep, in terms of how much it adds to the overall experience of the novel? Does it enrich not only the themes and the world, but genuinely make the main story stronger and more interesting? If you're writing fiction set in some kind of "other" world - history, another planet, a dystopian Salford or a South Sea Island - and you find it difficult to cut the world-building stuff, this post might help.

Condensing is more about seeing where the narrative could do the same work in less space. The classic example is within scenes. At the Globe and Blackfriars, Shakespeare had to find a story-reason for all the necessary characters to walk on stage, then give them a steady flow of things to say and do to each other that made sense for the story, and then find a story-reason for them to walk off. You don't have to do that. Indeed, I would (for a while) argue that it's really quite rare for us to need a whole scene narrated in real-time from the beginning to the end. For more on how to condense dialogue and action, click here.

Also, can you condense two characters into one? Two shopping centres or space-ships or dreary 30s semis into one? Two dinner parties or prison riots into one? It saves some words in setting up places and people, and gives the chosen one a little more space in the story to become vivid and individual. But, most importantly, it's our first encounter with a setting or event that has the most impact; the second time will have to be startlingly and significantly different, to match that. So unless that difference is crucial to the story, it's really worth doing some condensing and combining.

ETA: And as I suggested in a comment below, do remember that the reader reads much faster than you read-as-you-work, let alone as you write. So what to you feels like a safely long time before the next iteration of the theme/idea/image might not actually be very long at all in the real-time of reading: if so, the reader may feel a bit "beaten over the head" as Alison says in her comment. In which case you positively should cut some of the iterations.

Filleting is about winkling words out of sentences and paragraphs, without materially changing the events of the story. It's astonishing how much a ruthless "filtering pass" can shed, and cutting other kinds of "scaffolding" and "explaining" will get rid of more again, and just leave your story looking better than ever. I routinely find I've lost 15% of the word-count after getting rid of that kind of thing, and I'm not what most people would call an overwriter in the first place. Talking of which, thinking about "over-writing" may help you to see more places where words can go.

Thinking about how to tackle this process will also help you. Some thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Work on a new copy of the file. If it all goes horribly wrong, you can revert to factory settings.
  • Cut on hard copy. It's much easier to see your thought processes as you go, and you're much less likely to get carried away with polishing things up and fiddling, and thereby lose track of your thought process. And inputting the cuts when you're back at the computer is relatively quick, so it's the perfect way to review all your decisions in the light of your overall sense of the whole that you gained as you worked through it.
  • Use track changes if you're not working on hard copy. That way, all your thinking is logged, but you can review all your descisions before finally committing to them. It does get a bit muddly across a whole novel MS, but you could decide to review everything at the end of a session of work.
  • Make some policy decisions. You can just start at page one and cut anything you don't like the look of, but there will always be things which are genuinely good in themselves, which legitimately could both go or stay. It helps if you've decided as a matter of policy that, for example, you're thinning down a certain plot-strand. Or maybe you've decided to keep the theme of trust-versus-betrayal at full strength, but cut back on the theme of urban-versus-rural; that should help you decide which conversations and descriptions to be most ruthless with.
  • Reckon to do several cutting passes, ideally with a little time between them. Each time you'll be convinced that you can't cut another comma, and each time you go back, and now that you're not so conscious of what's gone, you'll see more of what you can still do. 
  • Remember the advice of my short-story-writer friend Susannah Rickards: look at the end, and cut the last two lines. Then two more. Then two more, and so on until you reach the first thing which absolutely must not be cut, because it's at the heart of the whole thing. Then look at the beginning of the story, and cut the first two lines. Then two more. Then two more, and so on. For novels, consider working not in lines but in paragraphs, or even in scenes.
  • Remember that different kinds of cutting may need different processes. If you're doing an explain-ectomy, then just working forward page-by-page is simple. But if you're fishing a plot-strand out then, if you're not to get in a muddle, it's probably safest to focus on doing all of that and then darning in the dangling threads before you switch jobs.
  • Given that difference, make a to-do-list which cuts the task into manageable-looking jobs, and also reflects the different nature of different processes. Above all, DON'T FIDDLE.
  • Don't let yourself think that the stuff you cut was "a mistake", that you were "wrong" or "stupid" to have let those words in there in the first place. Given the nature of creative process, and the stage you're at with your writing, at the time of writing they needed to be put on the page. Now, at this time of revising, they don't have to stay there: they have done their work and can be honourably retired.
  • When you're struggling to persuade yourself to murder a darling, that may be for a good reason: it's genuinely, in itself, a lovely bit of writing or a cracking scene. Allow yourself to enjoy it, and give your writerly wonderfulness a cheer for having created it. 
  • I always use the same file name for everything to do with a certain project, and there's always one called "NameOfNovelDump". It's much easier to cut things retire things honourably if I feel they're not gone for ever. And once in a blue moon, I find I do actually need something that was that chunk after all.
  • If you're in a genuine dilemma about cutting something for the greater good of the story, because you are thereby going to lose something worth having, look for the ram in the thicket before you get out the knife. Think about how you can do the same thing in another way or in another part of the story, or how you might give the story an equivalent enrichment, but one which needs less space. 
  • Finally, do one last, fast-and-forwards read - again, ideally on hard copy and even reading aloud - to get a sense of how everything's bedded down again, and pick up any dangling loose ends.

If you're assailed by some very common worries about doing this kind of work these might help:

And that's it. As I hope you've realised by now, cutting almost invariably results in a better piece. That's not just because one sheds the "process writing" which is no longer earning its keep, but because it makes you revisit all your decisions. I once had a 5,500 word story, which I had revised and workshopped down from perhaps 6,500, and was very happy with. Then I wanted to enter it into a competition with a 5,000 word limit, so I fought and sliced it down by another 10% to 4,999. There were very few "Duh, of course!" cuts - I'd done them long ago - and some were distinctly painful. Later, by the magic of Compare Documents, I was able to review my cuts. And of those, I restored only 250 words; the other 250 stayed cut, because the story was the better for it.

This post has been about "whittling down", but some writers always - and many writers sometimes - need to do what Margaret Atwood (I think it is - corrections gratefully received!) calls "whittling up", and for them, this link will help, until I get round to doing a fuller post. And best of luck!