Apr 16 2012
Generally, I would recommend submitting an adult novel manuscript at 80-100,000 words. Here are some tips for shortening your manuscript if you’re considerably over that. (NOTE: Please don’t shorten your manuscript until you’ve actually finished a draft! Until it’s finished, completion should be your #1 goal).
1. If you have too many main characters, please eliminate and/or merge some and/or demote some to minor characters. If you’re an unpublished author, I’d recommend limiting yourself to at most 6 main characters (protagonists and antagonists total) that will require substantial space.
2. Eliminate and/or merge side characters. Individually, a side character doesn’t take as much space as a main character, but there are usually more SCs and it’s generally easier to reduce their roles because they have a smaller individual effect on the plot.
3. You can eliminate or pare back side plots. What the characters are doing when they’re NOT pursuing the main arc of the book? Is it worth the space?
- Relationships between major characters and side characters.
- Anything a side character does without developing a major character.
- Anything characters do in their daily lives or day jobs (e.g. when they’re being Bruce Wayne rather than Batman).
4. Make the main plot more efficient. For example, remove intermediate steps in the main conflict which don’t contribute enough to tension and/or character-development. For example, in the last book of of the Hunger Games series, the main character spends about 6300 words taking down an intermediate obstacle (a fortress standing between her and the main enemy). The fight wasn’t terribly interesting and it didn’t show us much about the characters we didn’t see elsewhere. The author could probably have shaved off a few thousand words there. Another possibility is making the villain’s scheme less monotonous/repetitive. For example, if you had your villain and hero racing around the world to gather 9 plot coupons, it might help to cut that down to (say) 5 so that you have more space for each intermediate step and readers have less cause to grouse (“Oh, God, another Pokemon badge?“).
4.1. Another way to make the main arc more efficient is to shorten the buildup to the inciting event. For example, if your superhero action novel takes 20,000 or 30,000 words to give the main character superpowers, you might be burying the lede too much (assuming the superpowers are the most important plot development early on–if the action is secondary to the story, that might not be the case).
5. Convert some/most of your adverb phrases into shorter verb phrases. For example, “He moved quickly through…” could be “He ran through…” or “He raced through…” Your book probably has hundreds of adverbs*, so you could probably save a page or two here.
*To count your adverbs, have your word processor find all of the examples of “ly ” in your manuscript.
5.1. Root out passive and/or unnecessarily long phrases. For example, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” can be shortened to “Dead leaves covered the ground,” saving you seven words. I’d recommend having your word processor finding all examples of “there were” and “there was” and rephrasing most of them.
6. Glance through each of your chapters for unnecessary words/phrases and eliminate them. For example, if somebody has just thrown a plate at the wall, you don’t need to tell us he’s angry or surly. Additionally, the word “then” is usually unnecessary in sequences of events. For example, in “Mike did X and then he did Y,” you don’t need to tell us “then” because it’s obvious that Y came after X. (Otherwise, you would have put Y first).