Apr 16 2012

How to Shorten a Novel Manuscript Which Is Too Long

Published by at 2:17 pm under Pacing,Plotting,Writing Articles

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).

 

Substantive Changes

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 If you’re an unpublished author, I’d recommend limiting yourself to at most 6 main characters (protagonists and antagonists total) that will require substantial space.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).

 

Phrasing Changes

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).

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “How to Shorten a Novel Manuscript Which Is Too Long”

  1. Mynaon 17 Apr 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Thank you for this article, it’s very helpful! (As your articles always are.) The current manuscript I’m working on has length issues, so this will help a lot to keep me from rambling when I write chapters…

  2. ekimmakon 17 Apr 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Despite being an unpublished author, I really wanted to make my first novel about a large number of superheroes. Does it make me a terrible writer that I chose to ignore people’s advice?

  3. B. McKenzieon 17 Apr 2012 at 9:33 pm

    “Does it make me a terrible writer that I chose to ignore people’s advice?” Uhh, no, but it might raise issues for your characterization. These issues are not insurmountable (see Wild Cards, for example), but I think they’d be a stumbling block for most first-time authors.

  4. Milanon 18 Apr 2012 at 2:26 am

    7. Experiment with Google translator to find a more space-efficient language.

    8. Remove all the spaces.

    I haven’t had much opportunity to shorten my own novels (plural? where’d that come from?) but the last time I offered to review a novel written by someone else it turned out to be 250,000 words. The plot was fairly linear with few characters, but some of the scenes were repetitive battles so the author was able to condense the best lines of each into a single scene. That was “Book I”. I’m not sure how the rest of the trilogy is going…

  5. Anion 18 Apr 2012 at 8:06 am

    Thank you! This is what I needed. And I already know what I’m going to do when I finish, cut Rebecca and have her act more as a background character, thus eliminating her section of the story, and try to condense and lot of the description in Anita’s chapters. I’ll have to find other ways to show how much she notices her environment. (The fact that she notices everything is plot relevant, and I don’t want it to come out of nowhere.)

  6. YoungAuthoron 18 Apr 2012 at 12:27 pm

    i wish i had this problem

  7. B. Macon 18 Apr 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Milan: “The last time I offered to review a novel written by someone else it turned out to be 250,000 words. The plot was fairly linear with few characters, but some of the scenes were repetitive battles so the author was able to condense the best lines of each into a single scene. That was “Book I”. I’m not sure how the rest of the trilogy is going…” Unless the author has gotten substantially sharper with practice and/or has become an ace at rewriting, I feel pretty confident guessing that the series is dead on arrival. I’ve heard of 200,000 word manuscripts getting published, but they are DEFINITELY the exception–to earn that sort of consideration, a manuscript has to be INCREDIBLE.

  8. Anion 19 Apr 2012 at 7:04 am

    What’s DOA?

  9. B. McKenzieon 19 Apr 2012 at 10:42 am

    Dead on arrival.

  10. Anion 19 Apr 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Ah, thank you!

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply