November 26, 2019
How to cut 100K words from your manuscript
by A. R. Moxon
My debut novel, The Revisionaries, will be released on December 3.
A little secret, now: It wasn’t supposed to get published—according to me. Before I started, I told myself that the book wouldn’t get published.
I sure showed me!
Let me back up. I wanted it to be published; I simply knew that it wouldn’t be. By this I mean that in late 2011, before I began writing, I made a rough plot outline and did a little bit of math based on the pages I’d already completed, to arrive at an estimated page count around 400,000 words. Seized with a creeping suspicion, I performed a little bit of online research, which immediately confirmed my instinct. I was utterly screwed.
For those of you who don’t know, general wisdom states that a debut author is supposed to write about 80,000 to 110,000-word manuscripts, depending on genre, making the scope of my project, if you’ll permit me use of a little industry jargon, “absolutely insane.” But I had the story I wanted to write, and I wanted to write it all, so I shrugged and decided to tilt at the windmill, promising myself that if it weren’t published by my birthday in 2020, I’d self-publish a couple vanity copies to sit on my shelf, and then write a shorter second novel. Thus I insulated myself against self-loathing; I would be an idiot, but not a fool.
(Listen to me: If you are thinking of writing a book that long in defiance of all industry advice and expectation, be very ready for it to become extremely unpublished. That way if you get very very lucky—and I got very very lucky—it can be a nice surprise, and if you don’t, it won’t be a nasty one. Any other way lies regret.)
To avoid tedium now, I’ll fast-forward four years, after I’d finished the manuscript—which was not 400,000 words long, but rather a lean 330,000! My goodness, only three times longer than a sensible person would have made it! After a year shopping it, I found myself exactly where somebody with a debut doorstop should expect: writing a new shorter manuscript. But then, an astonishing thing happened. A publisher—that would be the delightful Dennis Johnson of Melville House—asked to take a look, and read it and decided he liked it enough to publish it.
“Just one thing,” Dennis said. “At this length I think the only thing many people will notice is the length. We’d want you to cut it down about a third. Do you think you could do that?”
“Yes, absolutely!” I replied. Please note, I had absolutely no idea how I could do that, but I knew the answer to that question. As I said, I’m an idiot but not a fool.
I told you all that because I want to pass on a few things you learn about yourself and the crafts of writing and editing when you’re cutting an entire normal-sized book out of your enormous book.
- It’s going to hurt. My friends, it is going to. You’ll need to cut characters, which will allow you to cut down whole plotlines and entire chapters. You’re going to spend six months cleaning up your book to accommodate those decisions, and then another six months cleaning up the cleanup. You’re going to rewrite the entire beginning, and then take a call on Christmas Day a couple weeks before your deadline, because even though it’s better, it’s not yet good, and then you’re going to go back and read it and realize that this report is correct, and you’re going to plop yourself down in front of your screen on Boxing Day and you’re going to want to die but instead of dying you’re going to start re-writing your beginning again. Because that’s the process.
- Being understood isn’t the mission. Listen: Your editor will probably like your book and your writing a great deal—why else would they be publishing your book?—but it’s not your editor’s job to like your book. It’s your editor’s job to tell you what isn’t working. You made a choice, and the choice has resulted in a book that is not as good as it could be. This is hard, because you made those choices for a reason. You’ll want to explain those reasons.
However (though your editor will probably understand your book), it will begin to dawn on you it’s actually not your editor’s job to understand your book the way you understand it; rather, it’s your editor’s job to understand all the things about your book you don’t understand, and to explain them in a way that will help you understand why. (Honestly, editors are sort of magicians.) Often, these explanations will make sense, but sometimes they’ll be horrifying—because they haven’t understood your book exactly how you understand it, and for a very simple reason. They already have somebody who understands the book that way. They have you, dummy.
It’s your job to figure out what is meant by these suggestions, and then fix the problem in a very you sort of way. Because that’s the process.
- Think of it as a game if you can. Can you cut that character in a way that maintains the reason for the character to exist, and introduces even more fun and ambiguous mind-chewiness? Do that! Can you fix your editor’s objections in a way that still allows you to honor the reason you made the choice in the first place? Do that! Can you honor the spirit of the request rather than the letter of it, and make a fix that you actually like more than what you had? Do that! Watch the word count melt away to a trim and fit (but still baffling) 210,000. You’re winning! You’ll probably think you’re getting one over on your editor for a while, until it begins to occur to you that you’re, ah, fixing your book, which was the whole idea, because …
- Everybody wants the book to succeed. Obviously, right? It might really begin to sink in as you see the care with which the publishing team replicates your various story threads into different fonts to help convey the shifts, or the gorgeous art-deco poster designs inside, or the craft of the layout itself, the dust-jacket cover that really pops, the embossment on the spine, all of it. My friends, I’m here to tell you … it even smells
Everybody’s working to make a great book. Everybody believes it will be one.
How about one last lesson, to make it a nice even five?
- If your book can lose 100,000 words and still work, it probably needed to lose them. Jumping Jehoshaphat, what a lot of (fun) work. This one is exactly the length it needs to be now, and I think people will love it, and I can’t wait for people to let me know if I’m right. Perhaps I’ll give the audiobook reader’s voice a break next time and write short.
(If I can.)
A. R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, a debut novel publishing 12/3/2019.