November 26, 2019

How to cut 100K words from your manuscript


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writing a book that long in defiance of all industry advice and expectation, be very ready for it to become extremely unpublished.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.

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.

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 I can.)



A. R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, a debut novel publishing 12/3/2019.