Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Too Long, Too Short: A Closer Look At Getting Your Manuscript To The Right Length


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

A couple Mondays ago, Stephanie talked about how to write characters who are different from each other. I had a guest post scheduled that week, so today, I wanted to catch up on that subject and show you how such a thing might look on the page. Since I have access to my first and last drafts, I’ll show you some actual examples of how I increased and decreased my word counts.




If your books are too short 

Description

Most writers forget to add description in a first draft. If this is you, adding in description throughout your book is a great way of boosting your word count. 


People
Here is an exchange from my first draft of THIRST in which Eli and his companions return to the lodge after their long camping trip (54 words).

       “First!” I jogged up the split log steps of Deadwood Lodge and yanked on the antler door handle. It didn’t budge.

       “This ain’t a race, McShane.” Andy Reinhold, a retired US Army Ranger, our guide, and owner of Wilderness Way Adventures, clumped up the stairs behind me. “What? Is it locked? It shouldn’t be.”

And here is the same section as it appears after a rewrite, adding just a little bit of description for Andy Reinhold (78 words).

       “First!” I jogged up the split log steps of Deadwood Lodge and yanked on the antler door handle. It didn’t budge.

       “This ain’t a race, boy.” Andy Reinhold, a retired US Army Ranger—our guide, and owner of Wilderness Way Adventures—clumped up the stairs behind me. “What? Is it locked? It shouldn’t be.” His hair and beard were so bushy that his eyes were pretty much all you could see of his face. The quintessential mountain man.


Setting
Here is an excerpt from the first draft of my novel King’s Blood (76 words):

       “Land.” It really was. “Land!” [Trevn] yelled down. “Land to port beam!” He wasn’t the only one to have seen it. Signal flags were waving high on three of the nearest ships.
       This must be the island Captain Livina had discovered. Was there truly only one? He squinted into the distance but could not see any other islands from this vantage point.

       Might this place become their new home? It didn’t look large enough to him.

And here is the final text that appeared in the print book (152 words):

       “Land.” It really was. “Land!” [Trevn] yelled down. “Land to port beam!” He wasn’t the only one to have seen it. Signal flags were waving high on three of the nearest ships.

       They had reached Bakurah Island. A few days before schedule, as the admiral had predicted. Trevn pulled out his grow lens and studied the shoreline. It didn’t seem to have much more than a sloping elevation. There were no cliffs or cracks that he could see, no river holes, no distant mountains. The strangeness of that and the multitude of trees set him on guard. From what he knew of land, this didn’t look large enough to support the passengers of some six hundred boats. Trevn squinted into the distance but saw no other islands from this vantage point. Beneath the ship, the water was so clear that he could see a massive coral reef with colorful fish darting about.


As you can see, with both examples, I simply went in and added description where I had neglected to have any before. Now, not every single person or place needs to be so fully described. If you do that, you risk making your book overly wordy and boring. Important characters, however, should be described, preferably the first time they appear in the story. And describing setting, even if it’s only a sentence or partial phrase, can really help immerse your reader in the storyworld. I make it a rule to describe each new setting the first time my characters arrive there, especially if it’s a place they will come to again and again.


Change some of the said tags to action tags
Changing some of your said tags to action tags can really help the flow of your story. Go back through and look for dialogue that seems to fit with action. If a character is doing something, describing that can be a good way to both add words and show the reader what’s going on. You can also look for places to describe characters when they speak. But again, you don’t want to change every said tag. Sometimes you want the back-and-forth to be quick.

Here is a first draft scene from THIRST (237 words), in which the crew has stopped to get gas. FYI, Pete is the gas station attendant.


       “The electricity is out all over?” I asked.
       “Well, I don’t know ’bout all over,” Pete said, “but it’s been out ’round here for the past three days.”
       “Three days!” Logan shrieked. “That’s a long time for the power to be out.”
       “Sure is,” Pete said.
       “Does that work like a hand water pump?” I asked.
       “That’s right.”
       “Looks like pee,” Logan said.
       “Nice, Logan,” I said.
       “Well it does,” Logan said. “I’ve never seen gas before. You know, like in a see-through glass. I didn’t know what color it was.”
       “You know why the power is out?” I asked Pete.
       He slid the pump nozzle into the Evoque’s gas tank and flipped a switch. The gas in the globe started to drain. “All I can reckon is that everyone got too sick to work the grid.”
       “Everyone got sick?” Zaq asked.
       “I suspect so.”
       “What kind of sick?” Logan asked.
       “How’s it you ain’t hear of the sick? It all but took over the world the past two weeks.”
       “We’ve been camping,” Riggs said.

       “Well, it all happened real fast like. I had a blood sugar test over in Flagstaff. Had to fast from food and drink the day before. That’s when it hit ’round here. By the time I got to the doctor’s office, the place was a madhouse. Doc told me not to drink any water that wasn’t bottled. It’s why I’m still healthy.”



And here is the rewritten text (296 words):


       “The electricity is out all over?” I asked.
       “Well, I don’t know ‘bout all over,” Pete said, “but it’s been out ‘round here for the past three days.”
       “Three days!” Logan shrieked. “That’s a long time to be without power.”
       “Sure is,” Pete said.
       “Does that work like a hand water pump?” I asked, intrigued by the old gas pump.
       “That’s right.”
       “Looks like pee,” Logan said.
       I snorted. “Nice, Logan.”
       “Well it does.” Logan slurped at his braces. He’d never really gotten used to them. “I’ve never seen gas before. You know, like in a see-through container. I didn’t know what color it was.”
       “You know why the power is out?” I asked Pete.
       He slid the pump nozzle into the Evoque’s gas tank and flipped a switch. The gas in the globe started to drain. “All I can reckon is that everyone got too sick to work the grid.”
       “Everyone got sick?” Zaq asked.
       “I suspect so.”
       I thought back to the rash on the dead man’s body. “Something going around?”
       “How’s it you ain’t heard of the sick? It all but took over the world the past two weeks.”
       My stomach twisted. Zaq raised his eyebrows at me. Yeah, Pete was giving me the heebie jeebies too.
       “We’ve been camping,” Riggs said.
       “What happened?” I asked.
       The globe had emptied. Pete flipped the switch again and went back to cranking the handle. “I had a blood sugar test over in Flagstaff. Had to fast from food and drink the day before. That’s when it hit ‘round here. It all happened real fast like. By the time I got to the doctor’s office, the place was a madhouse. Doc told me not to drink any water that wasn’t bottled. That’s why I’m still healthy.”

Adding a subplot or plot thread
In my novel Broken Trust, my first draft had one serious plot hole. I had created a subplot with my character Nick and his girlfriend, but it didn’t tie in with the rest of the story. So I spent some time brainstorming how to connect Nick’s story with Spencer’s. Because Spencer is a spy, the obvious solution was to have him investigating Nick’s girlfriend. This added several scenes to the book. I placed them strategically, so that his investigation would flow, and that started with his recognizing her on a movie in the very first chapter. Here is a scene from the first draft of Broken Trust that was originally the first appearance of Kimatra in the story and later became the second time Spencer had seen her (110 words).

       A gorgeous supermodel was waiting outside. I slowed down, staring at her face and legs and, well, everything. She had dark skin; thick, long black hair, and a tight dress that left little to my over-active imagination.
        “Kimatra!” Nick pushed past me, knocking into my shoulder.
       The supermodel smiled at Nick, reached out to him. “Hey, baby.”
       Nick grabbed her, twirled her around, and pushed her up against the wall of the school. Then they started tongue dancing.
       Dang.
       I looked away, annoyed that Nick had a psychotically hot girlfriend. But then I remembered that name. Kimatra.
       I jogged to catch up with Isabel. “Hey, can I talk to you?”

And here is the same scene from the final draft once I had set up Kimatra earlier in the book as someone Spencer would eventually investigate (305 words):

       . . . a gorgeous girl was waiting outside the classroom. I slowed down so I could stare at her face and legs and, well, everything. She had dark skin; thick, long black hair; and a tight dress that left little to my overactive imagination. But that wasn’t what caught my attention—seriously. I had seen this girl before. In a movie. Jolt II, to be precise.
       I was about to meet the pregnant actress from yesterday’s vision.
       Only she didn’t look pregnant. At all.
       Before I could figure out what to say, Nick pushed past, knocking into my shoulder.
The actress smiled wide, reached out to him. “Hey, baby.”
       Nick grabbed her, twirled her around, and they started sucking face.
       Dang.
       As I was staring way too hard, I caught sight of faint Jolt grid marks up her right arm and forgot to breathe.
       Were those for real? Or was she just fangirling, like those Doctor Whovians with their pen-and-ink hash marks?
       Wait. Forget that. Nick’s girlfriend was pregnant!
       Or soon would be.
       My whole face burned at that thought. Mother pus bucket, what was I supposed to do now?
       The actress broke away from Nick and waved at Isabel, who had just exit the classroom. “Hi, Bella, girl,” she sang.
       Isabel smirked, real unfriendly like, said, “Hola, Kimatra,” and kept on going.
       That name—Kimatra—sent another memory rushing over me. Something Prière had once said. Nick and Kimatra relocated their make-out session to a nearby tree. I stared until Arianna exited the classroom and gave me a dirty look that brought me back to earth.

       I took off after Isabel, walking as fast as my crippled self could. I caught up with her in the parking lot. “Hey, you know that girl Kimatra, right? Can I ask you some questions about her?”


If your books are too long


I don’t have as many examples here to show you about shortening your prose, since I’d pretty much be posting cut scenes. Here are my tips to cut words:

-Look for too much description. Trim it down.
-Examine action tags and dialogue to see if you can tighten things up. Cut any action tags that don’t really add anything to the character or scene.
-If your book is overly long, you might need to cut some perfectly good scenes. Ask yourself if each scene is moving the plot forward. If a scene is only there to characterize, cut it and look to fit in that characterization elsewhere.
-Do a search for weasel words and cut, cut, cut. This can be tedious, but it can also really help.
-Look for paragraphs that have only one-to-five words on the last line. Trim that paragraph until it bumps up to the previous line. For example, making a five-line paragraph only four lines.
-Look for chapters that have only one-to-five lines on the last page. Go back through the chapter and trim until you get that chapter one page shorter. Here is an example of how that might look from my book Broken Trust. I cut the word "really" and reworded a sentence to take up less space ("guy" was much shorter than "profile match"). It only saved me two words, but it did make the paragraph shorter, which also made the chapter shorter. This type of thing doesn't help so much with overall word count as it does for page count and typesetting a manuscript for publication. But hey, two words are two words!

Original (62 words):
       I had to get away. Anya had practically killed me last summer with her knife, and I really didn’t want her to know I now sported a cross-shaped scar on my chest. I had a feeling she’d take that as proof that I was the profile match she’d been looking for and decide to torture me for information I knew nothing about.

Rewrite (60 words):
       I had to get away. Anya had practically killed me last summer with her knife, and I didn’t want her to know I now sported a cross-shaped scar on my chest. I had a feeling she’d take that as proof that I was the guy she’d been looking for and decide to torture me for information I knew nothing about.


Does this help? After seeing some of the above examples, do you have any ideas on how you can make your manuscript longer or shorter? If you’ve dealt with this before, what are some things you did to reach your word-count goal?

9 comments:

  1. This is so helpful! Thank you so much!

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  2. I have never thought of cutting words to shorten the overall look of a paragraph. In fact, most of these shortening ideas are things I've yet to employ. Since I'm editing now, I can't wait to try.

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    1. I mostly use this when typesetting a book to self-publish, but I have also used it as another way to push myself to write really tight. (This is did not have time to do on the Kinsman Chronicles, hence the 120K length...)

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  3. It's always hard for me to imagine how to cut out words, but seeing that end example really helped! I'll probably be doing a lot of that in my second drafts :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. I'm glad it helped, Ellie. Good luck on your edits. :-)

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  4. This is awesome! I'm only in my first draft at the moment, but I can already tell that I'm going to need to work on my novel length :).

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