Monday, January 9, 2017

What To Do When Your Manuscript Is Too Short Or Too Long

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

If you're writing a book for publication, whether you're planning to self-publish or submit to traditional houses, you probably know that your book needs to be a certain length. The ideal word count for a book varies depending on genre, and while there are always exceptions (books that sell well despite being shorter or longer than normal) if you want your book to find its happy place in the market, you don't want to count on being an exception.

While each genre has its own ideal length, generally speaking, if you're a new writer trying to get published or get readers to take a chance on you, it's best to not go over 100,000 words. 

If you're anything like I was as a young writer, you're thinking, "That is no problem at all! Really, my issue is trying to keep my book from being a novella!"

Or you might be like the sweet girl I met at a writer's workshop a week ago, who was in tears because her book is over 200,000 words long and she doesn't know what to do.

So what do you do if your books aren't magically the length they should be? Here are some ideas.

If your books are too short:

I have been there. With basically every book I've ever written.

Start by considering your draft style. Are you a bare bones type of writer? I am. My first drafts are scrawny, with lots of dialogue and hardly any description at all. So I've learned that when I start working on edits, I'm going to add thousands of words just with description. If I'm trying to write an 80,000 word novel, I don't panic if my first draft finishes at 65,000 words because that tends to work out okay.

But if I was aiming for an 80,000 word novel and my draft came in at 40,000 then I would know I had a problem. So what do you do if your book comes in way too short?

First, resist the urge to throw in some "extra stuff." You don't want to just add more words. You want to add more story, and that takes being intentional.

It's possible you have plenty of story to work with, but you haven't mined the idea for all it's worth. This has frequently happened to me when I've read my first drafts. I often see all kinds of potential that I didn't initially dig into. Other times, I've brainstormed with writer friends, and they spotted missed opportunities.

Or it's possible that you don't have enough story for the length that you hoped it would be. I've had that happen too. What I've done in those situations is add a subplot. This gets tricky, because you don't want it to sound like you just added a subplot at the end. I wrote a post a few years ago on How To Add To Your Plot After You've Finished Your First Draft, and that can help guide you through the weaving-it-in process. Another post you might find helpful is this one on combining story ideas.

As I've written more complete manuscripts, I've developed a feel for how much story I need to sustain the word count I'm targeting. The same will be true for you too, I bet! The more you write, the better you'll get at pacing a story for the length you want.

If your books are too long:

If you write epic fantasy, congratulations! Longer books are part of the drill. But if your contemporary romance manuscript is clocking in at 175,000 words ... that's a problem.

First, I know it's not fun to hear, but it's possible not all those words are absolutely necessary. If you're just 5k or 10k over where you want to be, you can borrow a trick from my friend Roseanna White. If she is 10,000 words over her word count, and her book is 300 pages long, she divides 10k by 300, which is 33ish. Then she tries to cut 33 words on every page. The result is a leaner, clearer story.

But if a bit of word trimming doesn't get you where you need to be, consider:
  • Cutting a character or two: Is it possible you could combine a few characters? That can be painful, but you could always save them for a later novel.
  • Squashing the timeline: This is something I frequently get wrong in my first drafts. I tend to have my story take place over too long of a stretch of time, and it drags down the tension. What happens if you accelerate your timeline?
  • Cut a red herring or twist: A red herring is a clue that your main character follows that ends up going nowhere. Could you cut one of those? What about a twist or two that you have in the plot?
But if you decide to make cuts, don't delete those passages! You can save them and turn them into behind-the-scenes extras for readers to enjoy on your website, or as something special for those who sign up for your author newsletter.

Maybe you're more like 50k to 75k over. Or more. Here are some ideas for that:
  • Reconsider all your POV characters. Do all of them tell a unique perspective of the story? If not, maybe you could cut one of them or change them into a non-POV character. Or would this character be better served by having their story told in a separate book?
  • Is there a natural place where you could cut this book in half? Or, depending on how big it is, into thirds?
  • Are there too many subplots? If it doesn't serve the main story, could you cut it or move it to a different book? Are there any trails your character takes that ultimately lead nowhere?
The answer might not be obvious to you on how to cut down your massive manuscript that you love and have labored over, but I bet if a writer friend read your story (or even a 5 to 10 page synopsis) they could spot some potential places for trimming. It's always easier when you're not the one who has to do all the work!

Do your first drafts tend to be shorter or longer than what you targeted?


  1. My books normally tend to be on the shorter side. I have a book (that was intended to be a novella, but decided to turn into a novel xD) that I'm revising into a novel right now and OH GRACIOUS is it hard! Thanks a bunch for this post - it's definitely going to help ;).

    ~ Savannah

    1. I'm glad this post will be helpful with where you are, Savannah!

  2. Since I write epic fantasy, I'm not all that concerned--my book is at the moment approaching 200,000 words and isn't finished yet. It's something to think about, though, considering that even now I'm seeing a few places where I actually want to add more to the story. Thanks for the post!

    1. That's amazing. I have a lot of admiration for those who can write such a long story!

  3. My first draft for NaNo was too short (at 30-40k) so I ended up with a new plot point that took it to 90k. It could almost be like a "part 2" but not a sequel. Just something I need to fix in editing...

  4. I definitely tend to write long. With my current project, the first draft was about 130K. It is a fantasy, but that's still pretty long. As I re-outlined for the second draft, though, the story got even bigger. Really, all along it was intend to be a duology or trilogy, but I couldn't quite figure out how to mix the different stories being told. Now that I've figured that out, I just have to figure out where those natural splits are. :D

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Well, I am definitely not a bare-bones-draft kind of person. I usually use the details that come out when I sit down to write a scene to discover the world I'm writing in and the characters I'm sharing it with. As a result, it takes me a long time to finish a draft even without editing, and my projects tend to be on the long side. Thank you for addressing this issue! I never liked trimming, but I'm sure if I made a point to eliminate unnecessary scenes/characters/time, my book would be a lot better. If I may, I would like to add a tip of my own for those whose books are too short. If you locate areas of exposition (which tell the story rather than show it), try to find a way to expand the scene a little with some meaningful details. Sometimes it's the little things that pop into a character's mind during otherwise boring sections that help the reader connect to your cast.

    1. That's a great point, Olivia. I'm glad you brought that up, because yes, showing a story is much more wordy than telling it.

  7. Heh... Yeah my first NaNo came to about 80,000 (I made it to the big fifty, and I continued with it in January of the next year but never finished it).
    Many times in writing that book I found myself writing very simplistic prose in the scene, yet sticking in an overabundance of scenes.
    So it's safe to assume I'm a meaty (somewhat) bare bones writer.

    I've learned a lot from that wretched manuscript such as some little quirks I have to work with.

    1. I have many manuscripts that have been great for learning, but not much else!

  8. This is extremely helpful! I'm having both these problems with some different WIPs, so I'll definitely be referring back to this post.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  9. Ahhh yes I've needed this post! My ultimate word goal for my first novel was at 75k, but I finished the second draft (the first was handwritten) at 45k. I struggled to get it up to 51k, but burned myself out on it in the process.
    My current WIP (first draft) is coming to a close, and the word count is around 52k now. My goal is for it to be about 80k by the end of draft 2. I'm so glad I have this post for reference now! :D

  10. These were some great tips. Indeed if your romance or non-epic fantasy manuscript hits over 150,000 - 200,000're gonna need to cut that down. Thankfully I'm not having that issue and best of luck to all the hard working writers out there.

  11. I am working on a book that is called Hall of Dreams. I'm doing it with my friend, and right now it's 26,326 words. Originally, it was supposed to be both of us working together, but then he just blanked out later in Part II. Now it's pretty much just me writing it while he doesn't do anything. I don't want to get angry at him but it's a lot of work and I have a couple of things I need to update every day- Hall of Dreams, Too Complicated (that's a manuscript I'm working on with someone else) and a YouTube Channel that has to upload every day. I realize this is kind of like a Dear Abby post or something like that, but I figured you would know what I should do. I have 2 problems- A. My manuscript is pretty short (I'm trying to get it to 40,000 words) and B. My friend is being lazy and not working on it with me. What should I do? Thank You!