Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com 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 Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.
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.
First, consider 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?
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?
Do your first drafts tend to be shorter or longer than what you targeted?