Oh God I’ve earwormed myself for a week, and probably you too. Sorry about that.
I was spurred to write this by a) my MS starting to runneth over, and b) a thread on Twitter where someone commented on the need to cut her 140K romance novel (gaaak). The advice given included:
- Don’t cut it! Every word is precious!
- Divide it into two books.
- Cut ‘really’ and ‘very’ and the odd speech tag, that’ll definitely take out 60K.
(Let me just say, if you’re going to take writing advice off the internet, and you probably are because you’re reading this, in the name of God don’t take it off Twitter.)
So what do we do with an over-long book? Well, the first question is:
Does my book need to be this long?
I haven’t read it, but I’m happy to say no anyway. Very, very few long books need to be that long. OK, A Suitable Boy or Middlemarch or Sacred Games or London Belongs to Me, but what you need to ask yourself is, am I in fact a Dickensian level genius depicting entire inner and outer worlds with the sweep of my pen, or did I just go on a bit?
If you can maintain your vibrant narrative drive and pacing, plot interest, characterisation and energy levels, doubtless the reader will be carried along. If, however, you have sufficient plot for an average romance novel, but you feel like you need twice as many words to tell it, ask yourself why.
But KJ, it’s necessary character development and the careful delineation of their growing relationship!
OK but 140K of ‘twenty-eight times they went to the coffee shop and talked’ belongs at AO3 or Wattpad. (That isn’t a criticism: I think it is glorious that there are people who want to write 140K character studies, and people who want to read them, and a place where both sets of people can meet.) If you want to try for romance trad publication, you need your book to fall within the pretty wide parameters of the genre. A modern category romance is maybe 50-60K, a contemporary tradpub is more like 70-90K. Historicals tend to run a bit longer. The publisher will have guidelines.
If you’re planning to self pub you can of course do what you want. But if you’re charging people money, you still need to be honest with yourself as to whether you have a big book or just a bloated book.
So how do we deal with an oversized book? Well, the best advice I have is:
Don’t write one.
The best point to prevent yourself being stuck with a wildly overlong book is before you’ve typed out all those words. As you write, check in on where you are in the wordcount vs where you are in the story. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and you’re at 70K but only a quarter into your plot, you’ve messed up.
We have all found ourselves trapped in a Scene That Never Ends. (Yes it goes on and on, my friend. Some people started writing it not knowing what it was, but people keep writing it just because…) I recall a writer friend screaming, “Help, I’m trapped in a sequence of Two Men Having a Curry and I can’t get out!” The trick is to realise you aren’t going anywhere before you’ve spent a month in there.
(It would doubtless be possible to write an entire romance novel of Two Men Having a Curry as a single scene in which they fall in love over the meal. Actually that sounds brilliant, someone do it. But if it’s a scene in a book, it needs to be scene length, not book length.)
OK. Suppose you didn’t listen to me and you’ve accidentally written a 140K romance. What to do?
Sometimes you do indeed need more than one standard book’s worth of words. My Will Darling Adventures is a trilogy because I could never have got Will and Kim to a HEA in a single 80K book. That said, it was planned as a trilogy from the start and each part has a clearly defined romance arc that comes to a satisfactory-for-now conclusion plus a separate external plot with an ending. It’s three books. That’s not the same as one book in three parts.
If your story is genuinely tightly constructed, and every scene contributes, and the relationship is moving forward all the time, dividing it into two may be a sensible choice. But each should have a real break point, and a real ending. Nobody likes a two-part story where the first part simply stops, rather than actually finishing. Moreover, if part 1 stops at a cliffhanger or a breakup, you are liable to annoy romance readers something chronic. The promise of romance is a satisfactory ending and if you don’t deliver without warning, some readers will happily click ‘next book’, but many others will click ‘one star’. So think very hard about how you’re going to work this. And if you do decide to sell a single story in two halves, make it clear in your marketing. Readers are open to all sorts of things as long as they are given fair warning.
Right. /cracks knuckles/
For a start, you are not going to lose 60K of bloat by trimming adverbs and speech tags. You are going to need garden shears, not thinning scissors. Here’s what to look for.
Do you have three sassy best friends where one could fulfil all the necessary plot function? Do we need to meet the heroine’s whole extended family? What is the cute kid or the guest appearance by the last book’s hero actually for?
In an ideal world, every aspect of your novel serves multiple functions. It keeps a story tight and makes it feel woven together and satisfying. If a character in your novel serves only one plot function, that sounds to me like a character whose job could be given to someone else. (That is, if you have a neighbourly auntie who gives wise advice and an office lady who helps cover for the heroine’s boardroom sex sessions, give the office lady the advice role and lose the auntie.) Make every character earn their place.
If you have sequel bait characters for the next book who aren’t earning their keep as secondary characters in this book, rethink. I recently read a romance novel (first of a different-MCs trilogy) where all four MCs from the next two books hung around the plot like leather-jacketed extras in Grease, offering comic banter and moral support from the sidelines. They could all have been cut without affecting the story in the slightest, losing an easy 15K and allowing us to actually get into the romance without the constant interruption slowing it to a glacial pace. Sequel bait characters should make you want the next book. Do I sound like I want the next book?
Ask yourself: Would this character’s removal materially affect the development of the plot or character arcs? What role does this person play? (If the answer is “comic relief”, do us all a solid and get the axe.) (Yes, I’m grumpy.)
If you cut this scene, would the book still work? If not, just how much of this scene would you have to keep? If it’s five lines, cut the scene and find another place for those five lines to go.
Every scene needs to earn its keep, and as above, ideally it needs to do multiple jobs. If you have a scene in which the MCs are discussing the break-in at the cupcake factory, and a scene where they trade sexy banter over cupcakes, how about amping up the discussion scene with sexual tension instead, thus doing both at once?
Beware multiple endings. If you’ve seen the final Lord of the Rings film with its SIX ENDINGS ACROSS FORTY-FIVE MINUTES MOTHER OF GOD you will know what I mean, but books do this too. Granted it can be hard to say goodbye to your characters, but believe me, you find it a lot harder than the reader will. Do you actually need an epilogue where they’ve got a baby? How about saving it for a newsletter bonus scene?
One characteristic of very long romance novels is often a sense of, for want of a better word, stuckness. The MCs spend chapter after chapter circling over the same thoughts about how they can’t imagine the other one would ever fancy them/can’t possibly fancy their best friend’s little sister, or repeating the same pattern of interaction (they go out, they get on, one of them says something snarky, they go off in a huff…). If your MCs are in a loop of that kind, break it. Each scene needs to advance the relationship, not just tell us more about the same thing.
I will here, once again, quote the best editorial comment I have ever received: “This passage feels like you are explaining the plot to yourself.” Watch out for this, it’s an incredibly common cause of bloat (especially in my first drafts). Here ‘plot’ also applies to conflict. If the heroine is repeatedly explaining to herself or others how she Can Never Trust Again because of her ex, make sure you’ve established that properly in the first place and then demonstrate how it works and changes, rather than filling the page with perseverating thoughts.
I recently read a SF novel which is over 900 pages long, and of which the last half is, basically, the same two scenes played out in different forms over and over and over again. Could we not.
Want to show one MC standing up for the other? Do it—once. If you feel the need to do it more often, why? How do you differentiate the scenes—not just superficially, but what they achieve and the effects on the other MC/the relationship/the antagonists? Does the second time have a meaningfully different outcome? Could you get the same effect by writing the one scene a bit better?
See above for losable characters, watching out for multiple best friends, multiple antagonists, multiple amusing customers or relatives. Also, please have an entire post on various forms of repetition to look out for.
It is of course hard to let go words you’ve laboured over. If it makes you feel better to put them into a folder with a promise you’ll use them later, by all means do (and then forget about it). But it is worth considering which you’d rather read in a review:
I wish this book had been twice as long!
I wish this book had been half as long.
The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen comes out 7th March and is definitely exactly as long as it needs to be. Probably. Argh.