Cut Your Story Down to Size

Is your manuscript too long? Many of the queries I receive begin, “In my 200,000-word novel….” I stop right there. As I tell all of my clients, I can’t sell anything over 120,000 words by a first-time writer. “Help me cut it,” they say, knowing that I spent some 15 years as an editor before becoming an agent.

But I won’t do it. I make them do the cutting themselves. Once it’s cut down to size, I can help refine it. But they need to do the cutting themselves.

—by Paula Munier

And so do you. Only you know your story well enough to determine its basic shape. That said, I have created guidelines that will help you make those big cuts you need to make.

Let’s say that you have a manuscript that’s weighing in at 180,000 words. Start by answering the questions only you can answer:

1)    Do you have two books? At nearly 180,000 words you could still have two 90,000-word books.

This would mean that you have a storyline that could accommodate two structures, as follows, with each book coming in at 360 pages (250 words per page):

  • Act One: 90 pages (22,500 words)
  • Act Two: 180 pages (45,000 words)
  • Act Three: 90 pages (22,500 words)

2)    Or do you have one book that is simply too long?  In which case you need to cut it down to 120,000 words, which is 480 pages (250 words per page):

  • Act One: 120 pages (30,000 words)
  • Act Two: 240 pages (60,000 words)
  • Act Three: 120 pages (30,000 words)

Answer these questions by writing out the basic storyline in Major Plot Points only: Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, Denouement.  Breaking it down into these basic big chunks should help you figure out if you have one book or two, and once you know that then it will help you break it down into acts. Once you have the acts and accompanying plot points, you can cut to the word counts I’ve outlined above. It will be easy because anything that doesn’t get you from plot point to plot point must go.

This may not be what you want to hear, but it really is what you need to do. For more on plotting, check out my “Build Your Own Plot Perfect” Boot Camp at the upcoming WD West conference:

And Happy Cutting!

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5 thoughts on “Cut Your Story Down to Size

  1. Svapne

    I have yet to publish, and I haven’t found anything saying “shoot for this word count” or “there should be about 250 words per page,” so THANK YOU.

    As for the opinions below, I’ll throw in my two cents. The article beings FIRST-TIME writers, which is, as pointed out, very important. A great book can be an arbitrarily long thing, but unless you have a name to support someone wanting to read that tome, it’s going to be hard to sell. JK Rowling didn’t make the first Harry Potter as long as the last one, but if she had, who knows if she would have been half as successful?

    I agree that a stellar manuscript at 200,000 words from a green writer may be the next great wonder of the literary world, but that case isn’t really all that likely. The publisher is one thing, but the audience is another consideration too. It won’t be as easy to sell a novel that length from Jane Whatserface, when it’s next to Stephen King or George Martin’s latest wonder, regardless of its quality. Length is generally indicative of price, and I feel like most people would rather gamble on the established author rather than spend the cash on the newbie.

    However, the electronic market is taking over, so who knows? We may see this trend change, but it’ll take a while.

  2. Les Anderson

    I agree in whole or in part with both comments posted so far. The fact to the matter is, we are the slaves of publishers. Publishers look at projected profit margins before they look at a well written manuscript. For a first time writer, the publisher is taking a chance that the author’s manuscript will be a profitable business venture. That’s the reality of the business.

    On the other hand, if a 120K word manuscript is a great story (broadly speaking) a publisher will take that chance on it (even it it needs some revision). Why would a publisher’s editor read through 200K if he or she has already seen considerable revision problems in the first five or ten pages?

    The first time author should be acutely aware of all the pitfalls of sending in 120,000+ word manuscripts. Read the bios of Louise L’Amour, Jean M.Auel, Steven King and many other very successful authors. They submitted large manuscripts at the beginning of their careers and faced continuous resections until they learned that they had to start with a shorter 120K manuscript. Once their work caught on to be best selling authors, the door was open to them.

    1. jannertfol

      Oh, I agree that publishers will probably not take a look at a MS that’s longer than 120,000 UNLESS it’s from a known author.

      However, that doesn’t address the issue of quality at all.

      There is an implication that a long book is probably not a good book. I think that’s what bothers me. I’ve read many long books in my day which I thought were excellent, and size never puts me off.

      I’d be perfectly okay if an agent read the first 5 pages of my novel and said, no this isn’t any good. However, I would get very irritated indeed if an agent looked at the WORD COUNT of a novel and said ‘no this won’t be any good because it’s long,’ and refused to read the first 5 pages.

      It’s been publishing history that the next big thing is never the same as the last big thing. Publishers need to be less prejudiced and more open about what they will look at.

      If it were me, being an agent or publisher, I would say : send me the first 5 pages of your novel. Period. If it appeals, then I’d ask for more, maybe a synopsis, maybe even a word count. But for heaven’s sake …I’d READ the first five pages. Or even the first page or the first paragraph. How else can a person tell if a writer is any good or not, without reading what they’ve written?

      I know it’s a different day and age, but I keep thinking about Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind.” Not only was it a first-time author’s offering (and the ONLY novel she ever wrote) but it was over 245,000 words long. It was a huge bestseller before the movie was ever made, and it’s still in print and people still read it today.

      If she’d submitted GWTW under today’s rules, she’d never have got past the door.

  3. jannertfol

    I find this attitude pathetic. I am aware that books can be over-written—first time and otherwise—and should be cut down. Certainly any chapters or sections which don’t move a story forward should be removed. But to say that a great story CAN’T be 200,000 words long? (Or more likely, shouldn’t be more than 120,000 words long?) Rubbish. I happily read books longer than that all the time.

    I think agents and publishers would do themselves and ther reading public a great favour if they would just LOOK at the actual writing on offer, rather than prejudging it this way. Long books will sell as well as any other, if they are well-written, and tell a good, memorable story.

    1. sassy

      I agree and disagree. Of course, a long book can be a success. Why? Why are ‘bilge’ TV series all the rage now? Because the story is engaging and characterization is deeper. “Breaking Bad” is a prime example in a marathon rerun; or Netflix “House of Cards,” both Emmy winners.

      On the other hand, a short novel is fun and if engaging, one has time to read another. If not, precious time has not been wasted (everything seems to run at a maddening pace these days).

      And, time seems to be the governing factor for every endeavor. Seems like we’re hamsters on a wheel treadmill, running in place and never going anywhere. The exercise may be beneficial, but the action is dreadfully boring.

      Leisure time is best filled with entertainment that teaches something about ourselves. I wonder if agents and publishers consider that requirement in their frantic pursuit of material? Why? Because that is the prime imperative for a story teller.


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