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.
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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: http://www.writersdigestconference.com/ehome/61986/117547/?&

And Happy Cutting!

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