One of the most common questions new writers ask is, “How long should a book be?”
One of the most common answers experienced writers give is, “However long it needs to be.”
I know this isn’t the answer you want. You want specifics. Facts. A formula or recipe. Step-by-step directions to a six-figure deal.
But is anything in this business that easy? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
There are word count standardsand for good reason. Paper costs money. Overly thick books take up too much room on store shelves. And who wants to pay $25 for a skinny book?
Still, books should be as long as it takes to tell the story well.
When I first showed my editor a draft of I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You she liked it, but (as all great editors do) she had some suggestions.
Can we ratchet up the action? Can we meet Josh earlier in the story? Do you agree the middle sags?
At no time did she say “the book is too long.” She wasn’t worried about industry norms or some rule-of-thumb. She was worried about the story, and she was right.
Over the next few weeks I cut 70 pages out of that book. (I literally broke my delete key.)
Usually when authors talk about making massive cuts it’s because their manuscript is out of controla 300,000 word epic in a genre where 110,000 words is the norm. So they cut. And they complain.
I did the opposite. My book was within the norm. No one was saying it needed to be shorter…it just needed to be better.
So I returned to the center of the story. I asked myself what mattered, and anything that strayed from that center had to go.
That’s step one to the pacing/editing process. Your story should never tread water. Something should always be happeningat stake. If not. Cut it.
In the case of Love You Kill You I realized there was a lot of interesting stuff at the beginning of the year, and a lot of interesting stuff at the end of the year, and a whole lot of waiting around in the middle. Who needs that? Delete!
I’m not sure who said it, but I heard a quote in screenwriting circles once that said “great stories never stop beginning.” Wow. Ain’t that the truth?
So the book went from the story of Cammie’s sophomore year to the story of her fall semester. That was the biggest changethe best changebut it wasn’t the hardest to do.
The real work (the downright tedious/hard/nerve-wrecking/and eye-crossing work) involves tightening the writing itself.
This is the kind of editing that requires, not a sledgehammer, but a scalpel. It’s the art of saying with nine words what you first said with twelve. It’s tedious and difficult, but it can be done.
Sometimes that means cutting passages or places where you’ve “told” the reader something that should be obvious.
Sometimes it means looking at a sentence like “She looked down at the ground beneath her feet” and asking, do you really need the word ‘down’? Won’t “She looked at the ground beneath her feet” say the same thing? After all, she’s not looking up at the ground, right?
See. I told you it was tedious.
But worth it.
You want to know the crazy thing about those 70 pages? No one missed them. In fact, my local librarian had read the early draft, then she read the streamlined draft, and said, “I have no idea what you changed, but it’s amazing.”
Writing is as much what you don’t put on the page as what you do.
Don’t say with twelve words what you can say with seven.
Get into a scene right after it gets interesting.
Get out right before it gets boring.
Make every scene matter, and you’ll be well on your way.