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A surprisingly large amount of new authors overshoot their word count and end up fretting and panicking over the idea of having to remove a character or a side plot to whittle their monster manuscript down to a reasonable size. But I know of a very common problem with longer manuscripts – and even some short ones – which could save you from the pain of making major plot changes in your cutting process if it is fixed.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure (and the free time) to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables then, first of all, my respect for you has just grown. I got about half way through that book before I just couldn’t take any more of the needless tangents and painstaking description. Not that it’s a bad book at all but there is one major feature in it that no new author could ever get away with; too much detail. Way too much. All it takes is the off-hand mention of a historical battle and suddenly we’re being treated to a three-chapter blow-by-blow account of the event, no matter how irrelevant it is to the central plot. Your novel probably isn’t as extreme as this, but if you can learn how to trim away unnecessary details (or even just not include them in the first place) then your word count is going to start to feel a lot more roomy.

Characters

As the author, you need to know everything about your protagonist right down to the name of their primary school English teacher. But your audience does not. Being acutely aware of your character’s background will help you to make their thoughts and actions more consistent and it’s a great idea to do some related exercises before you start to write. Then, in the manuscript itself, you might mention that your character flinched at a dog’s bark because their childhood neighbour kept a badly trained pitt-bull that would jump at the fence when they walked past. That’s plenty of background to give some meaning to their actions. What you probably don’t need to do is describe the story of how they came to meet the neighbour, why the neighbour bought the dog, the story of the time the protagonist accidentally threw a Frisbee over the fence into their garden, how the protagonist and the neighbour parted ways when one of them finally moved away… You may start to stray too far from the original story and your readers will completely lose their thread. For more on this, check out my article on the back-story ratio.

Don't worry - I know pitt bulls are big softies really. How could you not love that face!! -Image by John Lafornara

Don’t worry – I know pitt bulls are big softies really. How could you not love that face!!
-Image by John Lafornara

Setting

Chances are that you can picture the room your character is standing in down to the last detail and it’s only natural that you now want your readers to be able to imagine it exactly as you intended. To a certain extent, this is important. Managing physical space in your writing is a tough job and you don’t want to confuse your readers by being too vague about the character’s surroundings. This is a very tricky topic which I will be covering next week.

Aside from the physical obstacles, you want to create an atmosphere for your setting. The temptation here is to list off everything your character sees in great detail right down to the jagged tears in the sofa upholstery and the crack in the picture frame that distorts the image it protects. But this is a sure-fire way to add needless words to your book. Instead of listing everything, consider what are the handful of defining features. If the temptation is really too overwhelming, a good exercise is to make a bullet pointed list of everything you are considering just to get it out of your brain and onto paper and then whittle it down from there.

If you struggle to keep your description lean, I hope your character in't hoarder! -Image by Tara R.

If you struggle to keep your description lean, I hope your character ins’t a hoarder!
-Image by Tara R.

I hope this helps you to cut back your word count without resorting to anything drastic. If you enjoyed this article, please click like and follow, and join me again next week when I will be talking about managing physical space; novel writing in hard mode.

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