When cutting the word count is a good thing…

As some of you may know the complete MS for my second novel, The Principle Of Evil, was requested by two agencies.

The first agency was very encouraging, and gave me some great feedback but the only thing that really let me down was the word count. I was advised that they would be more than happy to reconsider the MS if I cut it back to between 90-100k words (standard length for those writing in my genre.)

In my heart I knew the novel was running too long, but I’d spent 18 months completing the MS to the level it needed to be to stand up to scrutiny from those in the business, so I submitted it in all its 145k word glory and hoped for the best.

Yes, I did say 145k words!

Very long but that’s what happens when you try to build a complicated plot with a lot of twists – sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. I had no idea where to make the cuts, having spent so long inside this book.

When the agency came back with the word count issue, I set the MS aside to allow me time away from it, in the hope I could come back to it and begin to see what to cut.

During this time, after 6 months from submitting the initial first three chapters, another agent requested the full MS, and didn’t let the word count deter them. After 8 weeks they came back with the same suggestion – cut the MS and we would like to reconsider it.

Advice from not one but two agencies, is like GOLD DUST.

When we send off our work, we’re rarely lucky enough to get any feedback that is more than the standard, ‘Thank you for your submission…but it wasn’t right for us.’

After 8 months away from the MS I figured it’s now or never.

I contacted one of my favourite best-selling authors during the period between making these cuts from my MS, and he was good enough to reply to me.

His advice was sound (if rather daunting!) Cutting out 45k words means cutting out significant characters and story arcs.

My heart sank when I read that, even though I knew he was right. All the months of hard work, creating characters and interweaving conflict between them, adding colour I thought I needed, it was all about to be CUT!

There were two things I could do –

  1. Admit defeat and start a new novel
  2. Cut, edit, cut, edit (you get the idea) and prove to myself that I could do it.

Well, I chose number two and I’m so glad I did.

After 8 months away from the MS I could see what needed to be changed and although it was far from an easy process, I think I’ve got it right. I’m now reading through it all to make sure it all makes sense now at it’s a more manageable 100k word count.

Plots are like fine stitching on a piece of clothing – It needs to ‘flow’ in a neat line with no ragged edges, puckering or tearing.

Once you start unpicking the stitching, everything else begins to slowly buckle and needs mending, improving and stitching back up, so all the loose ends are flowing in a beautiful line.

So, bad sewing analogies aside, I guess I’m trying to say that if you find yourself in a similar situation, where you know your work needs a big overhaul, you need to make those changes, especially if someone who knows the industry has advised you to.

Remember, the length of your book will be something a publisher will be scrutinising. If it’s the next book to rival War and Peace in terms of length, your chances of getting that publishing deal are considerably reduced unless every single word is necessary and the pace of your work hasn’t suffered as a result.