Writers think about word counts the way dieters think about calories. By the time I finished my YA novel, Half in Love with Death, I’d reduced it from 97,000 to 90,000 words, and I thought it was pretty slim and trim. I’d read that 80,000 words was the upper limit for most young adult novels, but I wasn’t worried. My novel was a mystery, and mysteries, like fantasies, could be longer. Not every book has to be the literary equivalent of Twiggy.
But when my novel was on submission to publishers, I got a call from my agent. She told me an editor wanted me to cut 100 pages. She paused. “From the first 150 pages.” She explained that the editor wanted to get to the turning point sooner and that the cuts would make my book comparable in length to other young adult novels, and my story stronger. She asked me to think about it.
The thought of cutting nearly a third of my book was scary, but also tempting in a weird let’s-drive-off-the-cliff way. I’d had similar concerns about my turning point, so I decided to give it a try. Here’s what I did:
- Look for scenes that do the same thing. I made a spreadsheet of all the scenes in my first 100 pages and highlighted similar ones in yellow. There was a lot of yellow; my protagonist’s father went to California twice, her parents had two parties, she hung out with her friends three times. Each of these things only needed to happen once. I choose the scenes I wanted to keep and figured out what to merge in from the scenes I cut.
- Eliminate scenes that don’t advance the plot. Scenes whose only reason for being was some beautiful line I couldn’t bear to part with had to go. Transitional scenes that weren’t entirely necessary had to go as well. I learned not to be afraid to begin or end a chapter in the middle of something. It was hard, but seeing the story become stronger was exhilarating.
- Merge similar characters. As a result of my cuts, a character disappeared from the beginning of my novel. Rather than lose him completely, I performed a Vulcan mind-meld and merged him with another, similar character. The resulting character was more interesting than either had been on their own, and took up fewer pages.
- Use Narrative summary. I replaced some scenes with narrative summary to trim my book further. It was particularly gratifying to turn a long scene that had driven me crazy into a single sentence, “My parents were going to do a television interview to get the word out about her.”
- Read it aloud. I read my book aloud, focusing on my changes, to hear if it flowed smoothly. It took a few tries to stop hearing the missing words in my head, but it soon sounded natural. If a section still seemed abrupt or choppy I revised it.
- Make sure the rest of the book still makes sense. I thought I’d only have to change the beginning, but some changes, like that proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing, affected things later on. But while I had to make changes all the way through to the end of my book, most were in the first third.
- Don’t freak out about the numbers. I went a little crazy trying to cut exactly one hundred pages. If the end of chapter went a line or two over onto a new page, I would cut it until it didn’t go over, because why waste a whole page on a few lines? That sort of thinking was a waste of time. Don’t do it.
- Get feedback. When I finished my revision, the last thing I wanted was feedback. I was worried I’d hear it was a colossal mess-up, but I ignored my panic and sent it to my writing group. They liked my changes, but also picked up on issues I’d been too close to the text to see. I was glad to get a chance to fix them before I sent it to my agent.
- Celebrate your hard work. Have a martini, or a sundae, shout about your success on Facebook, tell your mother-in-law, your cat, that cashier in the supermarket who wears black fishnet gloves and always bends your ear about his pet iguana, tell everyone that you did the impossible—you cut 100 pages. Bask in the moment.
- Don’t measure success by publishing outcomes; measure it by what you’ve learned. In my case, the editor who asked for the cuts turned my book down. But the next editor who read my svelte 65,000-word novel took it. By accepting the challenge to go over that cliff and surviving, I made my story stronger and became a stronger writer.