Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 3, 2014

How to Cut a Book in Half: 3 Tips

No, I am not doing that magic trick where a magician cuts an assistant in half. I would never hurt a book that way! Seriously, though, I had a big problem with one of my middle grade books.

I have been working with 2 co-authors on a middle grade adventure book. When we started writing it together a few years ago, we were all new to the publishing track of writing. None of us had any book-length publishing experience, although a few short stories had seen the light of day. So we wrote this awesome book together.

The problem was that it was 96,000 words long.

For those who do not know, that is a very long book. Even had it been an adult book, it would have raised some flags, depending on genre. A middle grade book, though, is usually dialed in at 40,000-60,000 words (depending on genre). So you can see how far off we were. Why did we get it so wrong? We were new, and didn’t know any better. We made the mistake and that is how you learn.

Even at that length, though, we had several agents interested in it–even asking for fulls. So obviously there was something in the idea that they liked. A good sign.

Developmental editor Kathryn Craft worked on it for us, and gave us great tips, one of which was that it was way too long. So, we headed back to the drawing board.

We have cut that book from 96,000 words to 53,000 words. Right in the sweet spot.

How did we do it? Here are 3 tips:

1) We took out all the scenes that were not in our protagonist’s point of view (POV). We realized we didn’t need those scenes to tell the story, although we loved a lot of them.

2) We dialed back the subplots. We loved our subplots. They really added to the color of the story, especially since it is a historical novel. But they weren’t necessary to move the plot forward. So we cut them down (or cut them completely) and settled for hinting at the subplots rather than fleshing them out. Instead of whole scenes, we used a line or two here and there to hint that:

  • Sister works at Wanamaker’s and wants more than to be a housewife
  • Pharmacist sells illegal booze from their store (it is Prohibition)
  • Brother has PTSD from World War I, drinks and brawls
  • Professor at museum drinks and must hide it from the administrators

3) Replotted the first part of the book. The last part of the book, where the action ramped up, was good. We had a lot of feedback that at a certain scene the book took off and people couldn’t put it down. Clearly, we needed to get people to that point much faster. We went back and revisited the longer, fuller, and thus slower-moving first part. By removing subplots and non-protagonist POV scenes, we had a clearer idea of where the main plot needed to go. We found ways to hit the high points faster, and compressed the entire timeline of the book from almost 3 months to 6 days. Much better!

Of course, after replotting and streamlining the first part, it took a while to wrestle the second part into shape, to make sure everything was consistent and the voice didn’t change. But we did it!

So that’s how you cut a book in half: ruthlessly cut everything that is not integral to the story and then make what’s left move faster. Simple, right?

Have any of you needed to make such a major edit? How did you do it?


Responses

  1. I’ve not had to cut books in half, but I’m having to make major edits with Steel Rose’s sequel, which went to Gemini Wordsmiths. Both Kathryn Craft and Gemini Wordsmiths are great editors. In my case, they’re editing the book by quarters, and when I get a fresh set of edits, first thing I do is fortify myself with a Mylar balloon purchase. Then I start with the easy fixes and ease my way through the restructuring. I’ve got a ways to go so wish me luck. :)
    Barbara of the Balloons

    Like

    • Good luck, Popple! I tend to start with the easy edits and work my way up as well.

      Like

  2. I have more trouble making books longer. I think I’m the opposite of every other writer out there. *sigh*

    Like

    • You are unique, Lucas! My family will tell you that I never have trouble adding words. Although with writing, the key is to add the RIGHT words.

      Like


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