An Editor’s Comments on Manuscript Length

This is part 4 of my series on “An Editor’s Comments.” These are actual comments I’ve made to clients, and are directed to their particular needs, so they are sometimes quite different than what you’ll find in a style manual or other editing book. I hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful! If you want to learn more, check out the rest of the articles in the “Editor’s Comments” section and the “Various Editor’s Tips” section in my “Writing and Editing Articles” table of contents.

Should I Make My Book Shorter?

I would not necessarily suggest making this particular book any shorter, although it is certainly much longer than most novels now being produced. In fact, if you removed any more of it, it would lose out on its richness—and I know you have already removed “ramblings” and “padding,” which is great. Still, if you do decide to shorten it, you would most likely need to reconsider things like your audience, purpose, characters, and themes. Essentially, you would need to rewrite the book with a narrower focus, and remove anything that doesn’t connect directly to that focus.

Why Should I Consider Making My Story Shorter?

Making your story shorter would be a lot of work, but it might increase your chances of finding an agent and/or traditional publisher since most publishers are looking for shorter works these days. A lot of readers nowadays have shorter attention spans or have very busy lives, or perhaps they divide their potential “reading time” among the many different forms of media now available. So they turn away from books that look thick. While they may be missing out on some wonderful literature, it is a reality, especially among middle-aged and younger readers.

What Can I Do About That, Other Than Shortening the Story?

Besides narrowing your focus and cutting out parts of the story, an alternative might be to divide the story into parts. Trilogies, for example, are quite popular with readers, and publishers often look for well-written stories that have the potential for sequels, prequels, or even a longer series. You would, then, have to redesign the story so that each part of the story–each book–has a self-contained feel to it, and yet intrigues the reader enough to want to know what comes next (and/or what came before).  These are important points to consider, and while they would require you to do considerably more work, in the end, they might make your story more appealing to publishers and, if successfully received by the reading public, increase your potential sales considerably.

How Would I Do That With My Particular Manuscript?

There was a time when 180,000 words was a quite popular length for a novel. Now, publishers and readers are looking for novels around 80,000 words (with fantasy or sci-fi, which usually require more world-building, being acceptable up to 110,000 or at most 120,000 words). Since your manuscript has three quite distinct parts, it is quite possible that you could publish it as a trilogy, one part at a time, and then you’d have three short novels of about 60,000 words each. You could even add some more interesting details if you wish, as you could increase the length of each part another 20,000 words or so. You’ll probably need to lengthen each part somewhat, anyway, to make each part more self-contained. You’ll want to leave the reader feeling comfortable with the ending if they decide not to read the rest of the trilogy–while still enticing them carry on. You’ll also have to keep in mind how you will make strong transitions between the books. And you will need to make it possible for readers who have first read the second or third books to understand important details from the previous book(s) in the trilogy that affect the book they are reading. Some people solve this by providing a prologue, but it is usually better if you can work in, as seamlessly as possible (through dialogue, flashbacks, small details, etc.) that kind of information as it is needed in the process of the story.

However, since your current story is closely interwoven, despite being divided into three parts, the process as I’ve described it above would require a lot of effort. If you are not willing to go the trilogy route, I would recommend seriously considering narrowing your focus. In your book, you could, for example, cut out a lot of the “family history” in the opening chapters and just focus on this particular nuclear family. You could also narrow the focus to just two or three main characters in the family and to the most crucial years of their story. You might even write the entire story from the viewpoint of one character, rather than having different characters giving their detailed viewpoints in different chapters.

Okay, I Did It! I Shortened the Story! What Do You Think?

Wow, I am impressed! You really managed to condense a long story very, very well—and the ending sentences are very powerful! Good work! You have shortened your manuscript a good deal, which will prove to be helpful (and you’ll definitely want to change that word number you still have in your query letter).

However, if and when you do get a response to your query, asking you to send in your manuscript, I would suggest that in the cover letter for the manuscript, you mention that you did originally write a detailed story of the hundred years of family history, with viewpoints of several main characters. State that the original manuscript (and/or a synopsis) is available if the publisher would like to see it. You never know—there are readers, and therefore publishers, who still love “family epics.” You might also mention that the extra material in the original manuscript could, with development and editing (assuming you are willing to do this extra work), become potential series material for this story if the original book should do well.

In fact, in your query for this current manuscript, you could add a short sentence noting that you have already written material related to this story that you are willing to develop into a series if the publishes wishes. This could be the “teaser” that hooks the agent’s or publisher’s attention if they are already inclined to be interested in your story.

What are your experiences and thoughts about manuscript length?

We’d love to hear your input. Please share your ideas in the comments. Thanks!


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