Battling the Bulge

No, no, I’m not talking about that spare tire or extra saddlebag. I’m talking word count. I see the angst over word count in nearly every writer site I visit and conference I attend.

What is the perfect sweet spot? It depends on the genre. Some genres, like Fantasy or Science Fiction, allow for higher word counts. Others, like mainstream fiction, adhere to a pretty strict diet. For many publishers’ purposes, the sweet spot is between 50,000 – 90,000 words. My eyes will bug right out of my head if I see a query letter boasting 245,000 words. Instant. Sudden. Death. Rejection. Why? Because no one in their right mind submits a manuscript that weighs as much as the beagle.

So how do you go about putting your manuscript on a diet?


Sometimes you look at your manuscript and can’t see anything that can possibly be trimmed. Yet I will look at it and spot the trouble straight away:  Wordiness.

I think of my brother and his love of words…often to great efficacy…yet I tease him about his lack of brevity. “Gee, why say it in one sentence when you can say it in five paragraphs?” He’s a lawyer, so I rest my case.

It’s scary how easy it is to fall prey to this little diet-breaker. In our desire to set a scene or express an emotion through show, we end up using more words. Sometimes a TON. I read a book that took…and I kid you not…THREE PAGES to describe the moon rising. And these three pages were the FIRST three pages. By the time I finished tossing the book about the room, I needed new windows and a paint job.

There are times for wordiness and times when it’s really OK to have a character simply cross the room. You don’t need to go into lengthy detail about how the character’s shoes are too tight and how it forces him to shuffle across the room like the beagle after a weekend bender. It isn’t necessary to detail the pattern of the carpet he’s shuffling across, or how the room smells a bit musty and the curtains really should be drawn because it’s too bright…blah, blah, blah. Cross the damn room already.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be so stark that your writing has the feel of a monk in tattered bedsheets. It’s about balance. There are times when that detail is delicious. So if you’re fighting the battle of the bulge, check to see if you’re too wordy and maybe the moon can simply hang in the sky, and your character can simply cross a room. You might be amazed at how your weight will drop. And everyone loves to be in shape, right?


Anyone who has ever heard my seminar on Backstory knows that I adore it because it adds flavor and dimension to the main characters. But Backstory is one of those tools that, in the hands of the unwary, can turn a story into a bloated codfish.

The most common abuse I see is the Three Chapter What-Do-I-Do? Authors write their first three chapters – setting up the scene, intro the characters, intro the plot – and then they say, “Now what? Ah HAH! Hello, backstory.” Knowing how and where to put backstory is the difference between that bloated codfish and a well-rounded story. Most important is how much backstory to use.

I’ve read more than my fair share of manuscripts that play the Chapter Four Backstory and rejected them because they go on for so long and so often that I forget the main gist of the story. Again, Backstory is about balance. If your manuscript needs a Pritikin Intervention, then try looking at your backstory as a likely suspect for extra calories. If you can take any of your backstory out and not miss it, then you know it didn’t belong there in the first place.

Too Many Subplots

Subplots are very cool because they add dimension to our stories.

As defined:  A subplot is a secondary plot strand that is a supporting side story that may connect to main plot.

Let’s use an example:  The main plot of my story is my publisher-character who specializes in romance with her stable of five seasoned citizens (which includes a famous children’s writer – think Dr. Seuss) and  a John Grisham-type author who’s working through writer’s block and a blown deadline. In promising to maintain their anonymity, she encounters a newspaper book reviewer who is hell-bent on saving his review column by sniffing out the John Grisham-type character’s identity and blowing the doors off.

One subplot focuses on the relationship between the main character and the John Grisham character’s battle wounds regarding love and trust.

Another subplot focuses on the book reviewer and his steady decline from respect to a industry joke due to his acerbic reviews and penchant for the drink. He knows his review column is on its last legs and takes a giant stab at redeeming himself by exposing one of the biggest legal thriller authors as a bodice-rippy pantser.

I’ve kept it simple because I don’t want to add too many ingredients to the cake and, thereby, making it too high in calories. It keeps the story tight. Now, I could have added other subplots that involve more in-depth development with the five seasoned citizens, but it would take things too far off course.

And this is what I see with many overweight stories. Authors get so involved with all their characters that they feel the need to flesh out every one of them in great detail by adding a ton of subplots. The result is that it becomes a confusing mish mash that dilutes the main plot.

If you’re overweight, is it possible that you have too many subplots? If you let some of them go, does your story lose its sheen, or do you never even miss it?

Two Books?

If you weigh in 250,000 words, is it possible that you have two books sitting in there? This happened to me with my first novel. It was a doorstop, yet I felt the story really had legs. But the word count told me to break it up. And lo and behold, there actually was a natural breaking point where I could easily split them up. Suddenly what was an unwieldy mass of blub became a respectable word count that wouldn’t blind readers.

If you’re fighting the bulge, is it possible that you have two stories in there that have equal servings of meat and potatoes? Each would have to be a stand alone, but this is where multi-book deals can happen. If your agent can sell your first book and the editor knows you have another one in the wings, then it may blossom into something more exciting.


Knowing that your manuscript is overweight and finding out the culprit requires heaping doses of objectivity. This can be tough because it requires standing outside your artist’s head and regarding your writing as if someone else had written it. No wonder we’re schizoid. But this is a state of grace where you can define where your word count is causing problems.

If your manuscript is sitting pretty at 140,000 or 240,000 words and you insist that you’ve cut down to the bone, then I’d say you need to look at whether you are/have:

  • Too wordy
  • Too much backstory
  • Two books instead of one
  • Too many subplots

Writing is a tough business because there are so many things that can defeat us. Word count is a huge problem with many writers. Hopefully some of these ideas will help in battling the bulge.

3 Responses to Battling the Bulge

  1. […] Editor Lynn Price encourages you to battle the (wordcount) bulge. […]

  2. Pelotard says:

    Can you please show this to Peter F. Hamilton? He’s a Brit SF writer who will bore the reader to death with describing exactly why every single on of Blofeld’s evil minions decided to become an evil minion, and have the protagonist missing from the story for, I kid you not, 200 pages, until, still metaphorically speaking, James Bond comes in and mows the minion down without a second thought, although this being SF, it’s more likely that the entire planet is blown up, with several dozen other minions who were just described in loving detail. (And to top this off, it’ll be something like 500 pages before you can figure out who the protagonist *is* because all the characters are rather unpleasant people; the only bad thing about having the planet blown up is that the protagonist wasn’t on it.)

    Sorry. Rant over.

  3. Pelo, I can’t help but wonder what his editor is smoking to allow such bloatedness.

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