Word Count Blues: Novel Manuscript Trimming

Putting Your Manuscript on a Diet

I’ve got the…I’ve got the…I’ve got the word count blues. Had ‘em for a while.

I remember the day I walked up into the sky for twenty minutes. (The cable cars were in the barn; the Powell Street line in the throes of renovation.)

It was Presidents’ Day weekend 2011 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and I was a starry-eyed, breathless (from my uphill hike, admittedly) attendee at the San Francisco Writers Conference. By the way, I highly recommend this conference. Check out the link above.

I entered the lobby, huffing a bit, popped into the phone booth (yes, The Mark features an old-fashioned but elegant indoor booth) to change Superman style, which consisted of exchanging clunky New Balance running shoes for clunky Dansko clogs, secure in the knowledge that my manuscript Moonlight Dancer was ready to roll onto Publication Street fully loaded but sleek at 103,000 words. I had, after all, trimmed said manuscript from 106,000 words. Think 1959 Chevy Impala to 1970 Ford Mustang. And don’t imagine I hadn’t sweated over removing those tail fins. I loved the tail fins.

Of course, I rounded down and claimed my manuscript was even slimmer at 100k. Sort of like the weight on your driver’s license. One reason I maintain a stellar driving record is to receive automatic license renewal. On paper, my weight has not changed since Clinton was in office. The first time. Would that it were so!

Well, much of the buzz at the various writing conference round tables revolved around word count. If you look at articles written by literary agents or publishers, most provide a range of acceptable words for novels somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000. However, with Borders on its way out and publishers reducing titles and bestselling authors going commando, a debut author feels the word count squeeze.

Mind you, three agents at the conference were sufficiently interested in my story to request partial manuscripts, but to a woman, they said cut 10,000 words before sending it. Turns out, 90,000 words is the new 100,000. They didn’t want a Mustang; they wanted a Shetland.

Home I went. I’ve been cutting since. My husband, helpful as always, suggested I simply remove a chapter. I assume he was joking.

Instead, I’ve been through the novel three times, keeping a word count log. Not normally a math person, I’ve been figuring my own formulas to calculate cutting proficiency. You know, 1 is to 100 as x is to whatever. I’ve estimated word loss per 100 pages. I’ve done long division. Then there were those dark days when I cut 300 words but added 400. We don’t talk about those days.

But finally, I finished the third round and did the math. If I cut a mere six words more per page, I will reach my goal.

And yesterday on page 80 when I chanted, “Computer, computer on the desk…” it indicated I had only two thousand words to go. Yippee!

I’ll let you know when I get there.

I’ll also let you in on a secret: I sort of like the trimmed down version.

Anyone else out there in writing land doing this slow cut process? I’d love to hear from you. How’s it going?

Book Review: The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours

by Kate Morton

Atria Books, 560 pages.

I hesitated to review this book because the supernatural element is so subtle–as subtle as the wisp of a ghost’s gown, a ghost more suggestion than apparition.

Yet within these pages you will find whispering stones and unexplained stains and distant laughter. Even a ghostly glimpse here or there. Or was that merely a trick of the light?

Things go bump in the night, but, generally speaking, they assume humanoid form.

I like the idea of reading The Distant Hours after reading The Keep. For me, it was pure serendipity. I came across The Keep while looking for something else; I read The Distant Hours because I checked it out of the library for my mother who’s been extolling Kate Morton’s writing for, well, forever.

The novel follows two story lines–a modern daughter, Edie, who suspects her mother hides a secret past involving a centuries-old castle (you can see how this makes a good companion read to The Keep), and a trio of sisters, each with a secret dream, each connected to the aforementioned mother-daughter, each shackled to the will of a domineering writer father in a sort of King Lear/John Milton montage. Throw in a decades old disappearance, a mysterious letter, a touch of madness, and the novel takes shape. As well, the author’s manipulation of multiple allusions and nods to fairy tales are skillfully done.

What I found less skillfully done is pacing.  Though the opening is lovely and lyrical (a cool prologue for those of you who share my prologue views), you soon find yourself plodding through 50 or 60 pages that drag with insufficient action or character development to sustain interest. You flit in back-to-back vignettes from narrator to narrator, none of whom fully engage your spirit.


Yes, however, wait and read.

It will be worth your while. At last, the characters’ stories sweep you into a spinning updraft. Secret compounds secret and consequences twist into a tornado in which history cycles backward into itself. What at first manifests as cruelty is revealed as kindness and vice versa; what at first appears simple is anything but.

The Writer’s Nature

I was trying to figure out if there is such a thing as a writer’s nature, and the Aesop fable of the scorpion and the frog came to mind.

Interestingly, the writer Aesop himself is under question. Was Aesop Greek, was he a slave, or was he Greek but ethnically African? And did he, in fact, write Aesop’s fables? Hmmm…sounds like the Shakespeare controversy.

But I digress.

The gist of the story for all two of you who haven’t heard it is that a curious scorpion ventures out to learn about the world. Sounds like a writer already, right? He comes to a river (and that’s not metaphorical?). Of course, the bank on the other side of the river is always greener with more story potential, but alas, the scorpion cannot swim. When he implores a frog for a ride across the river, the frog’s obvious question is, “What’s to stop you from stinging me once we are mid-stream?”

The scorpion replies, “If I sting you, we both die.”

The frog, logical creature that he is, agrees to transport the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As paralysis sets in, the befuddled frog asks why.

The scorpion shrugs. “I’m a scorpion. It is my nature.”

I’ve heard of people shocked to find their personal stories set down in pen and ink for all the world to see, and the writer’s nonchalant rejoinder, “You knew I was a writer before you talked to me.”

The writer’s nature and all that.

I’m not a scorpion; in fact, I know stories I won’t publish simply because of the sting that would cause others about whom I care. I began wondering if there is another writer type and I conjured up the caterpillar.

The caterpillar is the antithesis of the butterfly. The social butterfly flits; the social caterpillar sits.

That would be yours truly.

I listen better than I speak. I write better than I mingle. I do almost everything better than I mingle. At a party I tend to cling to a spot near an indoor tree or dining table, beverage glass pressed to my thorax. There I can munch away, caterpillar-style—unobtrusive but ever-present.

Surprise! People gravitate to me. They talk. I listen. Here’s a quote I like from bad boy playwright raconteur Wilson Mizner: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”

This is true.

People have regaled me with the intricacies of stamp auctions, the machinations of startup corporations, the policies of peanut-allergic people boarding airplanes. (This latter information I can put to use in a future novel.)

So, talk to me. I’m easy to spot. I’ll be the anthropod with the big ears.

Now tell me, in the world of writing (and life) are you butterfly, caterpillar or scorpion?

A word of warning—the scorpion eats the butterfly and the caterpillar for breakfast.

Book Review: The Keep


Ghost Novel Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I had gone in search of A Visit from the Goon Squad for Laurie’s book group. My library didn’t have it, but I stumbled upon The Keep instead. Intrigued by the title, I picked it up and read the jacket. The only other Egan book I had read was The Invisible Circus, which I liked but didn’t love, yet I decided to give The Keep a try—possibly because of the hint of a lurking ghost. I had your best interests at heart, you see.

The Keep is a delight, both from a reader’s and a writer’s perspective.

What’s in it for the reader? The reader will find flawed but funny Danny, damaged by the burden of past cowardice. (As a teen, he’d once participated in a prank that left his phobic cousin trapped in a cave.) Then there’s the phobic cousin transformed years later into one of the beautiful people, sufficiently magnanimous to hire damaged Danny to help him restore a crumbling medieval castle. But can Danny trust Howie, or has Howie set a revenge trap? And what’s with the Baroness? On the surface she’s an alluring young aristocrat who devolves into a black magic wielding octogenarian.

The author deftly manipulates this motif of surface and depth. One certainty yields to its equally plausible opposite like the mysterious pool in the center of the castle that offers both reflection (as in you see what you want to see) and depth (you plunge beneath the surface in search of truth).

dreamstime picture castle keep

And for the writer? There’s so much going on here—the exploration of guilt, the possibility of redemption, the faux gothic setting. And, in fact, this setting does allow for a ghostly rendering. But not in the way you imagine. Trust me.

Egan provides some in-jokes for us author types—the narrator is a fledgling scribe in a prison inmate creative writing course. Much discussion about tackling tricky techniques such as point of view switches and dialogue exchanges. The narrator inserts both himself and his yearning for the sexy, pensive teacher into the story in a metafictional sleight of pen. Check out this author interview in which Egan describes her process.

Even the title is elusive. Obviously, the keep once served as sanctuary for citizens in time of attack but in the twisty way writers love, can morph into a trap. And because the author plays with form, the reader can ponder which portions of the narrative to keep, as in accept at face value. Because everything spirals in on itself, including, in the end, the two stories.