Down With Length, Up With Thrills

Before I start the post, tomorrow evening I’ll be speaking and answering questions on Zoom about A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, hosted by Belmont Books. I’ll also be happy to take questions about writing and any of my books. Bookplate signed books will be available. Here’s the link: You need to register to participate–it’s free. I’d love to see some of you in the little boxes!

On December 23, 2019 Alyce wrote, My book has a kidnapping plot, but it’s nearly 100k words. I’m trying to make it shorter and up the tension. Do you have any ideas?

Three of you weighed in.

Katie W.: What I would do is look at each chapter individually and examine what happens in each chapter. If you write a single sentence summary of each one, you can see where stuff does or doesn’t happen. This makes it shorter by removing the boring stuff, so you solve both problems at the same time. If that doesn’t help, I would take a look at subplots, backstory, and exposition, looking for places that are too long or too boring. Either way, the goal is to remove excess that’s slowing down the plot and extending the word count.

Erica: If it has a kidnapping plot, then you probably have a time limit. In those situations, tension can be added by putting a countdown at the top of each chapter, something like “Chapter 11: 25 hours left”. Although it makes your story marginally longer, it does increase the tension.

future_famous_author: And even if stuff is happening, like the scene isn’t boring, it can still be excess. I’m sure there are plenty of scenes in my WIP that don’t matter to the plot but are still fun to read and write. Things about what the reader needs to know, what pieces are necessary to reach the end, and take out anything that isn’t helping you to reach the climax and THE END.
Also, that’s a lot of words!!! My WIP right now only has 30K, and it’s the most I’ve ever gotten!!! I tend to get tired of stories before I’m even a fourth of the way done, but it sure sounds like you’re just in the revising and editing stages! Nice work!

These are terrific! I agree about taking the book apart and examining each scene. And time pressure is a great way to increase reader worry. And, of course, writing so many pages, whether or not they are too many, is an achievement. Congratulations!

There was a brief but thrilling bidding war over Ella Enchanted at the start of my writing career. In the end, the advance turned out to be the same from the two publishers, but one wanted me to cut a third of the book and the other, HarperCollins, said nothing about that.

I went with HarperCollins. But before I did, I thought about what I might cut, and I decided the book could do without the elves–no night in their forest, no Agulen pottery.

With HarperCollins, happily, I kept the elves–but I cut a third of the book anyway.

I was inexperienced, and I didn’t realize how much could be stripped off just by snipping here and trimming there. Nowadays, my revision process always involves a lot of deleting. No major amputations may be required, though hundreds of pages wind up on the cutting room floor.

So we can start there. I’ve said before (and I didn’t make this up) that the strongest parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs, and the weakest are adjectives and adverbs. We can scrutinize each sentence for culprits. As an example, in my last sentence, the verb is scrutinize. Instead of scrutinize, I could have written look closely at–three words instead of one and the result has lost power. Especially, we should question words that emphasize, like very, and ones that dilute, like almost and slightly. I’m often guilty of very, but usually we don’t need it. Pretty is just as intense as very pretty, and if we want to turn up the volume, we can use stunning or gorgeous–or one of the many synonyms.

I took a little side journey in thinking about the question and found this fascinating article about readability: I’d take the readability gauges cited with a grain of salt, though. The level seems to depend greatly on number of three-syllable words, and many of those are easy. Terrific has three syllables, for example, and I wouldn’t call it a hard word.

We can also check for repetition. I think it was Christie V Powell who mentioned in a recent comment that we should watch out for scenes that accomplish the same plot objective as other scenes. More than one isn’t necessary and can go. But it must be saved somewhere else!

We can check for repetition at the sentence level, too. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve been astonished at how often I say exactly the same thing twice in entirely different words, so I fool myself. One sentence should be nixed. (I save even these.)

As some of you know, I’ve been reading from my books every day on Facebook. So far, I’ve read Ella, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and Writing Magic. Last week, I started The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Except for Lost Kingdom, these are books I wrote a long time ago, and I’ve noticed how my writing has changed. There’s a scene in Fairest in which Aza observes zhamM, who is a judge in the gnomish courts, decide a case. As I read, I thought, What do I need this for? It adds nothing to moving the plot forward. I don’t remember if my editor wanted me to ditch the chapter. If she did, I must have refused. Its only virtue is that it does a little world-building (and it’s somewhat interesting), but it comes late in the book when the world is established.

Please learn from what I say, not what I did. Beware of self-indulgence!

Scenes should develop our characters, advance our plot, and build the story’s world (mostly at the beginning). Best of all is when one scene does more than one of these. Keeping that in mind as we revise will naturally heighten tension.

Next week, I’m going to start revising the first draft of my novel about the Trojan War, which is roughly three hundred pages long. When I wrote it, as a pantser, I was finding my way, not sure what I would need. Now that I’m done, I know. That perspective will guide my revisions. If a scene doesn’t do anything, I’ll kill it.

But sometimes increasing tension adds words. When we reveal our MC’s worries, the reader will worry too–and won’t mind the length. When we paint a scene in rich detail, the pressure will mount. Say our MC has to descend a cliff, and we show her experimentally toss a stick ahead of her and see it break into bits. The reader will be silently screaming, Watch out! as she puts a leg over the edge.

• Below are the first four paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When I read the novella a few years ago, I was amazed at how wordy it is. Your job is to shorten this part. If you feel like posting what you come up with here, I’d love to see it.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole[12] administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

• Some of Dickens’ novels were serialized before they came out in book form. He had to produce thirty-two pages each month, which may have made a habit out of the prolixity (look it up, if you don’t know it–a great word!) we see here. The first four paragraphs, in my opinion, don’t do much in terms of plot and just a little in the way of character development. If you’ve never read the story and aren’t in the mood, you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia. Write your own first scene that does develop Scrooge’s character and begins the action.

• In Greek mythology, Hercules, in a fit of madness, murders his sons. To atone, he undertakes twelve labors. If you don’t know the myth well, you can google the twelve labors of Hercules. In my opinion, twelve is too many! Write the story condensing to the ones you think are the most important.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I don’t think the courtroom scene does nothing! I don’t think Aza would have been so willing to stand by while Ivi and the King went off into seclusion in the end if she had not been faced, during the courtroom scene, with the idea that sometimes acting mercifully toward the wrong-doer can have better long-term results than demanding justice. The book might have been tighter without the scene, but I think its absence would have weakened the story. A step of character growth would’ve been missing!

  2. I also liked the courtroom scene and am glad you didn’t cut it 🙂

    I love Ella Enchanted! I kept the book by my bedside for months as I read it over and over. I’m glad you kept the elf scenes you did, I love the pottery.

    I also have a question. How do you deal with ‘Imposter Syndrome’? I have been told my writing is good and there are days I agree that it has promise, but then there are days when I panic and freak out that all my plots and characters are boring and cliche and that my word choices are nowhere near as good as I’d like them to be. I understand all of that can be fixed in editing, but even as I edit I still have those panic flare-ups of not being good enough. I’d appreciate all the tips anyone would like to offer.

    This is my first time commenting but I’ve been following for a while now. Thank you, Gail, for creating this blog as a place where us writers can get together and help each other. I hope to be a regular commenter from now on.

    Can’t wait for your next book!

  3. FWIW, I’ve known pros who’ve won awards + published multiple books and still feel like this. All we can do is write the best we can at the time.

    I find it helps to just finish a rough draft, then put it away for a week or so.

    • Lol, mine fluked out too and I didn’t even know it had gone through until I checked back to try again. I thought it was just my spotty wifi connection.


      My previous comment was in reference to this interview with you in the Times of Israel.

      I studied at Ohr Samayach yeshiva in Jerusalem in the 1980s. I met a Sephardic family who hosted students for Shabbat meals. His name was Abraham Cohen and his family came from Salonika in Greece. His wife was from Istanbul. I remember that they were quite wealthy, their home was filled with fabulous Jewish art, she was an incredible cook, and he was very interested in Kaballah &mysticism. They were the first Sephardic Jews I ever met. Later I discovered my own family has some Sephardic ancestry.

      God bless you!

  4. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’m struggling with a story I’m working on right now. The beginning so far is pretty slow. My main character has kind of pulled an Obi-Wan Kenobi. He now lives in a small desert town, mostly to avoid memories and people. The story starts with him going through the motions of his life there, but it’s very boring. It won’t stay like that very long (a friend he hasn’t seen in three years is going to come to find him to deliver some bad news soon) but I’m wondering how to get across that his life is boring and that he’s unhappy without making the reader bored and unhappy?

    • About a paragraph of carefully-chosen details should do it. Maybe something like: Ben chose an outfit from his closet of identical gray outfits, took his tepid daily shower, finished his bowl of cornflakes by 7:59 AM, and figured that he’d fall asleep in his recliner as usual.
      Instead, the doorbell rang.

    • Or you could start with the friend showing up, and then slip in details that let the reader know that he’s bored and unhappy. Maybe he’s got a game of solitaire (or this world’s equivalent) out on the table, but he doesn’t even care if a gust of wind blows the cards over. Or when he steps out to greet his friend, his own neighbors don’t even recognize him.

      It reminds me a little of how “Name of the Wind” starts, with a bored and unhappy main character, but personally I find it an example of how not to start.

    • Maybe you could put in something like “Ben couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow was laundry day, and that would take a few hours.” If you make something boring exciting to the character, that can give an idea of how boring the rest is.

    • I don’t have much experience with this, but I agree with Erica, make something boring seem exciting(like watching a snail race, or tumbleweeds).

    • Personally I think slow scenes in books are enjoyable as long as the characters are interesting. You can use those first few pages to flesh out the MC’s personality by showing not just what he does in his life but how he feels about it. Mixed emotions can help highlight his unhappiness. Maybe in spite of himself, a part of him enjoys the slow pace of his life bc he‘s tired of constantly fighting in the Clone Wars. Or maybe he obsesses over the past and he misses his old strength. Maybe he’s lonely so he talks to inanimate objects. The daisies he grows in the backyard are finally perking up and he briefly rejoices. You can show what he treasures and values.

      Just tossing out ideas, idk. An quirky writing voice always draws me in. Dropping hints of his possibly mysterious backstory might help too.

  5. Actually, the title is what I started with. One time my nephew was going around saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” over and over again. I was thinking out loud, wondering what I should make for my grandma’s breakfast the next day. He said, “Revenge.”
    I said “No, I was thinking of something with asparagus.”
    “Revenge and asparagus.”
    I thought that sounded like the title of a story, so I decided to write it.

  6. 1. I love Fairest. I am glad that the court scene wasn’t cut. My sister laughs at me because I have read almost all of Gall’s novels lol

    2. I was a little slow to see this noisy bit of was exactly what I needed! I have been writing a new site and this helped so much. Thank you!

  7. Ahh, my question! I did a double take when I saw my name, then came back a couple days later, and yep, still there. Since I asked that question, I’ve figured out how to tell the story better. I went through, rewriting, adding more descriptions and cutting every other scene. (Still rewriting, actually– I need to get back to that instead of procrastinating if I want to be ready for Pitch Wars.) It’s much better now! It’s surprising, how much I could cut from the story without hurting it. (It’s still there, it’s just leaking into things now instead of being obvious.)

    I am so glad you didn’t cut the Agulen or the court case! (Sometimes I wish real-life court worked like the gnomes’ court.)

    Oh, and because I’m procrastinating on edits, here. It’s not great, and it doesn’t fit Charles Dickens’ style, but it’s much less wordy.

    Old Marley was dead. The register of his burial had been signed by four people, including his old business partner, Scrooge.

    Marley and Scrooge had been partners for decades. Now, Scrooge was Marley’s only executor, assign, friend, and mourner– and even he was not particularly sad: he was a businessman even at the funeral.

    Yes, Marley’s funeral. Marley was dead, which must be understood for anything good to come of this story. If we did not know that Hamlet’s father were dead before the play began, there would be nothing odd in his appearance onstage.

    • Wasn’t Dickens paid by the word?

      The “Christmas Carol Challenge” was fun! The tricky part is cutting the length without losing the flavor of the original. Here’s my attempt:

      Marley was dead, no doubt. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the following story. Scrooge himself signed the register of his burial, and whatever his colleagues may have said of him out of hearing, Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.
      Of course Scrooge knew he was dead. Scrooge was his partner, his sole executor,] administrator, assign, residuary legatee, friend, and mourner. And even Scrooge was not too devastated to seal a most satisfactory business deal on the very day of the funeral.

  8. Random usage question: Is it okay to use “cup” and “glass” as synonyms, or are they too different? If I wrote something like “He reached for the glass of water, but knocked it off of the counter instead. Time seemed to slow as he watched it fall. When it reached the floor, the cup shattered into a million pieces”, would the reader be confused,or would it make sense? And what is the difference between a cup and a glass, anyway?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I love usage questions! I think the reader would be confused. I think the simplest thing would be to repeat “glass,” but if you want to avoid the word repetition, I think “tumbler” is a better synonym.

    • Yes, I think it’s ok to say “glass” twice, especially since it’s not close together.

      To me, a glass brings to mind a fragile vessel without a handle. My mental “cup” at the moment does have a handle, is made of ceramic, or maybe plastic, and is shorter. These aren’t official definitions, and everybody’s different. It’s just what your words conjured up for me at that moment.

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