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Word Count and Epic Fantasy
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 11:03 AM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

O' Book Country oracle, speak wisdom!

I need to chop words. I've read the bazillion online resources for crafting tight prose. Basics aside, what genre- specific redundancies might an editor find in my fantasy's epic word count?

I look forward to your responses!
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 10:18 PM
Great question. I'll wait right here with you.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 10:55 PM
With no writing sample to look at it's not possible to deal in more than generalities.

A few things to look at:

Look at every line. If it doesn't move the plot, develop character, or set the scene in a necessary way, dump it, it's unnecessary.

Dump all the backstory and every inf-dump. Let your actors carry the story.

I'm blowing my own horn a bit, but you might find some hints in this article:


It's written for the new writer.

Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2012 6:30 PM
Thank you.

Posted: Saturday, July 28, 2012 7:20 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

Thanks for the articles Jay. Wonderful blog too!
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Monday, July 30, 2012 3:14 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Genre-specific:  Epic fantasy has some requirements that other genres don't.  You're worldbuilding, and most epic fantasy readers (not all) want a complex, deeply imagined world.  It's a "big picture" genre, with a simultaneous requirement for emotional intensity and vivid detail.

If you have a prologue, cut that first.  Yes, my first book sold with a prologue, but if you're desperate to cut words, a good story will sell easily without it (and my current editor hates prologues.)  Ditto the epilogue. 

If you need only a 10% cut, that's the easy one:  as you go through, take out the obvious adverbs (-ly ones first.)

Reduce multiple modifiers to one.  The "big red horse" becomes "the big" or "the red" horse.   But leave a few in, if they're really important to that scene (maybe five in the whole book.)  There's clean, tight writing and then there's boringly flat writing that can't carry the tone, the flavor, of a fantasy setting..   If you're cutting, you can't linger over descriptions, but you also can't do without some.

Eliminate every possible "the."   Sometimes you'll need to replace it with something more specific:  "He took the sword out of the scabbard" might need to be "He took his sword out of its scabbard" but consider "He drew his sword."  That cuts half the words of the original.  

Change every "there was" "there is" construction.  "There was a castle looming over the pass" becomes "A castle loomed over the pass."   2 words cut.

Look for both obvious and "sneaky" passive constructions.  "The dark sky was ripped by bolts of lightning" becomes "Bolts of lightning ripped across a dark sky."  That saves only one word but is more vivid.  "Paul and Arnold were beginning to think about heading for the city" becomes "They thought about heading for the city" if you really need that thinking process (saves 5 words) and if you don't, just a line break with "On the way to the city..." starting the next section.  Readers will know they thought about it before doing it, but the thinking about it adds nothing.

Epic fantasy requires worldbuilding skills, but very precise placement of the necessary facts in the necessary place.   Make sure the facts you drop are needed by the characters (they would notice them), are plot-relevant (it's going to be important--usually shortly--that there's a rope dangling from a tree limb), and are needed by the reader in order to understand or set up what comes next.  Every fact should have more than one reason for being there.

Watch out for telling the same thing over again.  Readers, unlike play-goers, can flip back to check if they're confused.  If your protagonist is in a battle, and later meets someone who asks about it, don't have the protagonist recount all the details you put in when it happened.  Shorten it.  Reference one or two details, and then compress:  "Oh, this bandage?  Red Tom's brigand band caught us in Crag Gulch--you know that place where the trail twists around, right below that old avalanche scar?  Yeah.  Blocked the trail, had their archers in place."  Rory took a long pull of his drink.  Ollan said nothing, just waited for him to go on.  "Took us the rest of the day to get past--you can imagine--but old Gannet got Red Tom, so maybe that trail will be clear the rest of the season."   This way readers are prompted to remember the fight, but not dragged through it again.

Background--I have background in my books, but it's usually inserted in snips here and there, casual remarks.  It shouldn't come in lumps; it should always be plot-relevant and character-revealing. 

Flashbacks--unless very brief and literally a character's sudden intrusive memory of something--the same meaning as in post-traumatic stress disorder--they slow a story because they have two temporal transitions for readers to fight through.  Tell the story in the right order in the first place; avoid the "Oh, and by the way, ten years ago this happened" kind of flashback.   Most flashbacks should go.

Musing:  when the writer is thinking how to write his/her way out of a corner, characters are often allowed to think/muse/wonder a lot.  Cut that.  

The first 10% is easy, will not change the story, and will simply tighten it.   If you've got ~250 words/page, 25 lines per page, an average of one word cut per line gives you an automatic 10% cut on that page. 

More than that gets tougher, depending on how loose your writing is.  I once cut a 2300 word story to 1497 to make a sale (had to be 1500 words or a little less.)   I had to pull out a character, a subplot, and some clever dialogue--but it was my first fiction sale and I'm proud of myself for doing it.

The easy big cuts some when you can see that a whole chapter (say, 5000 words) is really just icing on the cake.  My first editor, in my third book, found the chapter and explained why (since a cut was necessary) that was the best place to make it.  Along with the approximately 10% cuts I made, that got us down to the limit.  (Even my editor said it was a beautifully written chapter but--it was a journey in winter and nothing plot-worthy happened in that chapter of it.)

Look for any incidents (arguments, excursions, conversations, etc.) that are not strongly plot-relevant, and cut them.   Cut conventional parts of conversations to the bone--any remaining conversations should be free of "Hi, how are you?"  "Pretty good--how are you?"  and long farewells.  Some characters like to sit around and chat.  Don't let them.  Or, if it's essential to the character, don't write the chat.  Write that someone else is annoyed.  "Where's Bobo?"  "Still talking to the barmaid, as usual."  "Well, get him out here.  We're leaving now."

Use all the transition tools in your toolbox.   One of my alpha readers told me, on the first book, "I get it already about marching in the mud...I don't want to be dragged through every single day of marching in the mud."   Temporal transitions are your friend:  skip to where something happens.  "Three days later..."   Spatial transitions are your friend:   "When they came out of the forest..."   Keep readers oriented with clear cues (as above, but also use "datelines" at chapter heads instead of writing out "They were back at Blue Mountain now."

If you have multiple POVs, consider cutting one or more.  Do you really need to show that scene from more than one?  Probably not.  If working with an editor ask: "Do you think X's POV really adds to the story?  I'm thinking of cutting it."  If you're using multiple POVs to broaden the story (one person here, one person there) it's going to add words.  I do that, but I know--and my editors know and have accepted--that the books will need more words to cover the same time period.  (Twelve POV characters was too many.  Scattered across many star systems so there was no other way to show what was going on, but still.  If you copy that, you'll regret it.)

Sentence fragments work IF you've got the knack for them.  They're useful for showing a character's thoughts in the midst of action without making too big a wad of words between one thing and another.  "The first attacker fell; Jason yanked his blade free.  Now what?  Jump for the door?  No--the others had already closed in." 

That should be enough to go on with.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, July 30, 2012 4:45 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Thank you, Elizabeth. I have printed it out.
Posted: Monday, July 30, 2012 5:44 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

@ Elizabeth Moon. Wow! Tremendously helpful! Thank you! And yet... ouch!

Flashbacks. I have a paragraph in the present - rest of the chapter in the past. It goes like that for five chapters, then it slams full circle, blowing up in the main character's face, launching the catalyst which transforms him into a mentally unstable anti-hero who does terrible things a reader wouldn't normally sympathize with if they didn't feel his past as a past. It's almost linear anyway, seeing what sticks out are one paragraph "future-forwards". 

Also it takes place over ten days. So by anchoring past in the present as flashbacks I avoid those horrible gaps like the one between Grendel and the Dragon, "Fifty years later, Beowulf stepped away from his Zimmerframe..."  

So... might I squeak by with this kind of introduction, or... am I screwed?

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, July 30, 2012 10:39 PM
So... might I squeak by with this kind of introduction, or... am I screwed?

Without looking it's impossible to tell. Remember, you're not being given rules, just a list of what most new writers don't handle well.

That being said, you might take this situation into account:

A busy mother sits down, reads the first paragraph, and then is taken into into the past. They continue till they reach the halfway point of the chapter. Then they're out of reading time so they close the cover and come back to it tomorrow, at dinner, and read to the chapter end. The next day they come to the paragraph in the present for the next chapter. Okay?

So, will the reader remember what went on in that intro paragraph for the last chapter, and feel they're part of a continuing live scene?

My personal feeling is that it takes about 250 words of more for a reader to settle in and be comfortable with the three traditional things a reader wants to know at the opening to a scene: Who am I? Where am I? What's going on? If that opening paragraph doesn't handle that, and place the reader on the scene, you're in danger of having it read like a report—a history lesson, rather than a live scene.

Now it may be that they will read that opening as a continuation, chapter to chapter, assuming the first chapter in the sequence fully orients them.. But without a sample it's impossible to tell.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 3:04 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Hagenpiper: Jay's right that it takes more than a paragraph to attach most readers to a story.   Readers need to be oriented to person, place, time...and in addition they need to be introduced to your narrative voice, the character's situation (what's the problem, what's going on?), and some indication of the genre. 

But there's still the double-temporal transition to deal with.  The way readers' minds function (most of them) they try hold a connection open from the "story present" as they read the "flashback past" so they can make a smooth connection to the "story present" on the far side.  The longer the flashback, the more mental work it takes--and finally that connection snaps.  You don't say how long your five chapters are, but my feeling is that any five chapters are too long to expect readers to hold that connection open...and without that connection across the gap (the flashback gap) readers will not experience the big emotional slam that you've prepared for them.  Some readers will skip the whole five chapters, hunting ahead for where the story really continues.  Some readers will put the book down and not pick it back up.  And some will completely forget what was in the first paragraph and be confused. 

I'm not sure what you mean by "it takes place over ten days"....whether that's ten days between the first paragraph and the resumption of "story present" time, or the events in the flashback lasted ten days.  But either is pushing a reader's limits for processing the double transition.

Moreover, the initial question concerned cutting wordage.  Cutting or rearranging flashbacks to be non-flashbacks usually saves words.  I get the sense--I could be wrong--that you've used the flashback to engineer the big "blows up in his face" shocking scene--to startle/surprise the reader as well as the character, and you can't think of another way to do that besides the sort of time-loop thing.

Come at that problem another way.   Events from the past break into someone's present life all the time--sometimes dramatically.  Someone finds the adoption papers after an adoptive parent dies...their whole identity is now in question.   After a marriage and several children, the married couple find out they're both the biological children of the same sperm donor...and thus illegally married.  It's not necessary to go back in time to tell such stories--the discovery of the secret, in story-present, is the start of the story.

So look at classical structure and your story.  Whose story is it?  Is your present protagonist the real protagonist?   If so, the story starts when your protagonist is confronted with the results of that past.  The temptation--understandable--is to start the story where the writer started the idea, with the background to the story, how the "problem" came to be.  And you may have to write that background (I write a lot of background I don't put into the story as a lump.)   But "blowing up in the main character's face" is a much stronger starting point--the protagonist meets the problem--than five chapters of background. 

You want the reader to feel his past is his past--but that doesn't require five chapters.  Here's where the writer has a huge advantage: readers will believe you if you tell them it's his past, by having him discover it's his past...and by unfolding the implications of that past in bits, as his character transforms.  Readers will collaborate with you, as long as you give them the right cues and play fair.  If you try a lot of tricks, they'll quit reading the story and try to figure out what trick you're playing.  If your characters are real enough, they'll have memories.  Without wallowing in them for a dozen pages, characters can have brief memories that guide readers to understand backstory.

You may doubt that telling the story from the opening crisis to the climax can deliver the punch you want...it can, but you may have to think about it for awhile to figure out how.  I can't tell you how; it's your story.  But I can say, from experience, that inserting essential past facts can be done more efficiently when the elements are in the right temporal order.  

If the story is  "How John became a vicious anti-hero" then the story does start in what you now have as the past (but should be story-present)  and will end all the links in the chain are hooked up--when John is, in fact, a vicious anti-hero.  That change was the climax of the story; now that he's the anti-hero, a known quantity, the tension drops..   If the story is "How John the anti-hero took over the galaxy" then the story starts with John already the anti-hero and concentrates on his rise to becoming emperor...what made him an anti-hero is, for that arc, less interesting.  So consider your story--the story you want to tell--its real arc, and then consider putting the elements in temporal order.  Not saying you have to, but this usually streamlines a story and gives it the best trajectory in the fewest words.

In the group of books I've been writing there've been hints of something treacherous, something very bad, in one character's past.  As he copes with one discovery after another, long past the age he expected to learn anything new about himself (middle-age) he's having to re-assess his identity time after time.  OK, he's a king's son--disappeared in early childhood while traveling with his mother who was killed.  He's returned to his heritage through the intervention of a paladin, and is accepted as the rightful king on the death of the previous one (a distant relative.)  That, he and the reader find out early.   But his grandmother isn't forthcoming about her daughter, his mother.  Clues build up.  He doesn't want to believe that his grandmother or any other relative could have intended that...but one clue after another pushes him in that direction.  Who did it?  Who was the traitor?  And why?   But although I wrote the background as story--including the details of the mistreatment he suffered, and how he escaped, and what the years of memory loss and slow recovery were like--that was for my own use.  
His current story arc starts with his arrival in his kingdom and will end dramatically (oh yeah!) though as that book isn't out yet, no spoilers.  There are no long flashbacks. 

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 4:54 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

Thanks for all the very constructive advice Elizabeth and Jay. It's greatly appreciated. And it sounds like you've done a bang up job with your forthcoming novel, Elizabeth. I look forward to reading it.

Concerning flashbacks... Four strikes of a red pen will eliminate the problem. That would cut my word count, sure, but... I think I'm going to hold off until agents start shooting it down. I think I'd be doing myself a disservice by conforming too eagerly to the received wisdom, without trusting myself at least a little bit first. Perhaps it would be a mistake to do that, but like Bob Ross says, "We don't make mistakes; we have happy little accidents."

I have, however, rearranged it some to eliminate at least one happy temporal shift. And I'm pleased with that little change, though it didn't save any words.

Also the other tips for word count reduction are working out well for me. I'm averaging 14% from each chapter which will bring it under 150K. The harder cuts will come later where I know the prose is tighter. I'll end up cutting lines, paragraphs and whole scenes, I'm sure, but it'll work.

Again, thank you for the advice. It left me with a clearer understanding and thus had a positive impact.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 10:27 PM
Posting a chapter or so will probably give you even more data than you've gotten so far. The idea is to have the "readers" reject the thing in place of the editor, and tell you why, so you can fix it before you submit. Once you do it's too late to fix.

Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 12:03 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

After two years in three critique groups, I've learned there's no end to criticism from readers who read to criticize. Yes, it's constructive criticism, well-intended and positive, but too much time in writing circles can send you... writing in circles, transforming what was creativity into sterile goop if you're not careful. And after rewriting my story from scratch to recover its freshness, I'm now steering clear of these roundabouts. True, it's an important learning process, but one that can go on indefinitely if you don't stop once you're confident in the product. As soon as my current word count reduction is finished and I've proofed it five more times, it's off to sink or swim. 

There comes a point when you've got to trust your gut, whip out your Admiral Farragut doll and pull the cord, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 2:29 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

When I was an agent, I wrote up a basic guideline for fiction word counts. I've revised it several times but it seems to be helpful to writers:


Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 3:49 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

Thanks for the article, Colleen!

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 9:46 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I think I came across Colleen's article on my own a couple of months ago -- it seemed familiar, and I've been seeking advice on this for awhile.

No doubt I am going to have to cut something from my manuscript.  It's currently in the "black hole" at my first choice publisher (see http://critters.org/blackholes/index.ht).  Been there since June 18 so I've got awhile to wait yet.  (Side note: if any of you submit to publishers, I'd encourage you to fill out the form on the linked page as the larger data set should help us all.)

I've been thinking about this, and my manuscript is long enough (160K words) that I would probably actually cut it into two volumes, add some action and a climax in what is currently the middle, and make that the first volume -- depending on what, if any, feedback I get from the editor.  That would probably give me two 90-100K books.  (I've not allowed myself to expect anything more than a form rejection letter so I won't be disappointed, no matter the actual result!)

First publisher I sent sample chapters to didn't ask for word count and I didn't give it.  (Later saw a funny exchange on Twitter involving Kate Elliott and someone else on the very same topic.)

I've already been pretty merciless in the slashing.  I once wrote a new scene into a draft and then immediately turned around and eliminated it in the next draft.  Other scenes that dragged or were repetitive are now gone and/or shortened and combined with other scenes.  Maybe a handful of adverbs in the whole thing, few "-ing" words, no infodumping (because I hate it when I see it, so I can't make myself write it), etc.  At this point, to make the volume any shorter, I'd have to start slashing plotlines.  But I can't really do that if events are going to resolve in a sensible matter in later volumes.

So, if I'm required to cut, it'll be a roughly even split in two (there's a natural divide in the story so this should be easy).  And then I'll have magically doubled my number of manuscripts without a lot of additional work...

Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 7:14 PM
Search your manuscript for words like "that". If the sentence reads aloud fine without "that", then remove it. Once you go looking for "that", you'll be surprised how many you actually find!

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 7:43 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I actually wrote my book as two books, but am forced to slam them together. Everyone said, "It felt like it ended to early." So there you are. When I'm done adding what was Book Two (minus one chapter), I'm whipping out my axe to go slashing.

Splitting is not always that easy.

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