Put Your Manuscript on a Diet!

Dear Steve!

I liked this post very much!

May I toss a short story writing question out to you? The answer to this thwarts me, and in spite of seeking an answer is books and magazines for writers, nobody ever seems to touch on it.

When I set out to tell a story, I usually think I know where I want to begin, where I want to end, and I can even envision scenes along the way. I can see it laid out before me like a train track with stations dotted along the track. So, I set out to tell my story in 2,500 to 5,000 words, and before I know it I’ve hit the 5,000 word limit and my story-train has barely left the station. That’s when I suddenly realize that the short story I want to tell actually wants to be a novella or novel.

Sometimes I’ve gotten around this problem by starting over and essentially writing what could be seen as a chapter of the longer narrative. Sometimes in the second draft I’ve zeroed in on one specific aspect of the story, wound up my characters, and let them go.

I don’t always seem to know I’m buying tickets to travel the Transcontinental Railway when all I need is a short-haul ticket to get to my destination.

Is there a way to know that your story idea is too long? Is there a way, perhaps rules or guidelines to follow, that will allow a writer to forecast the length of the story, and/or control the length to fit into the word limit you seek to fill?

Thanks and best wishes,


The above question was written in response to my earlier blog entry “KNOWING WHEN TO END YOUR STORY”. And no – I wasn’t talking to myself – the dude who asked me the question is actually a good buddy of mine named Stephen Lowe. And no, he isn’t that low – he is actually a pretty cheerful fellow once you get to know him.

So I decided that the very best way to answer Stephen’s question was to write another blog entry.

Here goes.

Let me get my knife out first.

Zuni Doll

Okay Stephen – the second novel I wrote (DEVIL TREE) was about 80,000 words long. When I sent it to a publisher he sent it to an editor and then told me that I need to trim it by about 20000 words – which I did.

It is EASIER to prune a big old tree than it is to stretch an acorn out into an oak.

So, my advice would be to write the damn thing however you need to write it. Your editor has asked you for a 2500 word story and you come up with a 10000 word story. Great. Just don’t stop writing until you hit THE END.

THEN – set those ten thousand words down in a drawer for a week or two. Go and have yourself a beer or two. Go and prune the roses. Or, if it’s winter – go and shovel the driveway. Give yourself a decent amount of time to fall out of love with those ten thousand words.

Then, get yourself a good whittling knife and get started whittling those ten thousand words down.

Have a look for redundancies. Is your hero “advancing forward”? Get rid of that “forward”. What other direction WOULD you advance in?

Watch out for those “ly” words. Odds are 99% of all of those “ly” modifiers like “quickly” and “angrily” and “loudly” are redundant. Unessential. Totally expendable.

Open yourself up a Twitter account. Nothing teaches you how to write succinctly and clearly (there’s those damned “ly” words again) as having 140 characters to communicate with.

Watch out for those tangents. You find your hero needs to stop and go shopping for underwear before he rides off to save the damsel – BURN DOWN THE UNDERWEAR STORE! Take that man’s credit card away from him and do not let him by that underwear!

Watch out for speech tags. “He said” and “She said” and “He said loudly.”

If you pace your dialogue properly you don’t need half of those speech tags.


“Damn,” Stephen Lowe said. “Do you REALLY know what you are talking about?”

“Sure I do,” Steve Vernon replied.

“Dang, I wish that I could stop swearing.”

“You’re only swearing so much because that writer keeps dropping f-bombs into your dialogue.”

“You’re right,” Stephen Lowe said. “Somebody better whittle that fellow’s fingers off.”

I know that doing it this way is almost like going the long way around the barn – but as you train yourself to trim the fat you’ll learn to write tighter during the first draft.

Lastly – start your story one minute before the climax. Don’t feel the need to sneak on up to it.

Rather then writing –

I got up out of bed. Looked at myself in the mirror. Put on my bank-robbing mask. Practiced my quick draw. Made a phone call to the plumber. Then walked to the bank and stuck it up.

Try writing –

I kicked the bank door open, brandished my pistol and yelled – “I’m Donald Trump! Give me ALL your money!”

Remember – every story in the world started out with a big flabby old draft.

Give yourself permission to spread out and get comfortable – and then, break out the whittling knife.

I hope that helps.

yours in storytelling,

Steve Vernon

2 responses to “Put Your Manuscript on a Diet!

  1. thanks for posting this. I`ve been trying to add words for another publisher who wants more the last one wanted less so Ive thrown up my arms and said sod it, post it to another publisher who is less numerically fixated.


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