Is Your Book a Bargain?

Sat Dec 17 2016

Imagine that your story is up on the shelf at your favorite bookstore. A prospective reader comes by, running their finger idly along the spines, and settles on yours. They read the back cover text. They thumb through it, and decide to buy it.

Now, how much do you imagine your story costs? Think of a number and hold onto it.

Brevity is the soul of bargain

Shorter prose is usually better than longer prose. Using twenty, thirty, or forty words where ten will do only makes readers work harder to find the meaning in your narrative.

I wish I could give a formula for identifying which words are surplus and how to remove them. But wordiness follows no set pattern. The best I can do is say "remove anything that can be removed."

Take this short passage, ripped from the first manuscript I ever wrote, in which a young blacksmith's apprentice arrives to work:

Trevor arrived at the smithy and touched the statue of Arelenoa for luck as he entered. Yun had not arrived yet. Trevor tied on his leather apron, threw a few shovels of charcoal into the furnace to get it started, and went to unload a wagon load of bar stock.

Yun arrived a few minutes later, while Trevor was still unloading. He said hello, nodded approvingly at Trevor’s work, and went inside to set up the day’s first job. A light rain began as Trevor finished. He had to dry off the last three bars after bringing them in, but there was no harm done.

“Thanks for unloading the wagon, Trevor.”

“You’re welcome.” Trevor tended to the furnace, which was almost ready, and added a bit more charcoal. “What’s the work today?”

“Couple of plows that need repair,” Yun grumbled. “Honestly, I don’t know why these farmers can’t bring the darned things to me in the fall! I could work on them all winter and have them done by now. It would give us more work in the winter and make the springtime less hectic. Still, they always wait till the last moment, and then want me to rush.”

That's 199 words. It's not horribly wordy, but a few cuts drop it down to 130:

Trevor arrived at the smithy, touching the statue of Arelenoa for luck. Yun wasn’t there. Trevor tied on his leather apron, threw a few shovels of charcoal into the furnace, and began unloading a wagon load of bar stock.

Yun arrived shortly while Trevor was still unloading. He said hello and nodded approvingly at Trevor’s work. A light rain began as Trevor finished. He brought in the last three bars and wiped them dry.

Trevor stoked the furnace while Yun readied the morning’s first job. “What’s the work today?”

“Couple of plows need repair,” Yun grumbled. “Why can’t these farmers bring the darned things in the fall? I could fix them all winter and have them done by now. But every year, spring comes and they want me to rush.”

That's 35% shorter, which I have to admit is more than I anticipated. But then, that manuscript is 12 years old and I'm a much better writer now.

You may be crying foul at some of the cuts, such as the first two lines of dialogue. But did they need to be said? No. In the second paragraph, Yun says hello and nods approvingly. That is more or less the same as saying thank you. The dialogue was redundant, so out it goes.

The last paragraph is a lot shorter because, to be quite honest, Yun was way over-explaining the situation. Neither Trevor nor readers needs him to explain that much.

Other cuts are simple removal of filler phrases. I don't have to say "as he entered" in the first paragraph, because of course Trevor's going to go in. He works there! I don't have to say "to get it started" in the third sentence, because why else do you load charcoal into a furnace?

Little by little, the cuts add up to real savings.

Satisfying publishers

Most of us have heard the horror stories about publishers telling writers they'll publish a book, but only after the writer cuts 30,000 words or whatever out of it.

It does sound incredibly drastic, and leaves writers worried that they'll have to cut whole swaths of their story, remove important sub-plots, et cetera. But they don't.

My old manuscript is 110,000 words long. If all I do to it is what I did to the above passage, I can cut it to 72,000 words without losing a single bit of the plot.

35% off! What a bargain!

At the beginning of this article, how much did you imagine your story cost? Ten dollars? Fifteen?

That's the wrong amount. You may think readers buy your story with dollars, but they don't. Dollars only buy them a book.

The coin with which readers truly purchase your story is the time and effort they put into reading it. If you can give them the same story for 35% fewer words, what you've really done is to make your story a better bargain for their time.