Welcome to our week-long discussion about revision! You’ll hear from several of us on the topic. I’ll start off by discussing revision for word count.
After writing a manuscript about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, and try to help the ghosts, I developed a series proposal and sent the proposal and manuscript to an editor I knew. Imagine my delight when I got a call from him, just a month later. Imagine my ecstasy when he said, “I love it. I want to buy it.”
Now imagine my reaction when he said, “It needs to be twice as long.”
Granted, the manuscript was less than 20,000 words, but the plot worked, and I had a nice fast pace, focusing on action and dialogue. But since I was pitching The Ghost on the Stairs as the first in a series, it had to match Aladdin’s series guidelines for ages 9 to 12. So I had to add 15,000 words, while keeping the story fast and active to reach our primary target of reluctant boy readers.
I’m probably in the minority in having to expand rather than cut my work. Many authors wind up with sluggish, overwritten manuscript and have to cut them down. Short stories, picture books and easy readers are even more challenging, as they typically have tight word counts. But I have also critiqued other writers’ stories that fall into an awkward in-between length—too long for an early reader, but too short for a middle grade novel. One way or another, we often have to adapt to publishers’ needs or market trends by trimming or adding to our work.
Adding material and trimming are very different skills, so I’m going to focus on the first in this post. The trick to expanding your work is to add complications that will make the work more exciting—in other words, add plot, not description or random action that doesn’t affect the plot.
In my Haunted series, siblings Jon and Tania travel with their mother and stepfather’s ghost hunter TV show, and discover Tania can see ghosts. In each book, they have to figure out what’s keeping the ghost here, then try to help her or him move on. In the version of The Ghost on the Stairs I sent to the editor, people already knew the ghost’s name, and why she’s stuck here grieving. To expand the manuscript, I made the ghost story more vague. Jon and Tania have to do detective work to discover her name and background.
These added complications gave me about 70 more pages. The editor read those revisions, but found a new problem. Some scenes lacked drama. He wanted it spookier, with the ghost more active. I realized that some of my “detective” scenes didn’t directly involve the ghost at all. For example, I had the kids do research in the public library. They find information, and leave, with no drama. To keep the ghost involved, I moved their research session to the hotel’s business center—right next door to the ghost—and finished the chapter with another dramatic ghost encounter.
New material must make the plot more interesting, rather than slowing it down. Complications should be dramatic, scary or emotional. By adjusting the number and complexity of complications—essentially adding or removing plot—you can shorten or lengthen a manuscript.
This can sound odd to the beginning writer or non-writer who imagines that a story is what it is, and couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be changed. But the more you write, the more you discover how many options a story idea gives you. What seemed to be a picture book works better as a short story. A short story idea grows into a full-length novel. An epic novel is more manageable when broken down into a trilogy. Discovering what your story can be is part of the fun of writing!
Chris Eboch discussed expanding a story by adding more plot in her personal blog in several posts this last April and May.