When I finished the second draft of my novel, If a Butterfly, about eleven weeks ago, it was 280,762 words and 1,093 double-spaced pages. After I returned from the 2012 WLT Agents and Editors Conference in Austin in June, I knew (based on the feedback I had received from several people I respect) that I needed to trim the novel down considerably, so I set a goal to spend a couple of weeks cutting it down to size. It took eight weeks longer than I thought it would, because once I started I didn’t want to stop without finishing it all.
I finished trimming it on August 17th, about a week ago. This time I ended up with 252,879 words and 960 pages, so I had reduced it by 27,883 words and 133 pages, but it’s still a very long book.
Was it a successful, well-spent ten weeks? Yes and no. Here’s why.
Stephen King, in his wonderful book, On Writing, talks about a rule of thumb he has used for editing (2nd Draft = 1st Draft minus 10%). Since my primary goal for this third pass-through was to trim the size down (without losing the thread or the nuance of the story, of course), and I reduced it by nearly 28,000 words, I came fairly close to King’s 10%, so that was successful. Do I feel I can trim it much more than that without losing the essence of the story? No, I probably can’t.
Why am I so concerned about the length of the book? At the WLT conference, I talked to a number of other writers and several agents and editors while I was there, and had a difficult time explaining the plot of the story to almost all of them (which either points to an inadequacy in the story or in my ability to describe the plot). I think (based on the in-depth talks I had with a few of them) that they were intrigued by the idea of the novel, although some were genuinely confused by my pitch (more on that later), but nearly everyone felt the length of the book will make it very difficult to sell. One suggested I cut the book in half, another said the length didn’t bother her so much, but at that length it would have to be marketed as a literary novel (which meant the writing would have to be really special). A couple of the agents and editors suggested I eliminate three or four of the principal characters (there are ten of them if you count the butterfly).
Regarding the length, during a panel discussion, a question was asked about the length of novels, and one of the agents said she was pitched a novel by a first-time writer who said their novel was 140,000 words long. The agent said, “It almost gave me a heart attack,” (because it was so long it would be hard to sell to publishers). Mine was twice that long when I heard that.
Apparently, once an author has been published, and his/her books have sold successfully, longer novels are possible. Let’s go back to Stephen King as a prime example: Carrie = short, The Stand (and many others) = very long.
So, I’m setting Butterfly aside for a while. There were a couple of agents who were interested in it, and I may try to send it to them later in the year, after it’s had a chance to “marinate” a bit. I’ll take another look at it (probably in October), and give it a final polish before I send it to those two people. Based on their feedback (unless they sign me and decide it’s worth marketing, of course), I’ll decide whether to go one of the two other routes I’ve been thinking of. One is to eliminate two or more of the characters. This is possible, but it will be a very different novel. The other possibility is to keep all the characters, but produce two books which tell different, parallel versions of the same story. Characters from one novel would make brief appearances in the other one. This is also possible, but (to me) it would feel like I was separating Siamese twins. It might be for the best, but would the twins ever be the same afterwards, and would they be happy with their new existence?