When Cutting 20,000 Words Is The Only Option

I am currently finishing up my second novel, Prophecy which is the next in the ARKANE series after Pentecost. The big first draft was finished a few weeks ago but I didn’t feel happy with how it all hung together. It wasn’t coherent in parts and I wasn’t happy at all. You know that feeling, when you realize you have lost your way somehow and you are shoe-horning things into the text to try and knit things together. In this video, I explain what I did about it ( and text is below).

I went away for a week and didn’t work on it. I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, scribbling notes for the rewrite. But nothing was really helping.

A couple of things have helped me get over this.

I interviewed Robin Sullivan last week on 6 figure indie publishing. I love her no-nonsense approach and she basically said that 1 book doesn’t cut it. You need to have at least 3 books before you put a lot of effort into marketing. You guys know I already put a lot of effort into marketing :) but it kicked me up the butt and made me really focus on getting Prophecy out and also the next book, possibly called Exodus, started. I am very serious about being successful in this business and so I need to put a lot of effort into it.

Then I read this article about Amanda Hocking, the young indie author who has sold over 1 million Kindle books and also got a very lucrative traditional book deal because of her success. This sentence stood out. “Each book takes between two and four weeks to write, and she sells them for between 99c and $2.99. In the past 18 months, she has grossed approximately $2 million.” Yes, I want to make $2m but it was more the 2-4 week thing. Now, I write very differently to Hocking but I’ve been writing Prophecy on and off since February. I do want to ensure quality but I also want to speed things up a bit.

So yesterday, I took the bold step of cutting around 20,000 words from the draft. Basically I cut the scenes set in Africa which I felt weren’t really adding to the plot and removing them has made a lot of difference. There were 3 additional characters that have been completely eradicated but may surface in another book. Prophecy is now around 68,000 words but in a fast-paced thriller, that’s not a bad thing. With ebooks, no one notices the word count anyway!

I now feel much freer and more confident about the coherence of the story. I can finish the latest draft and get it out to my beta readers for review so then I can move into the final phases of editing before publishing. This drastic act has certainly made a huge difference to me and I believe it has made my story better for the reader.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in advance notification of Prophecy, you can sign up here.

Have you found yourself in this situation? Please do leave a comment as I love to hear how you deal with these types of situations.



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  1. says

    Good post Jo. I agree on both fronts.
    First when you say, put your energy into writing, because more books is far better marketing than more posts, tweets, facebook pages etc. All those words tweeted and blogged could easily be another book every six months.
    Second cutting makes better writing of for you. Cutting is one of the hardest things to do but it almost always improves writing.
    I spent my formative years writing first chapters of books. Every first chapter was the same; my main character woke up with a hangover struggled to get half dressed and had breakfast whilst mulling over what had happened the night before (and who says all writing is autobiographical :) ).
    Then I met a real writer at a Writers’ week (an Arvon tutor – brilliant). She told me editors cut the first chapter because many beginner writers don’t start their story until the second chapter. I was horrified when she handed me back my manuscript with a line through the first chapter. How dare she get rid of my best writing? I had rewritten that first chapter so many times it was brilliant – it must be.
    When I got home I put it in a drawer and forgot about it for a few months (great editing tool that) whilst I wrote another first chapter about someone waking up with a headache and… (I think you get the picture). Then I got my old manuscript out of the drawer and reread it starting at the second chapter. She was right. It started right in the middle of the action. It was interesting and engaging.
    Now, my policy is overwrite then cut and in my case it produces higher quality work. This also helps faster writing. If you know you are going to cut you are not afraid to use lots of words. A great practice for fast writing is nanowrimo – I’m in the middle of this year’s effort.
    Also I run my own writing group and it is the most common advice I give to people, “cut 10 – 20% and it will improve the writing”. Sadly, like me, it will be years before some realise the value of that advice. :(

    • says

      Thanks Christopher – I started my first novel with NaNoWriMo so I am definitely a fan! I’m glad you find cutting words helps as well. As for all the tweets and blogging, I will not be changing that because it uses a different part of my mind and I am also an entrepreneur. I don’t want to be only a fiction writer, I am also a businesswoman and also Twitter & blogging are my joy and fun! I love sharing things with you guys and learning from others on the net. That energy is interspaced with the creative stuff so I don’t feel it’s a waste. I guess I meant that I needed to focus on writing more books instead of marketing the books – but I will continue to market myself and my brand as that will be beneficial later. Hope that makes sense!

  2. says

    Great post, Joanna. It’s very hard to let go of our material sometimes. I was hoping to get my first novel finished and published by the end of the year but I’ve made the difficult decision to shelve it for the time being as I’m concentrating on writing short stories. These are great sellers in my genre (erotica) and I’m utterly focused on increasing my output as quickly as possible to hit the post-Christmas Kindle rush.

    Everyone I know who is making serious money at the moment has a raft of titles available. The key, it seems, is to be prolific – as soon as ‘Prophecy’ is released, start the next one!

    • says

      Thanks Katie – I have been thinking about dabbling in that area myself! How short are we talking by the way? and do you release them as Shorts or a novella? or doesn’t it matter?
      I already have plans to start the next one in the series, possibly titled Exodus – but I also had another idea today for a new character for another book, so might have 2 on the go! We shall see, but I am definitely speeding up!

  3. says

    Joanna, kudos on progress! If you’ve only been working on the manuscript since February, I think that’s a great pace (I have no idea how Amanda Hocking does it, by the way). You also need to do a lot of research for your books, as I recall. That takes time. I write historical fiction, so I spend a lot of time in the books before writing a book. I also had to cut 25,000 words out of my last novel, so I know how painful that can be. But I’m sure it made your novel better!

    • says

      Thanks Joseph, I have done quite a bit of research actually but still, I want to improve as I intend to make a decent living at this :) Historical fiction would be harder than a thriller as there is so much more research involved so I respect you for that. I have thought about historical but I know I am not meticulous enough for that type of writing!

  4. says

    In an article in The Observer Hephzibah Anderson has this to say about the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld:

    Cutting is a crucial part of his writing, as it should be of any writing, he insists; he deplores the way contemporary authors ‘cover us with words’. He hides each finished manuscript in a drawer for two or three years, before returning to prune it further. The results are tightly packed sentences like this: ‘In the ghetto, children and madmen were friends’, sentences loaded with magical, terrible potential.

    I cannot imagine in my wildest dreams churning out books at the rate Hocking seems capable of. In fact even the most prolific professional writers would struggle to keep up that pace and crucially maintain quality. I certainly couldn’t but then I’m a slow and methodical writer which is why I also can’t imagine having to cut 20,000 words out of a novel because I edit constantly as I write. I did ditch the first 10,000 of my last book but that was just a false start – the tone was all wrong – and I just began again. And, for the record, that novel has now sat in the proverbial drawer for a year without being touched. I’m completely with Appelfeld there.

    • says

      I’m with that sentiment as well. I think Dan Brown could use some serious editing, maybe remove about a third of his last book and it would have been a hell of a lot better.

  5. JR Holmes says

    Excellent observation about the value of cutting your manuscript to maintain the pace of the story. It may hurt to cut some favorite scenes, but it often focuses the story and keeps it rolling forward.

    I was also particularly struck by the observation that in ebooks, readers don’t seem to care as much about the word count. I’ll bet that in a broad sense that is very true. Readers will still feel ripped off if they are paying $6.99 for a novelette, but they are much less likely to notice a difference between a 50K and 70K novel.

    • says

      Exactly and in fact I think they notice more when there are too many words. I often skip boring parts. I’d rather leave them wanting more than jumping pages to get to the next good bit.

  6. says

    This is just what I needed to hear right now! This week I got feedback on my first draft that I finished and it took me a few days to realize that it’s needs major restructuring and that’s a bit disheartning. But like you said, it benefited your story in the long run, and in the end we as writers are trying to put out the best stories possible.

    What also struck a chord with me was when you said that you didn’t have to cover all of these big ideas and characters in this book. For my first one I’m trying to cram all of these big ideas that I have and seeing this made me realize that I don’t have to – that’s what the second book is for!

  7. LKWatts says

    Hi Joanna,

    Bob Mayer has also said this about having at least 3 books out before you start marketing. But this is hard when you first start out because you feel like unless you do some promoting no one will ever know who you are.
    I started my 2nd book in March but then I published my first book in the middle of April so I spent a lot of time focused on that instead of just getting on with writing my 2nd. I’m now almost near the end of it (I think) but I know how hard it can be when you’re just starting out. Everything is new to you and you haven’t a clue which things will work.

    • says

      Exactly! I also really like the marketing and wanted to get the wheels spinning – there is nothing more depressing than selling no books and I get sign ups daily for Prophecy so I have a list to sell to straight up. I wouldn’t have had this without marketing – but I will do it differently with the 2nd book as the flywheel is already spinning.

  8. says

    It’s great that you recognized what the manuscript needed and could execute all those little darlings! But all that work won’t go to waste because at some point you’ll want to incorporate the African settings again, as well as at least one of those characters you cut. At this point you’ll be ahead of the game and can cash in on that writing capital you’ve created.

  9. says

    Email from Arabella McIntyre-Brown.
    I got very agitated about my first draft as the core villains weren’t
    convincing me (and if they didn’t convince me, they wouldn’t do much
    for the readers), and I was close to chucking the whole book out of
    the window. Instead, I killed the villains and ripped out their entire
    plot – which was about 30,000 words and the plot round which the whole
    book worked. Or so I thought. As soon as they’d gone, the minor
    villain was in the spotlight and I realised that he was by far the
    more interesting character, had the required pathos to attract
    sympathy and his subplot grew like magic to be the driving force of
    the book. The central hero & heroine blossomed again, and I was
    thrilled to find I was entranced by the three of them. The apparently
    ruthless murder of the book was its salvation – don’t be afraid to be
    ruthless if something’s not working.

  10. says


    I just wrote a blog post on this same subject expect I deleted 9,000 words from my book. My book is Business Oriented and won’t be 68,000 words anyway more like 35,000… I agree with everything you said.

    Good luck!

    Thank you!

  11. says

    I am currently revising my first novel, a suspense thriller. The original draft had 139,000 words, but my Internet research told me that this would be hard to sell. I successfully cut it down to 105,000 and the result is a much smoother, faster paced read. It was hard to part with scenes and kill off characters and subplots, but I’m pleased with the new version.

  12. says

    I, too am at a frustrating standstill with my second novel. Same thing – trying to connect the scenes together and having the end result being disjointed and lackluster. Your post was like a message from the universe. It’s very satisfying to me, this morning, to go back and cut out those scenes that were giving me such trouble!


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