I tend to focus on cutting manuscripts because I can spew out words and words and words and words. I always have more manuscript than editorial permission. My very first novel published required me to cut it in half before the editors were satisfied.
However, there are folks out there who write lean and mean. A friend of mine has always written so tightly, so sparingly that her prose–while superb–always comes in under length.
So if that’s your revision problem, here are some tips and suggestions:
1. Don’t pad.
Never lengthen your copy by injecting material that’s extraneous, flowery, or rambles. If it doesn’t contribute to your story, it shouldn’t be there.
2. Look at your scenes.
Can you strengthen your protagonist’s motivation so that he or she will push the conflict harder? If you don’t let the protagonist give up just yet, can you wring another three paragraphs–or even three more pages–from the scene?
If it’s possible, without having the conflict become repetitive or mere bickering, then write it!
If you don’t see how you can alter character motivation, then raise the stakes.
If you can’t raise the stakes, then let the antagonist pull an unexpected maneuver. Such a twist is unpredictable, a nasty surprise for the protagonist, and needs dealing with. Hey! It means you’re adding plot!
3. Have you rushed the climax?
I’m one of those writers that wants to wrap up the story fast. Often I rush the dramatic climax and don’t give it as much attention as I should.
Go back through the ending of your story. Have you made the sacrificial choice hard enough? Is your protagonist in a tough enough quandary? Does everything look lost for the protagonist and have you let your lead character stew enough in apparent defeat before you bring in the reversal?
It’s so easy to rush the Dark Moment and so important not to.
If these three suggestions don’t add enough length to your short story, or if you’re writing a novel that needs a lot more content than just a few extra pages, then consider the following solutions:
4. Add a subplot.
Maybe you’ve been busy focusing on your protagonist’s external plot problem, but you’ve neglected to do much with his inner arc of change.
Ask yourself if your protagonist has inner flaws. If so, are there any scenes or confrontations dealing with them?
Look at your secondary characters. Are any of them interesting enough to supply a subplot to the story?
5. Add characters.
Maybe your protagonist needs a sidekick. Maybe you’ve omitted a love interest for your main character. How would such secondary characters add to the story? Would they bring the potential for subplots? Would they add another layer or more dimension to your protagonist–or even the antagonist?
You don’t want to clutter a novel with more characters than are needed, but consider where an extra character or two might help.
6. Have you established a strong sense of place?
While description is often the first thing a writer cuts from a manuscript, sometimes a busy author forgets the setting altogether.
Or–more commonly–a writer envisions the setting clearly in her mind and neglects to remember that her readers aren’t telepathic enough to read her thoughts.
Descriptive passages are risky in that they slow down the pacing, but we still need them at key points to help readers imagine where the action is taking place. Or the clues of lipstick, a broken button, and a deck of cards scattered around a mysterious corpse. Or the silky touch of the blouse the heroine slips on. Or the thunderous downpour in a Malaysian monsoon doing its best to drown the rubber plantation. Or the fragrance of a man’s aftershave as he enters the courtroom to seek custody of his only child. Or the glutinous taste of the sludge that passes for Andorian coffee. Or the shot that rings out in the dead of night.
7. Have you explained?
I frequently caution my students against the urge to explain all the background in their opening pages, but in the middle of a novel readers need to know something more about the protagonist’s motivations or why these events are happening. Act II infusions of back story make a desirable change of pace. They don’t have to go on and on and on, but they can provide readers with a breather after an explosive opening section of a book.