In online and in-person writing circles, I often hear fellow writers bemoan having to cut down their lengthy manuscripts. “Oh no!,” they wail. “I have to cut 30,000 words!” My problem is a different one. I write short. My first drafts tend to be one-half to two-thirds the suggested word counts. I used to feel insecure about this, but now I think this is my process. I feel a little like a painter—I do the broadbrush outline first, then with each draft add more detail and depth. I’ve come up with a few ways to add, so in case you are my fellow traveler on this narrow road, I share them with you.
Add Physical Descriptions
I’ll can get all the way to the end of my first draft and realize I have never given my main character a physical description. Not a hair color, eye color, even a race. Part of me thinks, it shouldn’t matter! The reader can fill in whoever they want! But it can be distancing for the reader if they can’t picture your character. Not only should you include a physical description, but you probably need to mention that physical description more times than seem appropriate. Do you know how many times JK Rowling told us that Ron has red hair? A lot, my friends. A whole lot. Even in book seven. When reading, I didn’t even notice it, but when I started looking for it, it seemed absurd. All of those reminders, though, make Ron seem like a living, breathing person, whom I might run into at the Leaky Cauldron.
Your main character’s home, school, soccer field, favorite spot in the woods—all of the important places where he or she experiences events–should be described. This is a great opportunity to use the setting to show us more about the character. Does the soccer field feel like freedom or dread? The description should show us that.
Check the Calendar
It is likely that some holiday happens during the timeline of your book. Have you included it? If it’s the start of the school year, you’ve got the major Jewish holidays, and then Halloween. Summer includes Fourth of July. Your character has a birthday, right? Or his or her friends or family members do? Think about writing those up. They might be interesting scenes to play around with.
Give Your Main Character Friends
I heard an editor mention that one of the consistent issues she sees in middle grade and young adult manuscripts is that the main character doesn’t have friends. “You guys, it’s really weird if they don’t have friends,” she said. “If they don’t, there needs to be some explanation for that.” Even if your character is alone on a spaceship, he or she should remember friends from back home, and if you can find a pet or at least a pet rock, that would be good. Side characters in general are a great opportunity to flesh out your character and introduce new conflicts.
Figure Out Where You’re Cheating
Sometimes, the reason my book is short is because I’m gliding over the hard parts. I want to get from A to B, but I’m not entirely sure how it would happen, so I just skip that part. This type of thing drives readers crazy. You have to do the work. But you don’t have to do it alone. This is a great spot to phone a friend. Ask a fellow writer (or anyone, really) to brainstorm with you. “Here’s what’s happening and where I need to go,” you’ll say. “What do you think might get them there?” It’s amazing what people who haven’t been living in the book like you have will come up with. Even if they don’t have the magic bullet solution, their fresh ideas may spark something in you that will get you to the answer you need.
Fix a Problem
There is likely some issue with your manuscript that you’ve identified, or that beta readers point out consistently. Maybe people aren’t connecting with your main character, or the conflict doesn’t seem intense enough, or the pacing is too slow. It may be possible to address that problem through a subplot, or adding another character. Brainstorm solutions; try to come up with at least twenty possibilities. Talk them over with other writers, and get their ideas, too. You’ve got the space! Consider yourself lucky, and use it to your advantage.
Finally, maybe writing short isn’t all bad. The book that made me cry most recently (Kate DiCamillo’s Lousiana’s Way Home) comes in at a slim 40k. One of my all-time favorite books, David Almond’s Skellig, is just shy of 34k. You can pack an emotional wallop–and plenty of laughs–without oodles of words. Don’t add text just to lengthen. Say what you need, and trust that it’s enough.