How I Added 16,000 Words to My Too-Short Novel
Tips for beefing up a lean early draft
During our unit on Ernest Hemingway in eleventh-grade English, Mrs. C encouraged the class to try our hands at rewriting a fairy tale in his literary style. I threw my whole self into the assignment and considered it a triumph when I earned high marks on my modern, barebones interpretation of Cinderella; since then, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to write tight sentences with little to no excess.
But this skill also works against me. For example, when I finished the first draft of my novel in the spring of 2019, it sat around 48,000 words—far too short for adult fiction, according to industry standards.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t scroll through #WritingCommunity tweets without seeing the common lament that one of my peers had to cut thousands of words from a WIP. I felt like the only writer in the world with not enough to say rather than too much.
Over the course of another couple of drafts, I eked out 5,000 more words. Still, I knew I had to drastically boost my word count in order to make this book query ready. And I had to accomplish this in a way that would bulk up my story substantially, not superficially.
I put my head down from draft three to draft four. By the end of my most exhaustive round of revisions, I had added approximately 16,000 words to the novel.
Here’s How I Did It—And How You Can Too
Before you set red pen to paper, read through the latest full draft of your book.
Ideally, you’ll read it in a new format. If you wrote the last draft on the computer, print it out. If you’ve already marked up a paper copy, consider sending the files to your Kindle or other e-reader. A fresh view of the story will make it feel new to you.
As you read, take detailed notes on the following areas:
1. Plot holes
Plot holes—as infuriating as they can be when you discover them in your own work—tend to be an opportunity to increase word count while improving the structural integrity and believability of your story. You don’t fill a hole by removing anything. You fill a hole by adding substance!
All you have to do at first is identify the areas where your book contains gaps in logic or missing pieces. Then brainstorm ways to fill in those gaps with added scenes, expanded explanations, and more.
Note even the most minor details that seem to contradict each other, then be sure to go back through the story and resolve the discrepancies. This might mean cutting words in some passages, but it can also increase your word count if you add sentences here and there for clarity.
3. Setting descriptions
You want readers to feel immersed in the story and to have a clear picture of the setting.
If it feels like some or all of your scenes take place in a sterile, blank space, flesh out the setting descriptions. Consider each of the five senses: what might your characters see, smell, hear, touch, or even taste in their environment?
Provide readers with enough detail to have at least a rough picture of every character’s appearance. Don’t worry about painting an entire portrait; think instead of what your POV characters might notice in particular about the people they interact with. Make sure to add character descriptions wherever they’re missing.
If you, like me, write the bare bones of some scenes at first, just to get those words down on the page, you may find your pacing erratic on the second read.
Note those spots where you’ve given yourself whiplash, then return to them in revisions. Smooth out rough transitions, slow things down as necessary for a more measured rhythm, and let the pacing reflect the events of the story.
No story—and no scene, for that matter—is complete without tension. One of my greatest pet peeves as a reader is when everything goes right for a character in a book. If you notice a lot of areas where happy accidents or smooth sailing dominate your story, brainstorm ways to inject conflict. Give every character a goal in every scene, then provide obstacles to impede the character’s progress.
Avoid “floating heads” dialogue, or long passages of dialogue with no narrative description or actions breaking up the scene. I often start by writing only the dialogue of a difficult scene, so that I can go back and fill in the stage directions—the blocking that involves moving characters around in the scene, letting them interact with each other and exist in the space.
Also, look for places to build out conversations that feel incomplete or unrealistic. Often, dialogue that feels stiff or unrealistic just needs to be worked and stretched out a bit more.
8. Possible subplots
If you still feel something’s missing from your story, consider another subplot or a new character. Don’t go so wild that readers lose track of the main conflict—but it’s common for novels to contain a subplot or two to help generate momentum.
After taking detailed notes on all of these areas, you’ll be ready to expand your word count in meaningful ways.
We all work differently, but I found it helpful to write all of these notes on paper as I read, with columns dedicated to each category listed above. Then I transferred this list into a spreadsheet on my computer and checked a box for each individual item as I addressed it.
By the time I finished, I’d brought my word count to just shy of 70,000 words—still somewhat short compared to many books in the adult fiction market, but generally considered publishable.
I still say concision is a virtue. However, those of us seeking traditional publication have to consider marketability. Many agents won’t consider manuscripts that fall too far outside their recommended word counts, because they know what sells.
Look for a balance that doesn’t just fit your book into key industry guidelines but also keeps your story true to you and your writing style.