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Friday Fable: The Writer and the 138,000 word manuscript

skittlesYou may know the old story, The Boy and the Nuts:

A child visiting a wealthy home was pleased to find on the table a jar full of nuts and figs. (This was in the days before Skittles, keep in mind.) He plunged his greedy little hand into the sweet jar and took all that his fist could hold. But alas, when he tried to pull his goodies out, the neck of the jar was too small for his full hand to fit. (Much like Pooh-bear with the belly full of honey trying to leave Rabbit’s house. But not as cute.)

The boy cried out when his knuckles scraped and banged against the jar. He was loathe to give up a single goody. Finally, the wealthy home-owner came to his aid. She smiled condescendingly and said, “Grasp at but half, child, and you will have it. But grasp at all, my dear, and you will lose all.”

At this, no doubt, the boy cried again. Then he let half his candy fall and pulled out his hand.

And the moral is: Less is more.

That is a good old tale. But if Aesop were a modern slave to the written word, he might have called his fable, The Writer and the 138,000-word Manuscript:

A writer working on a teen novel in three narrative voices was pleased to find her muse visiting on a regular basis. To get just the right voice (times three), she wrote each narrator completely separately, writing out the full story one narrator at a time and paying no attention to the word count. She tapped her greedy little fingers on her keyboard day after day and wrote up as many scenes as her typing speed allowed. (80 wpm when her arthritis wasn’t acting up.)

But alas, when she put the three narrators together into alternating chapters and tallied up her tale, she had a draft manuscript that was, oh, 138,000 words long. (And that’s rounding down.)

The writer cried when half-inch margins and an 8-point font failed to create the illusion of a shorter book. She double-checked her publisher’s guidelines, which requested manuscripts for YA novels up to, oh, 60,000 words. She read over the draft and cut bits and pieces as she went, reducing the word count by, oh, a couple thousand words. If she tried really hard at line-by-line editing, she could reduce the beast to maybe 120,000.

Not good.

Finally, her inner editor came to her aid. “No one in their right mind wants to read a 138,000-word book,” she scolded herself. “This story doesn’t merit more than 80,000 words and if you can’t tell it in that amount, then you’re telling it wrong.” (Or maybe 85,000. It is three narrators, after all.) “Cut almost half your chapters, girl, and you will have a great book. Keep them all and you’ll have a lousy one.”

At that, the writer cried again.

And then she set to work revising.

And that’s my Friday fable.


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