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Writing to Length by Anne Coates

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writers’ Tips
Anne Coates

Anne Coates

If you’re writing your first novel without the benefit of an agent or publisher (yet!) to guide you, you may be wondering about length. How many words should you aim for? For me the answer would have to be the length needs to be enough for the story to be told to its best advantage. I prefer writing shorter novels and adore Beryl Bainbridge’s novels but one of my all-time favourites is the lengthy Middlemarch which I once had to cut by half but that’s another story.

With your early drafts, you need to include everything you think may be pertinent. It is only later when you are honing the narrative that you may need to cut out scenes and characters – “killing your darlings” – and believe me that hurts. I keep a file of deleted scenes, paragraphs, chapters, sometimes just a line as you never know when you may be able to include them in something else.

So, where should you make deletions? The late American author Elmore Leonard is famed for his excellent writing advice, his Ten Rules of Writing. One that has resonated with me is: “When you write, try to leave out all the parts the readers skip.” I have taken this to heart and if my eyes glaze reading my own work – I know it’s a sign that something needs to be cut.

For many years, I abridged both fiction and narrative nonfiction for Reader’s Digest and that taught me a lot about what you can lose from a manuscript without it being detrimental to the plot or the writing. The skill is to make the finished “condensed” book read as though nothing is missing. With some titles this is easier than others. Often “backstories” can be reduced, long descriptive passages that may be beautifully written but don’t take the plot forward. You want the reader to keep turning the pages in anticipation not be dozing off during passages of purple prose.

For Reader’s Digest, I was, for the most part, working on published books. I read these as any reader would although I did keep a pencil handy and a notebook. My second read would involve taking out any large chunks, maybe chapters, a sub plot that isn’t necessary and so on. Eventually I would be line-editing taking out superfluous words, repetitions. Beware of repetitions. It’s fine to see a scene from a different viewpoint but sometimes repeats can read like a cut and paste of an earlier passage.

In my own writing, probably due to my training as a journalist when I had to write to a specific word count and deadline, and as a writer of short stories, my own first drafts tend to be shorter. I’ll need to explain and expand what is a basic skeleton with a few bones missing. However, writing short fiction to a specific word count is brilliant for focussing your attention on each word and making it work. The first story I had published was a “confession” written in the first person. Then I had a couple more stories published in now defunct magazines before my big break – getting published in Bella Magazine when they had one short tale with a twist – 1000 words exactly – each week. I also wrote longer short stories about relationships rather than romantic love for Bella as well as Candis.

Writing short stories is totally different to producing a novel but many authors do both very successfully. One type of fiction can inform the way you go about writing another. You hone your skills. A short story is a snapshot, a novel fills the album.

More recently I had three prize-winning pieces of flash fiction. A complete story in just 99 words was a joy to write. Plus I’ve also had 75 word stories on Paragraph Planet. Even if you have no intention of submitting a short story or flash fiction, it’s a great way to practise your writing skills especially if you have got bogged down in a scene in your novel. It’s an ideal way to tone up your writing muscles.

But back to writing novels – a crime or psychological thriller can’t be a “fast and pacey page-turner” if the narrative is bogged down with the unnecessary details of someone getting up, showering, dressing, having breakfast and so on … unless this is a prelude to something awful that’s about to happen. The mundane is there to lull the reader – and character – into a false sense of security. It’s there to enhance and counterbalance the truly horrific/terrifying action that follows.

Some readers love descriptions of characters and what they wear but others prefer to have their own images. I have a foot in both camps as a reader and a writer. For some of my characters what they wear defines them and becomes a part of who they are. This is particularly true of DI Claudia Turner (always immaculately dressed), bag-lady Lucy for obvious reasons and Edith and artist/photographer.

In my Hannah Weybridge series there are always a few domestic scenes depicting a change of pace and rhythm – but don’t be fooled. They are there for a reason and it’s usually to counterbalance a dramatic moment that shoots you into the next – short – chapter!

(c) Anne Coates

About Perdition’s Child:

Dulwich library is the scene of a baffling murder, followed swiftly by another in Manchester, the victims linked by nothing other than their Australian nationality. Police dismiss the idea of a serial killer, but journalist Hannah Weybridge isn’t convinced.

She is drawn into an investigation in which more Australian men are killed as they try to trace their British families. Her research reveals past horrors and present sadness, and loss linked to children who went missing after the Second World War. Have those children returned now?

Once again Hannah finds herself embroiled in a deadly mystery, a mystery complicated by the murder of Harry Peters; the brother of Lucy, one of the residents of Cardboard City she had become friendly with. It soon becomes clear Lucy is protecting secrets of her own.

What is Lucy’s link to the murders and can Hannah discover the truth before the killer strikes again?

Anne Coates gripping thriller is the perfect suspense read for fans of Emma Tallon, K.L.Slater and Laura Marshall.

Perdition’s Child will be published 6th Feb. Pre-order your copy online here.


About the author

Anne Coates has worked for newspapers and magazines as a journalist and editor, plus as an editor for various publishers. The author of seven nonfiction titles and two collections of short stories, her Hannah Weybridge crime thriller series is published by Urbane Publications, the last one, Perdition’s Child, long-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. She lives in London at the mercy of three cats who are totally unimpressed by her literary output.

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