All writers fall into one of two categories: overwriters and underwriters. Editing as an overwriter can be pretty agonizing, as you have to line up your darlings against a wall and get out the shotgun. Underwriters don’t have it any easier, though. By the time you’ve wrapped up your story… it’s done. So what if your “novel” came in at 40k?* The story is done.

If you’re an underwriter, first, know that there is no inherent shame in short work. It’s okay if you thought it was a novel, but it turns out it was a novella. There’s nothing superior about a huge word count–especially considering that most novels with epic wordcount could stand to hit the gym, even the ones by brilliant authors.

But if you’re getting feedback that your stories are rushed, thin, or you suspect you need to unpack (or you’re writing epic fantasy), here’s how to expand your story without setting yourself up for major rewrites:

* PS. 40k words is technically a novel, according to the standards for most professional awards boards… Hugo, Nebula, Paris, RITA, BFA, etc.

1. Don’t add filler.

This is always the wrong move. How do you know it’s not filler? Check the scene and make sure it ticks all three of these boxes:

  • It reveals new information.
  • It moves the plot forward.
  • It illuminates character.

Every scene you write needs to do all three of these things, otherwise it’s not pulling its weight. Either axe it, or combine it with another scene.

2. Show, don’t tell.

As far as writing advice goes, I think this one can be wildly abused, especially by overwriters–but for underwriters, it can be very helpful. Look for places in your manuscript where you briefly summarize an event or a conversation. Not all of these things will be significant enough to unpack, but you’ll probably find a few in there that you rushed past in favor of the upcoming plot point you were excited to get onto paper.

Here’s a few lines from my novel, A Sword for Chaos, modified to suit an underwriter’s style:

Gideon followed the wagon to the rear entrance of the Keep, and greeted his newly-arrived friend.

“Have I heard the truth of your Watcher?” Gideon glanced at the wagon, and its ominous symbol.

“Aye. Sorel died a week past.”

“I’m truly sorry.”

And the unpacked version:

Gideon rounded the corner to see the wagon drawn up beside one of the building’s massive pillars. Six mounted men surrounded the wagon, conversing with two Watchers. The journey had been swift and uncomfortable; the evidence was splattered across the wagon and the men themselves. Beneath the generous layer of mud, Gideon could just make out the crescent of Malath, the night moon, painted on the side. The symbol of death.

Among the newcomers was a Guardian, no less ill-used than the others. His once-snowy cloak was six inches deep in mud at the hem, and his dark hair disheveled as though six winds had converged on him at once. The Guardian caught sight of Gideon, and a grin broke across his face. Speaking a few words to his companions, he dismounted and strode out across the bailey.

“What ho!” Taylem cried. “When did we start letting the rabble in?”

They met halfway and embraced, hand to shoulder. 

“Valor, brother,” Gideon said, clasping the other man’s arm. 

“Valor,” Taylem returned the greeting with a smile. “Lady’s light, you’ve grown old in two years, and as uncomely as ever.”

“Has it been so long? I was just beginning to recover my pride.”

“I’ve returned just in time, then.” 

Gideon glanced at the wagon, and its ominous symbol. “Have I heard the truth of your Watcher?”

“Aye. Sorel died a week past.”

“I’m truly sorry.”

We just went from 42 words to 207. Not bad. In addition to that, we got a bit of worldbuilding in there, and learned a little about the two characters’ relationship. Now, to be fair, “Hi, how are you?” “I’m good, thanks” are usually the parts of dialogue you want to skip, but as this was a first meeting between friends who have been apart for a couple of years, I felt I had a little wiggle room.

Remember–not every summarized event is going to warrant being unpacked. There are few things more tiresome than a writer going into detail about every single mundane event, regardless of significance. When you’re editing an underwritten manuscript, examine each summarized event and consider… can I use this as an opportunity to reveal new information about the world or the characters involved?

And this leads us to our next point:

3. Set the scene.

A scene or chapter break usually includes a jump in time or place, so at or near the beginning of each scene, you’ll take a line or three to orient the reader to where and when the events are taking place. If you’re a very concise writer, you probably do this very quickly and efficiently.

Here’s the first paragraph from a scene in A Sword for Chaos, edited to suit an underwriter:

Vadry’s funeral was held the next morning. When the ceremony concluded, Gideon and Taylem waited outside the mausoleum gates as the other Guardians dispersed to their morning’s tasks.

“Have they announced Vadry’s death in the city?” Gideon asked.

That does its job. The significant part of this scene is the interaction between Gideon and Taylem, not the funeral itself. However, this isn’t the opening scene of the book, so beginning in media res isn’t critical, and a scene that begins with very bare summary can have a very vague, ungrounded feeling. We know we’re at a mausoleum, and that it has a gate, but that’s pretty much it. You don’t need to describe the engravings on the stonework, or the exact color of the soil next to the mausoleum where the runoff from the roof has spilled down (though if you’d like to, I won’t judge)… but it’s generally a good idea to at least sketch out a physical location. Give your reader something concrete to picture.

Here’s the same scene from A Sword for Chaos, with a bit more scene-setting:

The next morning dawned quietly beneath the thick haze of a persistent fog. Tendrils of mist curled about the Keep mausoleum like a damp shroud as a line of Guardians gathered to consecrate Vadry to the Lady. Moss and crawling vines clung to the dark, damp stone. The domed ceiling was held aloft by pillars, and iron braziers flickered around the base of each one, casting long shadows and cutting through the morning chill.

After the ceremony concluded, Gideon and Taylem stood solemnly beside the mausoleum’s wide iron gate. The other Guardians departed to their duties. A handful of Brethren arrived to prepare for the interment of Taylem’s Watcher, the only recent death that had come about by natural causes.

“Have they announced Vadry’s death in the city?” Gideon asked.

That added about a hundred words to this scene, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you take the time to briefly set the scene every time you change locations, that wordcount starts to add up.

The exception to this is when you’re starting out in the middle of action. A Sword for Chaos has a scene that opens as someone is in midair, literally falling off a cliff. To stop at this point and comment on the color of the leaves and the specific time of day would be a little ridiculous. Use your judgement, and when the story allows it, paint a picture–even a brief one–for your reader.

Now, if you’re a gamer, like me, you’ve immediately started to think how to maximize your scene-setting…

3. Add locations

Two things, more than anything else, will add significant wordcount to a manuscript–more characters, and more settings. Assuming you’re just trying to plump up a sparse manuscript, and not looking for a major rewrite, adding new settings is going to be a lot easier than adding a new character.

The point isn’t to create entirely new scenes in order to populate these new locations, it’s to take scenes that are set in familiar or nondescript settings and take them somewhere new that makes sense within the context of your story. Phone conversation in the car on the way home from work? How about a grocery store, instead? Two characters having an important scene back at the apartment you’ve already described? Try a restaurant. The more new locations you introduce (rather than going back again and again to the same ones), the more opportunities you will have to make your novel feel more vivid and real… and get a few thousand extra words while you’re at it.

Obviously, you don’t want your character to seem like she’s running around like a maniac, so these location changes need to feel natural to both character and story. You will most likely need to reuse some locales–people don’t tend to move house or change workplaces every day–but even when you’re returning to a familiar place, you don’t want to omit the details altogether. Take a line or two to remind your reader of where you are, and what that place looks like.

If you originally described someone’s apartment as being a complete mess (in more words than that, hopefully)… have your character kick aside an empty Chinese food carton when she returns, and maybe shove over a pile of unfolded laundry before sitting down.

If you’ve described the inside of the wizard’s tower in an earlier scene, with a crow on its perch by the window, a shelf full of old, dusty books, and a table full of alchemical equipment–just briefly remind us by having the crow caw at the viewpoint character as they enter the room, or make note of some dark liquid bubbling in a vial over a flame.

Now, I want to warn you… this is all going to feel a little weird when you first start doing it. The sentences and paragraphs will feel a little too long. And they might be. You might have blown past Hemingway and gone full Faulkner on your manuscript. Chances are that you haven’t, but since you’re used to writing short, any extra wordage is going to feel unnatural at first. For this very reason, keep this step as part of the edits, rather than trying to fold it into your drafting process. Get the first draft out just as you normally would, then look for the following:

Summarized events or conversations you can unpack.

Scenes you haven’t set.

Boring or too-familiar locations.

Pay attention to how authors you admire handle scene-setting, and how far they unpack their events. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for these things, and you’ll start writing them in the first time around, instead of ending up with a first draft that skipped leg day AND arm day AND all the other days…

Good luck!

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