Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19.06: NaNoWriMo Revision with Ali Fisher: Length

Ali Fisher, editor at Tor Books and member of the podcast Rude Tales of Magic, joins us for a three-part series on editing.

First up: length! How do you edit your work—whether it’s a book or a short story or a novella? Maybe you wrote a draft during NaNoWriMo, maybe you didn’t– either way, we want to help you figure out how to make your writing the perfect length.

Homework: Find two scenes next to each other from your writing. Remove the scene break and write bridging text between the two of them instead. Then, find a different scene that has that bridging text, and cut it into two different scenes so that you are removing it and creating new signposts. See what this does to length and your perception of the pacing.

Thing of the Week (from Ali Fisher)Infinity Alchemist by Kacen Callender

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, and guest Ali Fisher. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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Key Points: There’s no Goldilocks zone when you finish a novel. First, look at unfulfilled promises, or runaway atmosphere, and adjust those. What tells the story most effectively? Is the pacing off? Consider the master effect, what is the intended impact of the story, and do the separate elements support that? Often authors write their way into or out of a scene, and leave that extra text there. Cut it! NaNoWriMo, high-paced writing, may focus on whatever you’re excited about, and leave out the parts that are harder for you to write. Take a look at filling those in! When layering, look for natural pause points. Watch for shorthand or compressed spots, which you can unpack to add emphasis or remove ambiguity. To add length, try sending them to new locations. To cut length, cut a character or a side quest. READ, review, do the easy fixes, audition (outline, then try changes on the outline), and do it! Adjust signposts and bridging material. Use narrative summary (aka summarize your darlings). Let things happen offstage, and have someone refer to it. 

[Season 19, Episode 06]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A mini-series on revision, with Ali Fisher. Length.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[DongWon] With us this week, we have a special guest, which is executive editor at Tor Publishing group, Ali Fisher. Ali acquires and edits speculative fiction and non-fiction across young adult, middle grade, and adult categories, and is, as a bonus, a cast member of the podcast Rude Tales of Magic, which is a D&D flavored comedy podcast. But really Ali’s here in her capacity as an editor, and has worked on a very wide range of incredibly successful titles in speculative fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy. Yeah, so welcome, Ali.

[Ali] Thank you. Hello, world. I am so excited to be on this podcast. Longtime listener, first time being on the podcast here. I’ve been listening to Writing Excuses since, I think, 2010.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Ali] Is that true? You’ve been doing this that long, correct?

[DongWon] I mean, next season will be year 20 soon, so, I don’t remember what year we started, but… It’s been a minute.

[Ali] Yeah. I… I’ve been listening to Writing Excuses longer than I’ve been in publishing. So, it’s a real pleasure.

[Mary Robinette] This somehow delights me. And also makes me feel impossibly old.


[Mary Robinette] [garbled] revision, which is also something that makes me feel impossibly old when I get into it.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] We know that… We’ve timed this because we know that a lot of people have just finished NaNoWriMo, and you have written a novel and now you have to figure out what to do with it. So, that was why we invited Ali in, because as an editor, she has a certain understanding of what happens with novels. So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is length. Because most of the projects coming out of NaNoWriMo are going to be too short. Having said that, every time I talk to someone about a novel, I always hear them say either, “Oh, yeah, I just finished this novel, but it’s too long.” Or, “Oh, yeah, I just finished this novel, but it’s too short.” I never hear anybody say, “But it’s just right.” There’s no Goldilocks zone when you finish a novel.

[DongWon] Exactly, exactly. Even when novels come to me as an agent or when it goes to the editor or the publishing house, I feel like that is one of the first things we’re talking about, that’s, like, where does this fit in terms of length. So, Ali, when a project comes across your desk, when I send you an email with the most brilliant thing…

[Ali] Uhuh.

[DongWon] Attached to it…

[Ali] Of course.

[DongWon] What is your immediate reaction when you start thinking, oh, I wish this was a little bit on the shorter side, I wish this was a little bit on the longer side. What are the questions that start coming to your mind to help you figure out how to answer that?

[Ali] Yeah. Absolutely. So, working in speculative fiction, often we’re sort of… We see the higher range of word count on like different novels, novellas, or whatever, because there’s a lot of additional writing that sometimes takes place in those books, especially at Tor, known for door stoppers.


[Ali] A wide range, though, really. So, depending on the age group it’s for, there tend to be different sort of hopes and requests coming in from retailers for their shelves and what are their assumptions of those readers’ reading lengthwise. Right? Middle grade being slightly shorter. YA has really run the gamut at this point, but… With adults attending to have potentially the longest word count that I’ve seen. Those are very broad generalizations, but it tends to be something that is absolutely always on the table in the conversation when books come in. But that word count conversation also tends to happen after an initial read and just sort of taking stock of… There were promises that were never… That I was excited to read about, we never saw them, or there was a lot of atmosphere here, but it felt a little exploratory to your process, and I actually think that it could feel bigger if there’s less in there. So, stuff like that is a little bit more… A little less like let’s chop this to a really specific length, and more of a what else… What’s helpful in telling this story most effectively?

[Mary Robinette] I’m really glad you said that, because one of the things that I see a lot with early career writers is that they will have internalized these rigid ideas of how long a book needs to be. Sometimes they think that they have to cut 10% when they finish a book. I think they’ve picked that up from Steven King. But it’s not just cutting. Like, shorter is not better, longer is not better, it’s the why of it, for me. Like, why are you trying to cut or expand? That helps inform the places that you’re doing it. For me, length, like description, that sort of thing, has a lot to do… Has a strong relationship to pacing.

[DongWon] Yes. Exactly. I think sometimes when a book can feel too long, that is because the pacing is… It’s too drawn out. It’s not moving fast, I’m not getting pulled enough… Pulled through this as forcefully as I want to, to have like a really great reading experience. So, I think sometimes the idea is, okay, there’s some fat, we can cut here. There’s some extra elements that aren’t quite landing with the reader for whatever reason, and if we remove those scenes, then maybe things will move on a little bit quicker. Then, sometimes, we make sure on the other side too of everything is always up to 11, it could be exhausting as a reading experience. We kind of need those breaks and those breathing points to kind of absorb character information or background information or worldbuilding, and kind of like really settle into the story in some ways. So, I think length and pacing often feel very connected.

[Ali] Definitely. It is very hard to know before you get to the stage where you have confirmed beta readers or an agent or an editor who will read your book and tell you about things like pacing and tell you their [garbled] responses to stuff like that. I’m going to bring in something from a book that I read once…


[DongWon] Excellent.

[Ali] Right off the bat here. There’s a book called The Fiction Editor, The Novel, And the Novelist. It’s very short, I think it’s like 170 pages, by Thomas McCormack. I don’t know much about Thomas, but he was an editor once upon a time, and he has a concept called the master effect. The concept was the master effect is the cerebral and emotional impact the author wants the book as a whole to have. It goes on to say it can be… It’s sort of like it’s propped up by observation and insight and emotion and experience. So, like what does this all lead to? I think, when you’re looking at length, it can be helpful to look at the separate elements, as they like relate to what that big overall feeling is that you want. It can be sort of like interesting to see what inspires that feeling most, and what doesn’t really add to it. Right? Especially if you’re looking at like tension or something, you might find with an eye really clearly set on, “Oh, I want this to feel really tense,” then you realize like, “Oh, this traveling isn’t quite getting me there,” or something.

[DongWon] It’s sort of like… We were talking about word count expectations by category and genre, that the publisher wants. If it’s an epic fantasy, you want it to be this length, whether that’s like 100,000 or 120,000 words. If you wanted to hit with middle grade office, you want it on the shorter side. Whatever that specific range is. But those aren’t… They are arbitrary and they can be very frustrating when you run into them in a rigid way. But the logic of it does come from somewhere, which is, when you’re reading an epic fantasy, so much of what you want to be hearing… Experiencing is that expansiveness, is the breadth of scope and perspective, and to get a sense of the politics and the magic and those kinds of things. So you’re expecting a slightly slower pace when you’re coming into an epic fantasy than you would if you were coming into an adventure fantasy, which you want it to be moving a little bit at a brisker pace, getting from action scene to action scene, from tension to tension, a little bit quicker than you would when you’re not having big feast scenes or big courtroom political scenes. Right? So I think a little bit of those length expectations really are driven by genre and category, because those connect to certain types of pacing and certain types of reading experiences. So if you’re thinking about that, you call it the master effect? Is that what the term was?

[Ali] Yes. Yeah. Thomas called it.

[DongWon] When you’re thinking about the effect that you want to have on your reader for your particular category, that’s where length can really be part of the conversation coming into it.

[Mary Robinette] That’s something that we’re going to talk about in our next episode, where we’re talking about intention. Edgar Allan Poe has a similar concept, which he calls the unity of effect, where you kind of think about what is the overall emotional goal that you’re aiming for, and then everything that you put into the novel goes into that, and I think that length is one of those things that you’re also manipulating as you’re moving through. One of the other things that you said, Ali, at the beginning was talking about… Or maybe it was you, DongWon, talking about… Oh, I can see you’ve left some of your homework here. But there’s another thing that I see authors do, and I’ve done myself a lot, which is that we don’t really know where the scene is going so we write our way into it to discover it. But then all of that text is still there. So I frequently find that often the beginnings of scenes and sometimes the ends of scenes are places where the author is trying to figure out how do I get into this scene or how do I get back out of it. That you’ve done the thing that the scene required, and then you’re kind of floundering, going like, eh, I don’t… It needs a… I don’t know, let’s… Eh… Then there’s just a lot of text where you were trying to figure out the perfect line, and then you don’t cut any of it, because you don’t know which pieces are actually supporting it.

[DongWon] Exactly. I think… I would love to dive into more about how you identify those and some techniques for cutting or adding, depending on where you need to do that. But let’s take a quick break first, and we’ll talk about the specific techniques when we come back.

[Ali] For my thing of the week, I wish I could pitch every book I’ve ever been able to work on. But, since it’s 15 minutes long, and we’re not that smart, I’m going to constrain myself to just the most recent publication that I had the genuine pleasure to acquire and edit. This is Infinity Alchemist by World Fantasy and National Book award winning author, Kacen Callender. Kacen is the author of Hurricane Child, King of the Dragonflies, Felix Ever after, Queen of the Conquered, and many more. Infinity Alchemist is their YA fantasy debut. It rules. It’s basically dark academia burn the magic school down. In it, 3 young alchemists come together to find and then protect the rumored Book of Source before others use it for alchemist supremacy. Of course, these 3 heroes end up in a legendary love triangle, and please remember real love triangles connect on all 3 sides.


[Ali] [garbled] is clear, mostly trans, mostly POC, and polyamorous. The magic system is inspired by quantum physics, so it’s very original, very cool, and available just now as of last week from Tor Teen.

[DongWon] As we come back from break, I would love to start digging into some of the techniques. So, say you… Coming out of NaNoWriMo, the expectation is you’ve written 50,000 words, and now you’re sitting there thinking, “Okay, how do I make this a little bit longer?” How do I make this feel like a full novel that is ready for a fantasy reader, or ready for a YA reader, whoever it is you’re trying to reach? So, how do you know where to add length? What are the points at which… How do you add to the volume of the text without slowing down your pacing too much, or disrupt or throwing off your plot structure or your character arcs or whatever it is?

[Ali] First of all, congratulations. Well done. I don’t… Every time I hear about NaNoWriMo that sounds absolutely bonkers to me. That is extremely impressive. My understanding is writing at that sort of sprint pace, for a lot of people… Some people that is a very standard piece of writing, for a lot of people it is, like, pedal to the metal, tough situation. My guess is you gravitated towards like writing things you’re most excited about, or, like writing towards characters if that was what you’re most excited about or writing towards just the world if that was what you were most excited about, so it could well be that, like, there are full category elements that are somewhat missing, that just don’t feel as instinctive or easy or smooth for you as a writer, to, like, write when you’re in that zone, when you’re in that kind of sprint zone. So there may be whole categories that have opportunities for lengthening.

[DongWon] That makes sense. So you’re really looking at it overall and saying what are the things that I was drawn to when I was putting this together, but maybe not feeling the sort of holistic sense of I want to have this effect on my reader, here’s the things I didn’t put in there. I’m writing an epic fantasy and all I did was right cool battle scenes. Now I gotta go put back the court intrigue, now I have to put a romance in here, now I have to put in those character arcs that maybe aren’t as fleshed out as they were when I was thinking about how to get enough words down on the page. Right? So I think that’s a great place to start, I’m just feeling like where are the elements of this story that I want to be putting in that I wasn’t thinking about in that moment.

[Ali] Yeah. Unless you’re pitching [garbled] battle scenes, and then…


[Ali] It’s just a collection of battle scenes, which sounds…


[Ali] [garbled] and you should do that, but then you need 20 more battle scenes.

[DongWon] I would recommend Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, which is basically just one battle over 3 days for the entire book. So…

[Ali] Awesome.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Ali] Very cool.

[Mary Robinette] So I… What I look for when I’m doing this… The kind of thing that you’re talking about, the layering of… Layering in the romance element or sometimes you’ve written a scene and it’s only dialogue and there could actually be some description… Maybe we’d like these people to be some place. So what I look for when I’m going to like layering description, for instance, is I look for natural pause points. Because when you… When you’re spending words on a description, the reader has to slow down to read them. So every word you’ve got on the page is basically creating a pause in the readers head between one line of dialogue in the next. Which is why… Sometimes you’ve had the experience where you see a character answer a question and you don’t remember the question that was asked. Because there’s been a ton of description in between those 2 things. So I’ll look for those natural pause points to put in descriptions, but also to unpack emotion. One of the other things that I find when I got a finished novel is that at the… Especially the last 3rd of the novel, I just want to be done with the novel. So I, like, shorthand every emotional experience my character is having. This is a place where you can add length by going back and unpacking the things. You don’t want to unpack every emotion that the character has. You want to unpack the ones that are… Again, going with that unity of effect. So I think about it as places where I want to add emphasis or remove ambiguity, as some of the places that I’m looking at for unpacking the emotion. Is this an emotion that I want to add emphasis to, because it helps you understand the character better? Or, is this moment ambiguous? Can I give a little bit more here? Like, did I completely forget to give any physical sensation to my character experiencing an emotion?

[Ali] Totally. So, like what you’re saying, it could be that at the beginning, you have a… When notable emotional experiences happen, you have the full range of… The emotion beforehand and the observation, and the tension, and then the emotion itself, and then the internal judgment on the emotion, and, like, go through the entire sort of the cycle of that. And watching then the reaction, or the dialogue that comes after it. By the end, it’s like, “Uh, she was sad.”


[Ali] Moving forward.


[Mary Robinette] You’ve read my manuscript.

[Ali] Yeah, but it works at the time. So, like, just… That’s also about balancing and finding that style… Style similarities across maybe when like different… Different days felt different levels of oh, no, I have to make up for 2 days now, or whatever, that you were getting through.

[Mary Robinette] One of the other hacks that I have for adding length is reverse engineering something that I do for short fiction where I need to compress. So, with short fiction, I try to have everything in a single location. With novels, sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I need to make this longer. Where can I send them that I haven’t sent them before?” Because it will make the world feel richer. It’s like, oh, reuse locations, but sometimes sending them someplace else gives me additional words that I have to write because I have to describe the new place. Again, it can make the world seem broader and richer and more interesting if I just change location of a scene.

[DongWon] Exactly. So, on the flipside of that, though, you’ve got something, it’s a 200,000 word manuscript, you need it to be 110. Right? You need to cut a lot of it because it’s simply too big for whatever reason. Either for the readership or even sometimes bumping up against physical limitations of publishing.

[Chuckles] [Yes]

[DongWon] It’s hard to remember that we are making physical objects that we’re shipping around.


[DongWon] And when you print more pages, it gets more expensive, and when it’s heavier, it’s more expensive. That can really affect things. So when, for whatever reason, your publisher is saying, “Hey. We would love this to be shorter.” Or if your friends are saying that, or just your own instincts, where do you start to make those cuts? What are the things that are either easy things that you can start to look at? I mean, like, okay, across the board, I could start pulling out these scenes, or, what are the more difficult interwoven elements that you’re starting to look at?

[Mary Robinette] As, apparently the only writer in the room…


[Ali] But we have a lot to say.

[Mary Robinette] You have a lot to say. But I will…

[DongWon] We have a lot of opinions about how writers should do things.

[Ali] Yeah. Since you asked what’s the hard part.

[Mary Robinette] You have opinions about what I should do, but I can tell you what’s mechanically difficult and what’s easier. The easiest way to reduce a bunch of length very fast is to cut a character or a side quest. That’ll pull out a ton of length really fast. It can feel daunting when you are thinking about doing that because usually it’s a… It’s woven into the book all the way through. So I… What I will do is I will… I have an acronym that I use which is READ. I will review, do the easy fixes, audition, and then do it. So by audition, what I mean is that I will… If I have to do a really big at it like that, I’ll reverse engineer my outline. Then I will experiment with pulling out those scenes just in outline form to see whether or not the basic flow is still there. Then, when I get into it and start the do it part of it, I put all of those into a scrap been, because I will almost certainly need pieces of them later. Then, largely what I’m doing is I’m having to adjust my signposts, which is the way I exit and enter scenes, and the material… The bridging material from getting from one thing to another. When I’m cutting things. Then, when I’m cutting characters, often it’s, like, you just go in and you change the character names and then you have to tweak the dialogue to make it make sense for that character. But it’s one of the fastest ways to lose a lot of length.

[Ali] I also think there’s a… Maybe I’m wrong but I feel like, generally, out there, there’s a bit of like a demonizing of narrative summary. It can really go a long way to… There are scenes that are fully dialogue, beat by beat, like this is happening, that can probably be brought down to a couple of sentences. That’s like reducing your darlings, I guess. Or like…

[DongWon] Yeah.


[DongWon] Summarizing your darlings.

[Ali] Summarizing your darlings. Exactly.

[DongWon] I think this is where show, don’t tell can lead you astray. Right? It takes so many more words to show something than to tell sometimes. So, sometimes if you have this sense of I can summarize this, I don’t need to walk through every part of this group figuring out what their plan is, or having this interaction or this conversation, you can condense that into a few sentences. You can condense that into a paragraph. Provided you’re making that narration interesting and still connecting it to the character. I think there are ways that you can give us very large amounts of information very quickly. And then keep moving. That can really accelerate the read in the pace of the book in a lot of good ways.

[Garbled] [go ahead]

[Ali] I was just going to say I just love what you said about auditioning. Because I think it can be very daunting and emotionally taxing to cut things that you wrote and loved. I will say as an editor, I have recommended things and been very sad about them and felt like I genuinely know I’m going to miss this. But the audition process was such a smart move. Because then you can like be really honest about whether that’s going to take something away that’s genuinely precious to the book, or if it’s like something that was very cool, but isn’t needed.

[DongWon] Because sometimes you audition and find that, oh, that was loadbearing.


[DongWon] This whole thing doesn’t stand up without that element. So it’s like, okay, we can’t touch that one. What else can we do? Unlike renovating a house, you can actually pull those out and see what happens to the whole structure.

[Ali] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah, you don’t want to pull out a loadbearing wall under any circumstances. Unless you’re like, okay, I’m going to have to pull this out, but then a beam of steel…


[Mary Robinette] So… But when you’re pulling things out, I like what you said about the show, don’t tell, and the narrative summary. But the other piece that I think a lot of people underestimate when they’re thinking about length is how much can happen offstage. In the gap between scenes, in the gap between chapters. You can… I found that I can cut an entire scene and just have someone refer to it having happened. That the implication is sometimes enough, if the scene was not doing anything loadbearing, aside from like one thing, that often I can just say, “Oh, yes, I see that you got the diamonds,” instead of actually showing them going into the store and buying the diamonds.

[Ali] Yes.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Obviously. A thing that all of my characters do.

[Ali] So fancy.

[DongWon] I did not assume that they were buying the diamonds, when you set up that scene, but… Yeah. I mean, you can just tell us that anything happened.

[Mary Robinette] That’s why you need the narrative summary.

[DongWon] Yes. Exactly. Exactly. 

[DongWon] Well, apropos, I suppose, for an episode about length, we’re running a little bit on the long side here. So, Mary Robinette, I believe you have some homework for us.

[Mary Robinette] I do. I want you to… This is a way to play with length. You’re going to find 2 scenes that… Scenes that are right next to each other. What I want you to do is I want you to remove the scene break, and then write bridging text to connect the 2 of them. So that narrative summary about how they got from point A to point B. Then I want you to find a different scene that has that bridging text, and cut it into 2 different scenes. So that you are removing it and creating new signposts, new entry and exit points to get from those 2 scenes. I want you to try that. See what it does to length, see what it does to your perception of the pacing

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go edit.

[Howard] We love hearing about your successes. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Tell us about it. Tell us about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].