Cutting For Pace by Kate Walker


Cutting For Pace by Kate Walker

Please excuse us – Pat Haggerty’s originally scheduled topic will be posted here later in the week. Instead, we’re bringing back a popular post by author KATE WALKER from 2011. We’re happy to see it stands the test of time!

OK – Category Romance novels have very specific word counts – so what do you do it you find you’re w-a-y over the word limit and your hero and heroine still haven’t got to the point of saying ‘I love you!’? Kate Walker offers advice on just where and how you should tackle the process of Cutting For Pace – and how to make it less painful to ‘kill your darlings’.

Category romances have very specific word limits. Many other types of fiction too specify or suggest a word limit and even if they don’t, it’s often a good idea to watch your word count carefully. Too long a story can ramble, have a sagging middle, and end seeming far too heavy with more details than are really needed. It does all of us no harm at all to check that we are not being self-indulgent and writing far more than we need to.

Here’s a question that I’m often asked – either exactly in this way or something very like it:

QUESTION: I’ve finished my novel and done a total word count – to find that I’m way over the limit. How does one cut 28 pages from a WIP?

Some years ago, I had an editor who was affectionately known as Ms C4P and the C4P stood for Cut-for-Pace. This is because when I – or any of her other authors – sent in a manuscript for her to read, inevitably, even if she passed it without any other revisions, it would come back with lines, paragraphs, sometimes even whole pages where she had put a pencil line down the side and the instruction ‘Cut for pace’. After a while working with her, I very soon started to hear her voice in my head when I was writing, and I would soon start cutting for pace even before I’d sent the manuscript off – sometimes even as I was writing the words – I would be erasing them as fast as I wrote them.

Cutting your work to meet the strict word count of a category romance novel can be one of the hardest things for an author to do. We put a part of ourselves into these stories, we love every word we’ve written – we believe every word we’ve put into it is vital, essential to the story – and oh, so eloquently written. How could anyone ever ask us to cut it back? But an editor will.

If your work is over the word count limit, you’ll be asked to bring it under the maximum. If your story has lots of extra characters, events, secondary plots that are extraneous to the central romance, you’ll be asked to reduce them. If you have proportionally a lot more narrative than dialogue, you’ll be asked to change the balance to around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative. And even if your story fits exactly into the word count limit, very often a trained, objective, editorial eye will see places where the action slows, where the dialogue goes nowhere, where you repeat something you or your characters have said before, and her pencil will come out, a line will go through the passage and in the margin will be the words:

So how do you cut anything from a few hundred words to several thousand from your precious manuscript on which you’ve worked so hard?

First things first – you swallow your pride. You push away all thoughts of how much you ‘just love this bit!’ and you look at your work as coldly and objectively as you can. After all, that’s what your editor is going to do. She isn’t going to think, ‘Oh but she had such fun writing this,’ or ‘This is where she put in something that her DH said to her once – a secret message between the two of them’. No way. She’s going to decide that this doesn’t really contribute to the story or that has been said already on pages 34 and 78 and really we’ve got the point by now. And she isn’t going to be impressed by long, poetic descriptions of scenery or clothing or meals or the history of a particular place. To her it’s going to look like padding and the pencil will cross it out.

The best thing you can do is to try and get there first – to do much of the cutting for her. If you’re careful and clever then you’ll create a tighter, pacier read at the same time -you might even improve on the slightly saggy middle – and that will help to give your manuscript the best possible chance.

So what do you cut?

Cut anything you’re already said

If you have a point to make between you characters, make it once as clearly as possible and then leave it to stand. You can refer back to it briefly, but don’t keep belabouring the point. In short books like romances, even just one line repeated on several occasions can seem way too much.

Unnecessary description

Obviously you have to have brief descriptions here and there – what your characters look like – what they’re wearing – what the room they’re in looks like. But don’t waste time and precious words going into elaborate details. The sad truth is that more often than not a reader will skim over any detailed descriptions so as to get on with the good stuff – the relationship between your H & h – so you’re really wasting your time if you go into poetic descriptions. Make it short and sweet.

Dialogue that doesn’t make its point

Okay, so everyday dialogue is full of Good morning/How are you/Nasty weather . . . but you don’t have space or word count for that. You don’t really have the word count for any dialogue that doesn’t reveal one character to another. The conversations your characters have should add to their knowledge of each other, reveal facts about the conflict that has come between them, explain why things happened. They – and you – don’t have time just to pass the time of day. Make your dialogue count. And don’t constantly keep getting them to the point of revealing something and then breaking off and saying, ‘No – not now.’ No one in real life would let that pass again and again and it becomes irritating repetition.

Excessive introspection

Yes, the reader wants to know what your H & h are thinking – but keep it short, sharp and to the point. One problem with introspection is that it’s always in narrative – and it’s always telling, not showing. If you spend time having your hero reflect on how the way the heroine is behaving reminds him of how his mother always used to act in front of her many boyfriends and so he . . . before you know it, you’ll have lost the reader’s attention – and they’ll have lost their place in the dialogue. Keep introspection to a couple of telling sentences. If there is more that needs to be explained, then it should go into dialogue and be told to the heroine.

Introspection that has been done before, that doesn’t add anything new, that is indulgent

This is much like point number one – yes, your reader wants to get inside the H/h’s head and understand them – but we don’t need to know every last details of their life, their thoughts, their relationship with their parents and every single girlfriend/boyfriend they ever had. Only use introspection when it actually tells the reader something about the way the person is feeling now.

Elaboration on minor points/Elaboration full stop

The reason a reader has picked up a romance is because she wants to read a ROMANCE. She doesn’t want a travelogue, a history lesson. You may be a world expert on horse racing, or martial arts – but are the details you’re putting in directly relevant to the ROMANCE? If not, they are padding, and padding will weigh down and slow down your story.

Too much detail/dialogue/description/action involving minor characters who take away the focus from the h/h and so diffuse the action. The story your reader wants is the story of the HERO and the HEROINE. They don’t want her sister’s troubles with her husband or his best friend’s long last girlfriend. Any time you spend away from the central story weakens that plot and so the focus of the book. Of course, this varies according to the different lines – a Superromance can afford to have more of a secondary plot and more characters than, say a Presents – but as a general rule, and certainly when you are trying to cut for pace, the main relationship should always be your focus and you can afford to cut back on the lesser ones.

Scenes that only show one thing and so could be combined with another to tell a couple of things in one go

In a restricted word limit, you don’t have time to detail everything and give everything its single focus in the spotlight. Use each scene to its best advantage by making sure that it shows something about your h&h and their story. Don’t just have one scene where the heroine finds a photograph of the hero’s dead wife – put that together with an argument that leads to her blurting out that she has been married too – unhappily – and the repercussions from that will lead into a sensual reconciliation . . .

Family – families often get in the way in fiction – and in fact!

Don’t however fall into the trap of feeling that you have to kill off all the heroine’s parents and relatives – that will just turn your book into melodrama. But families could interfere – a brother or father wouldn’t stand for the way the hero is treating the heroine – so set up a scenario where the heroine is working away from home – or living in another country – or Mum & Dad have gone on a round the world cruise and won’t be back till Christmas. Then you won’t have to have scenes in which things have to be explained to them.

Lovemaking scenes that don’t show any development – that aren’t different from the last one

The point about a sex scene is not just to show that your H&h fancy each other – they are there to mirror the development of the relationship and show the changes in it. If your word count is too long and you have some love scenes, however well written and erotic, that are really just a long-winded way of saying ‘they made love again’ – then why not just say that. Besides, too many repetitions of love scenes mean that even the most even passionate scenes lose their impact and become a bit too much the same. Don’t waste them. Make them count – or cut them.

Long, detailed ‘getting to know you’ that could be summarised into ‘and then he told her about…’

The H& h need to learn about each other, especially if this isn’t a reunion story – but you don’t have to have ALL the story – summarise – He told her about his childhood in Texas, the happy days before his mother died, the change that came after . . .’

Quite often if you show the beginning of the conversation – ‘Tell me about . . .’ then like a film would ‘fade’ – focusing again on the ending ;’ . . .and that’s why I came to live in New York . . ‘

Scenes that do not have the H&h together should always be looked at in case they’re not really needed.

This is another point on the focus of the plot – that central relationship. So even if a scene is the heroine discussing her relationship with the hero, if it’s with her mother/her best friend, it can probably be expendable and a shorter, more direct way of just stating how she’s feeling can be found.

Detailed telling of action that could become ‘with one bound he was free’!!!!

For example – if your hero has been captured and tied up – then finds a piece of glass and cuts through his bonds- again you only need the beginning ‘Twisting the glass awkwardly in his restricted grip, he began to saw clumsily . . . Two hours later the last strand finally parted. With a sigh of relief he rubbed his hands, wincing as he touched the places where the glass had slipped and nicked him.’

You don’t have to go into every last detail of how long it took, how he kept dropping the glass, how he cut himself . . . Leave that to the reader’s imagination.

Factual background that weighs down the action

– history of places/family histories/ clothing details/ training details

A romance isn’t the place to air your knowledge – you are telling a story never forget that.

Cutting always hurts – you’ve written it and you meant it to stay but….

The rule of thumb is – yes, you may have written this wonderfully well – but is the fact that it’s well written enough justification for it staying in – what does it ADD to the book – if nothing/not much – why is it there?


Has pacing plagued your writing?

Join us Wednesday when we’ll be joined by the seven authors featured in the Lucky 7 Bad Boys Contemporary Romance Boxed set – now available!



Bio: Kate Walker has been writing for Harlequin Presents since 1986. In that time she has written over 61 novels. Her books have been published in over thirty-five countries worldwide.

Her January 2010 release, THE KONSTANTOS MARRIAGE DEMAND, was awarded the Reviewers’ Choice Best Presents Extra 2010 by Romantic Times magazine, and her 2011 title, THE PROUD WIFE (March 2011) was also nominated for the award. Her latest romance A THRONE FOR THE TAKING was published in Harlequin Presents in May 2013. Coming up is A QUESTION OF HONOR in June 2012.

Kate Walker is also the author of the 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE (Aber Publishing). A third edition is now in print which is also available on KINDLE..

Kate Walker has an MA in English from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and worked as a Children’s Librarian before concentrating on writing full-time. She runs writing days and weekend workshops on fiction and in 2012 she will be teaching a week-long residential course on writing romantic fiction at The Watermill in Posara, Tuscany. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Romance Writers of America, has taught several times at the RNA Conference and reads and critiques for their New Writers’ Scheme. She is married with one grown up son.

Visit Kate’s website here:
Kate’s blog is here.

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18 Responses to “Cutting For Pace by Kate Walker”

  1. This is one of those posts where bookmarking it isn’t enough. I want to just imprint it on my brain so I won’t forget. I never thought of pacing as a big problem – I have enough other problems with my writing to fill a book – but thanks to some excellent professional advice, I now realize the pacing is the underlying problem behind some of my other issues. This post is VERY helpful!

  2. Thanks for letting me know this post is being repeated this week. Was it really 2011 it was first posted? Where does time go? I’m so glad you found the post helpful – I still remind myself that each scene needs to add something to the story/character development to make sure I keep then pace of a book – well – pacy!

    I’ll call back through the day if anyone else has a comment or a question.

  3. Thanks so much for joining us, Kate! When I first attempted to write fiction, I was trying to learn so many things at once, I think I expected the pacing to take care of itself. Not so much! As I mentioned, I’ve bookmarked this post for future reference. (Actually, I bookmarked it twice, since I marked the original post, too.)

    What do you think is the most common pacing issue for new writers?

    • My apologies for the delay in getting back to you – yesterday turned more hectic than I had realised. And the time zones don ‘t help. But I am back, readi8ng the respo0nses to my repeated post and I’ll answer people’s comments now.

      Becke – you asked what is the most common pacing issue for new writers – I think the answer lies in that phrase – which is now the title of a film ! – kill your darlings. New writers love to write, sometimes rather than tell the story – so they do go on for long sections describing a house,. a room, clothes . . . They also sometimes think that if ‘sex sells’ – then writing a lot of it will sell their book. instead it can often be the law of diminishing returns – too much dulls the impact. But I think the worst pacing issue I have seen a lot of this year is to focus on and write long scenes about things that don’t matter and rarely deal in details with the things that do. their characters row endlessly but never show a sing of falling in love – yet that’s what the book is all about.

      To reinforce what I already said – a paragraph/a page/a chapter may be full if some of the best writing you’ve done but if it doesn’t move the story forward then it’s wasting important space in your novel.

      POSTED BY KATE WALKER | JANUARY 28, 2014, 11:53 AM
  4. Kate, don’t know if it was synchronicity or just dumb luck, but the repost of your article today could not have come at a better time. After a LONG hiatus, I’m trying to restart my writing career but am no longer drawn to the long, wordy Historical Romances that were popular when I started. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was the Queen of Historical Romance then!

    Still drawn to Historicals, but the Category Romance length is more appealing to me now and I feel recharged by the idea of scaling back the “excess baggage” endemic to longer books.

    Thank you, Kate! The “career” may never reboot, but my brain is no longer on auto-pilot!

    • Hello Linda – I hope it’s synchronicity and that my article was meant to hit home to you – and hopefully help you with your career and revitalise it. I’m often asked if I want to write a ‘real’ book but I find the challenge of the concentrated and focused Category romance – and telling the story without extraneous baggage is always fascinating. Mind you, it’s also true that whatever your writing – whatever the length, you can still need to cut for pace because a lot of narrative, a lot of description etc can slow down the story you’re telling.

      POSTED BY KATE WALKER | JANUARY 28, 2014, 11:58 AM
  5. Hi Kate,

    I don’t write category, but your tips are useful for any sub-genre. Thank you!

  6. Jennifer – I think that’s a very good point. No matter what genre you write, the “cut for pace” instruction from an editor might come your way one day.

  7. LOL – that message already HAS come my way! *wink* That’s one reason I found this post so helpful!

  8. Evening Kate!

    And it’s still a great post! I’m a big one for saying one thing, then saying it again later in another fashion. I drive myself crazy with it, I know it slows the pace down. I can just imagine the reader “cripes, carrie, you already told us that once!”


    Always something to learn here at RU!


    • Hello Carrie – and thank you. I’m delighted that the post was repeated and that it still speaks to other writers. Even now I’ll admit that I have to watch that repetition thing – it’s a fine line between making sure I make something really clear or repeating it too much.

      POSTED BY KATE WALKER | JANUARY 28, 2014, 12:03 PM
  9. I usually have the opposite problem – because I have a journalism background, I write short and tight and often need to expand. I blogged about the process of doubling a manuscript to meet a publisher’s guidelines here:

  10. An interesting blog, Chris – I know other journalists who have had the same problem. Fiction isn’t reporting and the reader wants more than the bare bones of the story. I know I’m having to work harder at putting in details that matter in a longer story, when I keep trying to edit it down to category length.

    POSTED BY KATE WALKER | JANUARY 28, 2014, 12:06 PM
  11. I just thought I’d better add – having read through the biography that came with this post – which was, of course a couple of years ago – I thought I’d better edit that slightly to add – the course in Italy is no longer running (sniff!) but I have been asked to run a few more courses – though they’re in the UK right now. I have a new Harlequin Presents out in June – A Question of Honor but that’s in 2014 not 2012!

    Oh, and I’m currently working on revising and updating the 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance so that it will be republished in as many ebook formats as I can organise.

    POSTED BY KATE WALKER | JANUARY 28, 2014, 12:11 PM
  12. Without question Janet Evanovitch, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Jennifer Crusie. From Evanovitch I learned how to incorporate humor, mystery, and sexual tension while keeping a quick pace in the story. Hamilton showed the perfect was to combine two genres effectively, thriller and paranormal, and that a heroine doesn’t have to always be a sweet, perfect woman. She can have a hard edge and still be likable. From Jennifer Crusie, I learned the art of a romance novel without a clear formula. Her characters aren’t perfect, they meet in strange ways, and struggle with real compatibility issues. I just hope I did my heroes justice.