Well, as Sam says on his return from the Grey Havens, I’m back. My hiatus is done and I’m ready to deal with some magical words, though today I want to talk about getting rid of a few.
It’s a familiar problem, particularly for those of us who never met a word, phrase or paragraph they didn’t like. An editor (or friend, or beta reader, or the voice in your head that you generally manage to ignore) says something along the lines of “this is great, but it needs to be 10,000 words shorter.”
For the last few weeks I’ve been wrestling with an edit memo concerning my current WIP which required me to cut at least 5,000 and preferably closer to 8,000 words. “4,000 words?” I said. “Why do you want me to cut 2,000 words?”
Partly the issue was pacing, but the bottom line was that this is a middle grades novel and page count in this area is tightly policed, the later Harry Potter books notwithstanding. This week has already seen a couple of great MW posts from Kalayna and David about how real editors make books better so I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores of such policies today. Let me just say that my editor is very smart, very detail oriented and knows this particular market far better than I do. If she says the book is too long, then it’s too long and my job is to make it shorter.
That, of course, is easier said than done.
It seems counterintuitive, cutting words. We pride ourselves, after all, on getting them down in the first place. You’ve all seen the “Managed 2,000 (or 200 or 5,000) word today” tweets. It’s how we measure progress, even success, and since we all know that you don’t finish a book unless you actually write the words, it’s doubly hard to start ripping them out.
So here are a couple of suggestions to make the process easier. Make the cutting part of a larger edit whose goals are more than brevity. Yes, you may need to reduce the book just so that it has fewer pages, but a note to cut usually means that elements of the story need tightening, so the first thing to look to is those points in your story where it feels bloated. When you are close to the book, this can be tough to see, but it is easy enough to read for plot, say, attuned to when the main thrust of the narrative goes off the boil. It’s OK to have digressions, character asides, passages of description, even info dumps, but they have to be kept in check, and where you know a book is overlong, these are the first places to prune.
Now, I’ve cut much more from previous books that the 5-8K my editor wanted this time, and I know of plenty of writers who find themselves writing plaintive letters to their editors insisting that their book “just can’t get any lower” than 180,000 words. The problem this time was that this was my second edit and the book already felt extremely lean. My editor suggested a few short scenes I could trim or eliminate, but she had also pointed out things which needed developing or clarifying, and by the time I had finished adding to take care of those issues the cuts I had resigned myself to left me pretty much where I had begun, at 96,000 words.
Frankly, I was scared. The book had a lot of plot and my worry was that in order to keep the story intact I was going to have to strip mine the book of everything else, the texture which—for me—is the heart of a novel: character, humor, thematic reflection, description, atmosphere and so on. 5,000 words doesn’t sound like much, but I was afraid that the finished product was going to read like a screenplay.
So a couple of weeks ago I began the daunting process of going through the book phrase by phrase and seeing where I could trim the fat. Yesterday I sent the book to my publisher minus 6,000 words (go team me!) but—and here’s the important bit—I don’t miss any of them.
I know this because whenever I edit I keep another document open on my computer which I call Outakes or The Discard Pile. Into this document I cut and paste everything I remove from the earlier draft. Ostensibly this is because I might want to put whatever I just took out back, perhaps in a different place, or because (since I’m writing a series) what doesn’t work in this book might go into the next one. In fact, of course, I do this to make it less painful to cut stuff out so I can pretend that, rather than throwing my work away, I’m actually storing up nuts for the winter.
Anyway, I dutifully kept my Discard Pile document this time, but found that I didn’t transfer more than a handful of lines from the original into my winter nut store. What I cut was genuinely unnecessary and I’m not just talking in terms of plot here. It was also unnecessary in terms of texture, character, atmosphere etc. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my editor can’t tell where the cuts were made. Give me a month or two and I know I won’t.
Let me offer an example:
“Jim started looking around. The thing which looked like some kind of stone altar had begun to glow ominously, casting long, oppressive shadows in the dark wooden temple.”
Not great, is it? But let’s look closely at it simply in terms of making it shorter. First let’s get rid of those false-start verbs “started” and “begun to.” Completely unnecessary. Then consider that throat-clearing hesitancy “the thing which looked like some kind of stone altar.” Is it a stone altar or not? Does the scene benefit from all that hedging or can we call a spade a spade and move on? Next there’s the adverb “ominously.” Doesn’t the description of the shadows cover that? If so, cut. Lastly, if we’re trying to build a sense of mounting tension here, do we need to know what the temple is made of? If it’s about to catch fire, perhaps, but if not, get rid of it.
“Jim looked around. The stone altar was glowing, casting long, oppressive shadows through the temple.”
We’ve gone from 28 words to 15. The sense is pretty much the same, the prose is tighter, and the initial look now seems motivated by the glow (that’s why he looked around), which I like. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, and suspect I’ve actually gained something even though I’ve virtually halved the word count.
The precise nature of your trimming will depend on your habits (or “crutches” to use a Faithism) so I won’t offer more examples. (This post is, ironically, already too long )
My point is simple. Unless your natural style is extremely spare, you can do a lot to reduce your word count simply by coolly assessing what you really need, and—again—I’m not reducing “need” to plot points. You can usually keep what you want and still cut so long as you can escape the idea that every word is a little speck of gold dust to be treasured. The only way to do this, however, is to read the entire book very carefully, weighing each word as you go. It takes time and focus, but it works.