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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cutting the Fat

In honor of the new year, it's time to lose some weight. I don't mean you, but your manuscript. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to go on and on in my writing. Since I don't outline (shudders), I usually have to go through multiple (multiple, multiple) drafts of my MS before it's ready for human consumption.

And at least one of those rounds is just to cut the word count to something appropriate. (I won't go over that here. Check Colleen Lindsay's blog for a great guide.) My latest round? I had to cut 10%, which for me is about  8000 words.

Holy deletage, people. That's a lot of words. That's more than a just a few dialog tags, you know?

So, as with anything I do in writing, I start in small steps.

1. Sweat the small stuff. This includes but is not limited to: dialog tags, adverbs, adjectives, tedious blow-by-blow action ("I got up and walked to the door. I twisted the knob and yanked the door open." We don't need a blow-by-blow. Just say, "I strode to the door and yanked it open." That's about half the words.), and "no-duh" statements ("The sunglasses fell to the ground." You can remove "to the ground." Most of us understand gravity. And hey! It's 3 words!). These are small changes, but can reduce your word count.

2. Once is usually enough. This sounds like a "no, duh, Elana" but seriously. I had gone through my MS, deleting deleting deleting. I didn't have like two of the same word on a page or anything. That's not what this is. This is what I tell my critique partners: "You've said the same thing three times using different words."

Carolyn read my MS, and pointed out that I was establishing setting in multiple ways. Sure, I'd used different words. Different senses. But they were all establishing the--same--thing.

Once I realized this is how I write, I can usually find sentences (WHOLE sentences) that I can take out. I choose the best ones and delete the rest. You can delete hundreds, if not thousands of words this way.

3. Keep your eye on the big picture. I read through my MS, writing what happens in each scene on a tiny post it. Seriously, guys, it was like a 5-word thing of what was going on (I don't even outline AFTER the novel is written). Afterward, I looked at the scenes and what they did to advance A) the plot B) the character arc or C) nothing. Anything that fell into the C) category got the axe. If I felt like there was pertinent information I absolutely had to have in the cut scene, I wove it into a different scene that already accomplished A) or B).

Sure, it's hard. No, I didn't want to. Does that matter? Not really.

Hopefully you don't ever have to delete 10% of your manuscript to make it saleable. But if you do, I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful.


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31 comments:

Kristi said...

Great post Elana! I'm okay word count wise but am removing as many dialogue tags, adjectives, adverbs, etc. as possible...almost there. :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post as usual, Elana!
My favorite redundant phrase is about the heart beating in the chest. No duh! Where else would the heart be beating? Okay, there are a few possible reasons for it to be beating outside the chest, but for the most part, the chest reference can be skipped.

beth said...

I am SO with you. I don't outline either, and often have to cut...a LOT.

Actually, I was able to realize that quite a bit of my problem in revision was NOT cutting. When I discovered this last year, I decided to change my policy on personal revision--once I finish the manuscript, I do a word count. Then I subtract 5k. That's my new word count goal. Before I do anything else, I slash--whole paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. Going in with this goal really helps...especially when I had to do it TWICE and cut 10k words from my last ms!

DL Hammons said...

Trust me...I'm one who outlines and I still find myself purging gobs of words. I liken the process to a sculpture who starts out with a block of granite, then slowly chisels away until he has a masterpiece.

Then he gives it to an agent who insists he to lob off a body part! LOL

magolla said...

Awesome post, Elana! And timely!

I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of nights ago with the realization that I needed to cut chapters two and three of my MG novel--uh, I thought I'd shoved this one under the bed.

Well, okay . . . the next day I got a request for a partial on this MG, so I'm frantically trying to tie the two ends together to make a cohesive story.

I am glad I had that flash of insight because chapters 2 and 3 were technically backstory that slowed the pacing, and I would have gotten a generic R. It still might get an R, but I know I DID improve the manuscript.

Oh, BTW, I cut 3000 words in those two chapters, about 8% of my story.

Karen said...

Wonderful post, Elana!

Scott said...

How about I send you my manuscript and you delete about 10,000 words for me??

Thanks for the great tips on trimming the fat from my manuscript. Now, if you could just give me good tips on how to trim the fat from my . . . : ) I'm getting ready, in a few weeks, to begin revisions on a project. I'm definitely going to have this post sitting next to me while I work through the revision process.

S

Mary Lindsey said...

Fantastic suggestions, Elana. I do the say-the-same-thing-several-times-through-different-senses. Lots to cut there.

Thanks for the pointers!

Melanie Avila said...

Great post! My "duh" thing is breath catching in the throat. Where else would it catch?

lisanowak said...

Great advice. The one thing I've been agonizing over in my WIP is #3. Problem is, I was trying to decide this while writing the first draft. I couldn't get a scene down on paper because I kept asking myself, "Is this necessary? Am I just going to end up cutting it later?" It should be a no-brainer that the time to edit is not during the first draft, and yet I keep having to remind myself of this.

goldchevy said...

What a timely post. I have been busy cutting since the middle of December and I am so verbose, I will probably lose a third of it before I am done. Last night I was just thinking how lame I was for writing so much, but I feel much better after reading your post. Thanks.

Elana Johnson said...

goldchevy, I'm glad you found it helpful. Trust me, I can go on and on. And on. :)

Melanie, I know, right? *grins*

Scott, send it over. I can delete like no one else. I just cut the last 65 pages of my MS and will be rewriting. I have 5 K to work with. That's it. I can do it. So can you!!!

magolla - wow. I'm sure you'll be able to nail it. :)

Thanks, everyone, for helping me feel less alone in my "overwriting."

Paul West said...

Great post, Elana. Thanks for the reminder. I have trouble with the writing-the-same-thing-5-different-ways problem. I also found that sometimes I write superfluous scenes.

My YA novel was 130,000 words - WAY too long. I started cutting out lengthy sentences, adverbs and adjectives, and found I still needed to cut some 30,000 words. So, I took a long look at my scenes. Did I really need all of them? I found I could combine some, and eliminate others completely. I finally got down to about 80,000 words. Still a bit long, but acceptable.

Deborah Blake said...

Good timing with this! I'm in the midst of edits, and doing much of the same sorts of chopping (although not as drastically, because I was more mindful of that stuff when I was writing).

My favorite thing to cut are "crutch" words--my worst offender is "that" (I end up cutting out up to a hundred extra), but also "really" "actually" and such.

ash-krafton said...

Great post, Elana. Between your blog and Nathan Bransford's (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/01/guest-blog-week-are-you-word-nerd-or.html)I am itching to get back to editing.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Sharon Mayhew said...

Wonderful post, Elana! It's wonderful when we realize we have a particular (writing) habit. I over use certain words. Now that I recognize the problem, I can go back and elimnate those pesky words.

MickeyHD said...

One of the first things I did with HAUNTING INJUSTICE is to do a global search on THAT.

I was amazed how many times that little bugger had worked its way into my novel. I was able to take out about two-thirds of THAT.

Kimberly Franklin said...

Great tips! I shall go put them to use now. : )

Bethany Mattingly said...

I do the same thing, describe the same things with different words. My MS just went on a severe diet plan and is looking much better now. Great post!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the great post. I used your post on how to revise a novel in 30 days to revise mine in 2 weeks (because I wanted to enter a contest so I had to get it done.) I had too many words and cut 6000 words in the 2 weeks by cutting words like you suggest, especially changing words ending in "ing" into into past tense and cutting unnecessary transition scenes. Thanks for the great advice.

Shelli said...

i just posted on how plastic surgery can help writers. brilliant minds think alike :)

Annarkie said...

Ironic. I just posted on adding to word count =) Of course every time I jump in to do that, I always find stuff that needs to be cut.
Editing and revisions can be a pain, but the final product is so worth it!

kimberlyloomis said...

Great advice, Elana! I am very fearful I'll need to go back to the completed ms (AGAIN!) to cut down on word count. Admittedly I've stripped at least 10k from the novel already for all the reasons you listed but.... *sigh* I'm thinking to get an agent to actually read the pages I send more shrinkage needs to happen.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

great advice!!!! My second draft is always expanding--I write the bare minimum. And then my third draft is cutting!

minnesotasnowgem said...

Appropriate timing, EJ!

Thanks for this. I have cut nearly 5,000 words on this last pass, and this weekend will no doubt entail several more critters facing the weed whacker. For me, “I” and “was” were nasty thorns in my manuscript’s side. Great post!

Yamile said...

Excellent post! And so timely as I'm working on revisions for my "outlined" novel. Still a lot of work! I repeat the character names A LOT, like somehow they've forgotten who they are and need to be reminded all the time.

silke said...

Great advice there, Elena.
I've just chopped an entire chapter because it didn't actually DO anything.
It was hard, I had to go back and eliminate an entire supporting character out of the story, but it reads better now.
I'll go back over the weekend and check things again, this time looking for unnecessary bits. :)

Amy Tate said...

Hmmm. This is the second post I've read about this. I think I need to pay attention! Thanks.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've got you beat, Elana- I've chopped over 20,000 words. And my process is the same as yours, but backward. I start by getting the plot in order, deleting scenes that serve no purpose and then get to the small stuff.

Alyssa Kirk @ Teens Read and Write said...

Love this post! Honestly, I printed it out to help keep me focused while revising. Glad I'm not the only one who doesn't outline.

Lydia Kang said...

I love manuscript liposuction. Liposculpting, whatever. It's great to get it all down, but the readability is all in the revisions after. Great post!