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Wednesday Writing: Cut, Baby Cut

*Note: This blog title does not actually refer to cutting babies. Thank you.

So, last week I promised tips for tightening your manuscript. Notice—I say “tightening,” rather than “taking a dull machete to your precious words.” This process can be a positive experience or a painful one depending on your perspective. If you have to cut a significant amount of wordage from your book, don’t think of it as deleting months of your blood, bitten fingernails, and tears. Instead, see this as a process that will make your story more exciting, and give your writing a punch it might not have had before.

Step 1) Take a good, hard look at your beginning. 

Starting your story in the right place might seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t—especially when this is your first, or even second novel. Look at your first few chapters. Could you lose the first chapter and still tell your story? Forget about things like “but I mention my main character’s age, her hair color, her evil twin brother.” Details can be moved.

Example: The 220,000 Word Behemoth had a solid sixty pages of my MC’s childhood—her birth, her toddlerhood, her teenage years. Those events formed issues for her later in life, but here’s the kicker: my reader didn’t need to read about them. Writing those pages wasn’t a waste of time (as the author, I needed to know my MC’s backstory in detail) but the pages were a waste of manuscript space. I cut her backstory and dropped my wordcount by about 15,000 words, just like that. After that, I realized my next five chapters ALSO meandered before getting around to the real “Inciting Incident” that set the plot’s wheels in motion. I cut those chapters, too, wrote about ten pages of new beginning, and by then I was down to about 150,000 words. Only 50,000 to go to my target, but now the cutting got harder.

**Quick tip!** Save everything you cut in a “cut fragments” file. It makes cutting easier, and if you decide you really want those words back, you have them.

Step 2) Make a list of all the plots and subplots in your novel.

Subplots make a story meatier, and when done right, they enrich the main storyline. Other subplots . . . just make a story longer. This one is harder than the “Find the Right Beginning” step, because it can mean taking a scalpel to a third of your chapters. What’s worse, this sometimes involves deleting characters. You hear about this all the time in the movies—someone’s character not making it past the editing room. If you cut out a subplot, that doesn’t mean the story was bad, or that it was poorly written—it just didn’t add anything to the forward momentum of your main plot, featuring your main characters. You know, the ones readers actually care about?

Example: I turned the long-lost father of one of my main characters into a major character with his own subplot. He was one of my favorite characters (with his political machinations, troop movements, and complicated relationships) but if I cut his scenes, and just put references to the more important political and military events into my main character’s POV, the novel still worked. In fact, the plot got tighter, the tension between my MCs grew stronger . . . the novel was just better. Sorry, Larothan.

**Full Disclosure!** I did not see the superfluousness of this subplot without the help of my writing partner, Thelma Mariano. You may need an honest friend or critique partner to help you examine your manuscript for extraneous plot threads.

Step 3) Now, look at that ending.

Are you so relieved to have your characters finally happy and together (if you write romance, like me) that you spend pages showing how in love they are? Do you write funny scenes where they tease family, reminisce about their trials together, maybe even meander by other characters to tie up random subplots (that maybe shouldn’t be there anymore since they weren’t tied up by the plot’s climax)? I’m not talking about a short epilogue. I’m talking about going on for pages after the big reveal, or the villain’s defeat, or the pledge of undying love (PoUL), etc.

Example: Let’s see, after my MC’s had their PoUL, my hero had to fix everything he’d screwed up (he was also the villain . . . I love this book and I wish agents/the publishing industry were more interested in fantasy romance for the non-YA set, but that’s another blog post). Then, there were some travel logistics to work out, and the hero had to ask the heroine’s father for permission to marry her. During that time the heroine hung out with her family a bit, and there was even a cameo by the emperor for some Big Name warm fuzzies all-around . . . ALL CUT. Instead, I tied up the lose ends before the climax, and wrote a brand-new (brief!) epilogue with some funny family stuff. Down to 110,000 words! But where was I going to get the last 10,000?

Step 4) Tighten your writing.

Edit your entire book. This is really the most important step of all—which is why I have it last. You don’t want to waste your time tightening entire chapters you’ll never use. Examine each sentence and see if you could say it tighter, shorter, with better words. Here are some more tips:

  • Look for constructions like “the vicar of the village” and change it to “the village vicar” — from five words to three, wee!
  • Do a “Find” search (Ctrl + F in MS Word) for “that” and read each sentence containing a “that” out loud to see if it works without “that” or needs it. I had more than 1,600 “that’s” in The Behemoth (that’s not really its title, just an affectionate name) and a good thousand were unnecessary.
  • Look for piled adjectives and see if you can cut one without losing your point.
  • Cut LOTS of adverbs.
  • Is your character doing something quickly but you take a long time to say it? Make your sentence match your character’s actions.

You may only have 20,000 words to cut total, but one or more of these steps and tips can really help you reach your goal. Remember, it isn’t really the number agents and publishers care about—they want to read a good story well told.

By cutting 120,000 words out of my novel, I pushed my Good Story Poorly Told into the Well Told realm, and that is a huge difference.

Wednesday Writing: Writing tips anybody?

As an unpublished novelist, I avoid handing out writing tips—purely because I don’t think I’m qualified. I can only parrot things other writers have said better, like:

  • Instead of using adverbs, try using a stronger word. For example, “sprint” instead of “run quickly”
  • Decide in advance, what point of view you want for your novel, and why. This should be a conscious decision, not a default.
  • And, in the category of Things I Had To Learn the Hard Way . . . 200,000 words is far, far too long for a debut author in any genre. If your manuscript is headed that way, drag on the reins and decide: are you writing one book and just meandering around, or are you writing two books? Google agent blogs on wordcount, and you’ll get a better idea for where to set your target.

That last tip brings me to something I am qualified to write about: shortening novels. If you have written a 200,000+ word behemoth, and if you want to publish it (not everyone wants that, I know), then something must be done. You may be tempted to split it into two novels (and that might be the right choice) but before you do, consider shortening it.

I know that means cutting the equivalent of one entire book (at least 100,000 words) out of your novel, but before you throw your keyboard/iPad/phone at me, consider this: I wrote a 220,000 word novel before I discovered that 100,000 words is the appropriate length for debut fantasy novels. On my own, I managed to cut it down to 130,000 words. A fantastic writing partner helped me cut out the other 30,000, so it is now down to 100,000 words–and it is a far, far better novel because of that.

Next Wednesday, I’ll tell you how I did it.

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