Every hear one (or more) of these?
- The book’s too long. You need to cut X words.
- You’re missing scenes.
- The pacing’s too fast/slow.
And then wondered how do you do that? How can you possibly cut X number of words, AND add in missing scenes, AND fix the pacing. While still cutting X number of words?
This year, I spent six months cutting a 170,00 word novel down to 115,000 words. That’s right, I cut 55,000 words. While adding in about 15,000 words, adding setting in places where it was skimpy, and slowing the pace of the last quarter of the book.
It isn’t easy, but it can be (for me at least) satisfying.
For the first few days, I usually fume, thinking I’ll just remove every article. Good-bye, the, an, a. You’re dead to me. Oh, what and that and which, you’re gone too. And maybe I’ll get rid of all the nouns … After I finish fantasizing turning my manuscript into a piece of post modernist trash, I get down to work.
First, you have to read the book critically to answer the structure questions.
- Does this scene or para move the plot forward? If it doesn’t, does it improve the reader’s understanding of the characters or setting? If the answer to these three questions is no, then I’ll delete the text. Usually into a separate file so that, if I need or want to, I can find it again. Why do I do that? I first cut this novel down to 90,000 word which was too skinny. I put back in text that I thought added, not necessarily to the story, but to the ambience of the world.
- Did the same thing get said or done multiple times? This, I am sad to say, happens to me often. Characters think about doing a thing, they do a thing, then they tell someone else in a tavern about the thing they did. While that may work in speeches, it’s no way to write a book. Keep the section that tells that particular bit in the most interesting way, get rid of the others.
- Do you really need to have all those characters? My book is an epic fantasy, so there are many characters. But even so, I thought about the tasks that certain characters had to do, and quickly realized that those tasks could be done by another character. This was possibly the hardest element because it involved a lot of rewriting, but it also saved an enormous amount of word count. If only one character does A, B, M, Q, and R, you only need to set them up once. If multiple characters do all the things, then you have to have an explanation of who they are for all of them.
During this analytical period, I also note where I need to add scenes, where setting is thin, and where the pacing needs to be faster or slower. True confession. By the time I’m close to the end of a book, I rush the ending, kind of like a horse running back to the barn. I always have to slow down my pacing. Someday I’ll do better, either that, or give in to my inner Hemingway.
After I make all the structural changes, it gets detailed. I go through the book line-by-line. The big question here is weighing between when I should trim each sentence to its essence, and when to leave it. It’s super easy for me to cut to the bone, killing words, which also risks killing the soul of the book.
What do I mean by that? Let’s take this sentence as an example. “It’s super easy for me to cut to the bone, killing words, which also risks killing the soul of the book.”
It could be changed to: “It’s easy to kill words, which also risks killing the book’s soul.”
Why aren’t I reducing that sentence to the simple version below? Because this is a blog post, and I want you to hear my voice as you read this. If I were writing an essay for money, I’d reduce most of the content to sentences that were more concise. But then, you might lose the sense (if you have it) that I’m talking to you, and hopefully we each have a glass of gin as we’re chatting.
At the line-by-line edit, I think hard about the books’ voice, and whether my changes damage the voice. If I think they would, I won’t make them. Voice is a fragile creature, easily broken. This is the moment where I am most likely to add in old text that was discarded earlier to bolster the voice.
Fixing pacing is the last, well almost last, thing on the list. What does that even mean, to fix pacing? Find your favorite thriller and look at the sentences. There are a lot of short, action-verb sentences that make the pacing fast and the book hard to put down. Pick up Virginia Woolf, whoa what a difference. Longer sentences, calmer language with a sense of rhythm.
This is the point where I go in and take many of my Hemingway sentences (There was a river. The woman came to the river.) and merge them into longer sentences, paying attention to the sound of the words and the rhythm of the sentence.
After this, the final tidying. I look at my most frequently used words list and see how many I can change, or delete so that I’m not always using “frigid” when I could also use “icy,” “cold,” and “frozen.” How many “ands” can I rewrite or simply delete? Do I really need “that” in all those sentences, or just some of them?
The last thing? Read the whole damn thing aloud. Slowly, with feeling. Nothing else helps you find your flaws as well as reading it out loud. For those who care, it takes about three days and a lot of water to read aloud a 115,000 page book.
And that’s it. Easy, right? Well no, but doable, and you’ll end up with a far, far better book by the end, as well as a better understanding of your own foibles as a writer.