Thursday, November 05, 2009

Writer Question: How Do I Cut Text from My Novel and Not Lose My Soul?!

I got a reader question recently, and (coincidentally) was, um, "approached" by a would-be author at a lit party the other night with a very similar question (although he did not word it nearly as nicely as you did, dear anonymous polite reader below). So it seems to me this is on a lot of people's minds lately.

Dear Moonie,

A newbie (me, unfortunately) is having a bit of an issue with her MS. Cuts need to be made (my darn novel is a porky 130,000 words). But every time I start cutting out my protagonist's funny little comments or thoughts that don't necessarily add to the plot, I feel like I'm betraying and/or losing my beloved character and replacing her with a streamlined, made-for-the-market version of her. On top of that, the only person who's seen my work says that the things I'm cutting really are unnecessary and need to go to make it more "effective."

As someone who's probably dealt with many authors in this dilemma, do you think I'm just being overprotective of my character, or is there merit to my madness? At what point should an author listen to her gut over the advice of more experienced writers?


First, dear Newbie, kudos to you for identifying that 130,000 words is probably too long (and not taking affront, like the gentleman I encountered at that event last week, who insisted not a word of his 280,000-word ms was unnecessary). For those who want further discussion re: word count, I refer you here.

Now, Newbie, I identify three separate issues in your question:
1) volume
2) character integrity
3) trusting your gut over advice

I shall address these in order.

First, over-volume. Lots of people write too long--I think it's about 6 times as common as writing too short--so you must not feel alone in this. In almost all of these cases, it's excess wordage in a sentence, not excess plot or excess character development, that leads to the the bulk (or "pork," if I may borrow your word). Unfortunately, whittling writing down to the bare necessities takes a lot of practice and, in 98% of cases, a second pair of (ruthless) eyes who can help point out your personal bulky passages. If you're striking what you see as important material, my question is can you take what's important and say it in fewer words.

Second, character integrity. Here's the thing: you, the author, need to know EXACTLY what your character would do in ANY situation in the ENTIRE universe, known and unknown. You have to know how s/he would react at a disco, riding a camel across the Sahara, abducted by aliens, and with a bad hangover. However, no one else but you needs to know all these details. Creating art is never as much a matter of sharing interesting details as it is a matter of choosing banal details not to tell. Quirky, delightful, and lovable are all great--even if they're not strictly necessary to the forwarding of the plot. So don't cut willy-nilly things you don't *need* for plot. But do cut things that are dear to you because you're so pleased you know them abotu your character, but maybe aren't so dear to anyone else.

As for how the first and second point come together: I would recommend that in any case you see if you can't tighten up some of the "telling" prose to see how many words you can lose on the "natural fluff" that tends to pad most of our manuscripts. Then, ask yourself carefully whether some of these beloved character quotes that you're hurting to cut might be "natural fluff" themselves. Beloved natural fluff we call "darlings," and darlings, alas, MUST DIE!

Most people can't do the darling daignosis all on their own. That's where you ask for help from people whose judgment you trust. Which brings us to #3.

Third, trusting your gut. Well, that sounds like a complicated question that needs some kind of rubric, or at least a checklist. I'm afraid this is a separate post for a separate day! Perhaps next Tuesday.


Heather Lane said...

And, once you make it big, you can sell the unabridged version for big bucks on e-bay. If it makes you feel any better.

Writing for MG is a cure for wordiness.

magolla said...

Another excellent post by my fave moonrat!

The 'trusting your gut' part is tough. After writing in numerous genres over the last eight years, I'm finally getting it.

Well-meaning critique partners/writers/friends will offer advice to improve your story. The problem is they are inserting their voice into your story. But when you are first learning the craft of novel writing, you need their help as it's a freakin' steep learning curve!

Trusting your gut takes time and is double-edged. If you don't listen to others, you become too stubborn to see any problems with your story, and then you will become fodder for some agent's blog. But sometimes listening to others results in a dependence on input from them.

From personal experience, I'd suggest cutting scenes that don't move the story forward.

Good luck!
I'm off to cut some pork!

DebraLSchubert said...

Nurse, scalpel!

Rick Daley said...

Great post, thanks!

Kristi said...

I'm lucky in that I write on the short side which leaves me room to add things as needed.

That being said, I killed a character just last night even though word count wasn't an issue. They weren't contributing to the story so I let them go - I think you have to be able to distance yourself from your work in order for your gut instincts to kick in. I had set it aside for two weeks before going back and reading it as if it were one of the submissions from my critique group.

Rachel Aaron said...

As someone who overwrites and gets yelled at (gently) for it a lot, I feel you. When words need to go, I cope by having a cutting order:

FIRST, I cut bad plot points/scenes (macro stuff first, biggest bang for your cut!)
SECOND, I cut verbosity (do I really need to say "It seemed to her like" when I can say "It was"?)
THIRD, and only in absolutely dire situations, I streamline dialog and description.

HOWEVER, if I've gotten to step 3 and the novel is still too long, I start to wonder if maybe I have 2 books and not 1. Or maybe the novel really does need to be 120k. Still, the point I'm trying to make is that the fat goes first, the meat goes last.

Laurel said...

Thanks, Moonrat! Timely for me, since I'm doing the same thing right now.

Techniques I've employed that seem to be working:

Cut the adverbs. Everyone hates them and you'll be surprised how many you don't need. I use them so much when I talk (I'm hyperbolic by nature and never met an -ly word I didn't like, probably even invented a few) that I don't "hear" them.

Start with a word search for words like "very" and "actually".

I had a couple of whole chapters devoted to slipping in one or two pieces of information. In more than one instance I was able to pare it down, combine events, or slip the tidbit into another conversation. I'm embarrassed to say that a couple of the amputated chapters didn't have any action, they were just a conversation leading around to a point, so they needed to go anyway.

And if you have scenes you love and can't bear to part with, shelve them for the next book or bonus material on your website which will no doubt crash once your book hits the bestseller list!

Good luck. Editing sucks.

Elizabeth Lynd said...

It sounds to me like the letter-writer would probably benefit from a critique group. If only one other person has seen this manuscript, my guess is that length won't be its only issue. Which is fine, and normal. I know the first version of my first novel, of which I was so proud (I! finished! a! book!) was nowhere near ready to fly. Since my many rounds revisions, many or most of them based on valuable feedback from other trusted writers, I hardly recognize the work. I can't stress enough how valuable a critique group--and also a very honest and blunt critique partner or two--will be to your work.

Irene S. Levine, PhD said...

Another great post!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Adverbs, qualifiers, and weak sentence structure aside (interestingly, weak sentence structure often takes more words than strong structure - at least that's what I've found in my own work)..

Telling generally takes more words than showing. IMO, lots of internal narrative ends up as telling. That's how I've found ways to cut. Yes, my character is thinking this, but what will he DO about it? Internal narrative slows the pace (and of course sometimes that's fine), but action serves the plot. Keep your characters talking and doing and acting, all focused on their goals.

Nathan Bransford taught me that, if not in so many words.

Thx Moonie!! :)

kathy said...

I recently cut 5,000 words from my manuscript without losing an ounce of character integrity. Like another commenter said, look for adverbs. Also, look for dialogue tag lines. You probably don't need them. Rewording long, awkward sentences goes a long way.

Terri said...

I am doing the 'big cut' and have turfed at least 5,000 words from the first three chapters. The result is vastly improved.

I did this after I went to a conference and had a sit down with a well-pubbed writer in my genre.

The conversation went something like this:


Him: "You know you're good, don't you?"

Me: ::turned red and made a silly noise::

Him: "You know this first chapter sucks don't you?"

Me: ::Nodded lamely::

Him: "You know that my class today was directed at you, don't you?"

(class topic was on how to open and pace thrillers)

Me: ::resisting urge to snatch back manuscript and rewrite it then and there:: "Yes, I do and I understand what the problem is and want to fix it now!"

Him: "Do it. You've got something here."


My problem? Way too much history and physical description of characters and their specific actions. Funny, that is a trait I LOATHE in genre fiction and then I went and fell victim to it myself. So, I am giving the manuscript a swift kick in the backstory and it has been a relief and a pleasure.

I am going to mangle a quote from one of the presenter's materials. Even in this imperfect form, I find it to be a valuable guide.

"If you have an 800-page book, you can cut it to a 300-page book. Done correctly, the other 500 pages will still be there."

And the Stephen King mantra, "Final draft = First draft minus 10%"

Look for backstory demons to stomp out and kill. It doesn't matter that my main character, a CIA agent, went to all the 'right' schools and who her family is and that she is wealthy and rather uptight.

I don't need to tell you that up front. I can show you with clues throughout the story like when she accidentally makes a crass comment and is hugely embarrassed and completely overreacts.

Go for it! Kill your darlings!

JenniferWriter said...

Over the past couple months I wittled my 116,000 word novel down to 98,000 words. It was surprisingly easy. First, I recommend some "time apart" from the book. Put it aside and get some distance. Read a couple books, maybe. Tinker with a short story.

Second, keep everything you cut in another document. That way you still have the writing you love even if there's no place for it in the book. It's also there if you realize a certain scene WAS needed after all.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but I've also heard that to a reasonable degree there is really no proper length for a book - just what it needs to be. Of course, that doesn't mean that people should be sending 198K novels, that's just ridiculous and expensive. But if the story feels like it can be told at a proper pace, with all the important points left in in 130K words...or rather, if the book doesn't FEEL long with 130K words (because the pacing is good and every scene is important) then I'd say it's around the right length.

I mean I remember cassandra clare's City of Bones being over 130K. That's a debut YA urban fantasy novel published at > 130K. So I guess it really varies.

Dana King said...

Before cutting scenes, characters and subplots, I'd look to see where I can just tighten up what's there. What do I really want to say in this sentence? Can I say it in eight words instead of eleven? How about this paragraph? Do I say essentially the same thing twice?

That's very micro writing, but you'd be surprised how much trimming can be done, which will make the rest of the cuts that much easier.

As for darlings, when you see you've written a sentence that basically says, "Aren't I clever for thinking of this?" (and we all do it), that one has to go.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Am I the only one out there who's not so fond of first drafts but loves to revise?

moonrat said...

Caroline--I prefer revising ;)

Whirlochre said...

It's those precious little darlings that are the worst — phrases and paragraphs and sometimes whole chapters that beguiled you long ago, and which you can quote verbatim.

But like gorillas passing themselves off as cheerleaders, they're not needed on the team.

Donna Gambale said...

Death to the darlings! My YA WIP is nearing 100,000 words, and I'm aiming to cut about 15,000.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to write fairly short but I'm still always amazed at how many words you can cut out by just a judicious pruning.

Paul said...

Sentence level editing. Cutting scenes if they don't advance the plot or develop character. And all those little darlings. I, too, like revising.

Dana King said...

I'm with you. Drafting is a pain; I like the shaping and added subtleties I can do when revising.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Great and timely post. I was just berating myself in a fit of self-loathing over failing to recognize verbosity in my work--even after re-reading a snippet countless times, I still got nailed on excess words. Once I came up for air, I realized that few people are geniuses (genii?) at writing--despite the tone in their critiques!--but that we all continue to learn. Learning is constant and the only way you get better. Maybe twenty years from now I'll be able to recognize problem areas right off the bat, but for now, it takes a lot of hard work.

Thanks to Laurel for your tips--those are helpful.

Sarah said...

Caroline! I adore revising. That's exactly why I'm NaNo-ing this month. I had to finish the last half of my WIP and had been procrastinating with revision. Guess who can't wait till December to start reshaping and polishing?

Jennifer, I keep my cuts in another document, too. It gives me the freedom to cut portions. I don't mind playing with drastic changes if I can always go back to where I started.

Diana said...

I see this with longer short stories, as well. I have an acquaintence who has the ability to write very compelling prose. Unfortunately, he also has a lot of fat in his stories which he refuses to cut out. "Who's to say what is important in a story or not." Needless to say he gets a lot of rejection letters. He'd get a lot more of acceptances if he would let go of his attachment to fat in his stories, but he'd rather keep it in. *shrug* What are you going to do with a writer who won't listen?

Good post Moon Rat.

Lydia Sharp said...

This is a good example of why I recommend your blog to everyone.

Portuguese cunt said...

The wordiness is always in the individual sentence; unless you're Ayn Rand, and then it's the whole fucking book.

I need a ruthless editor to slash my manuscripts. That's what I pay them for. Sure, I get a little annoyed when I see all the corrections. But my ego is fine once I get the fat royalty check.

Kenny said...

Good post. If I may, I honed in immediately on this phrase:

"I feel like I'm betraying and/or losing my beloved character and replacing her with a streamlined, made-for-the-market version of her."

I have a friend who writes bloated manuscripts. While he is a good friend and I love him dearly, he's a long way from publication because right now his attitude is, "All 350,000 words are literary gold, but of course the editor who buys it can make cuts if necessary."

No one should feel compelled to write made-for-the-market characters (or books). And we readers like to say that we want something "new and interesting." But what we really mean is that we want something interesting and a little bit new--and if your characters aren't written for some market (be it niche, mainstream, or otherwise), don't be surprised if your book doesn't sell. As with music, the tug-of-war between being "true to your art" and "making a living" never goes away.

Hmmm, but I may be getting ahead of the conversation. d^_^b

OT: Moonrat, did I see you comment on "Seriously So Blessed" the other day? You need to ask Aprilynne about that site sometime. d^_~b

pacatrue said...

As a couple others have said, make sure you look for whole scenes, chapters, or paragraphs that really aren't needed. If you have "plot points" (you know those major climactic moments in the book) marked in your head, look for places where the distance between them is quite long. That might be a good point to cut. If a lovely little scene is ruining a far more important scene later, then it's doing more harm than good.

When you are pretty sure that you are only telling the story that needs to be told, you can jump to the sentence by sentence level.

Annette Lyon said...

Elizabeth said much of what I was going to--if you can't see what needs cutting, show it to someone who is objective and CAN see it (and isn't invested in the characters and all that). They'll tell you where to hack it. It's hard, bloody, but necessary process. Pull out the butcher knife. You can do it. Your ms will thank you.

Elizabeth Lynd said...

I like revisions, too. I didn't know it until a year or so ago, though. Flipped my thinking from it being a burden to it sort of being dessert.

Jess Haines said...

This is a perfectly timed post, as this is exactly the sort of thing I'm working on now. Excellent advice and observations, as always. Thank you!

Dawn Simon said...

What a great post.

When I'm doing manuscript surgery, I always keep a version of what I had, just in case. I put dates on the new files, and sometimes add key words. If I find darlings that I think are brilliant but don't advance the plot or reveal character, I cut them and save them in a file I label "snippets". Just knowing the writing is still somewhere might make it easier to cut and experiment, to play with things.

I was fortunate to meet with an agent for a ms consultation who pointed out a couple lines in my WIP that were redundant. (Lines I loved, BTW.) Having this knowledge helped me find more spots on my own and cut out quite a few words in my first chapter. I killed darlings and my manuscript is better because of it.

Anonymous said...

"... at a lit party the other night..."

I'm dying to know: what exactly IS a lit party? What goes on there?!

Anonymous said...

Adverbs dominate popular lit. It is the hallmark of a newb to shun the adverb.

I dare ye to play Adverb Russian Roulette. We all sit in a circle, a huge pile of NYT bestselling paperbacks from the last 10 yrs in the middle of the circle. We draw lots to pick who goes first. Oh, you win! You're given a gun loaded with all 6 shots. You open the book to a random 2-page spread.

The rules of the game are simple: if there's an adverb on that 2-page spread (dialog excepted), you have to shoot yourself somewhere on the body. No adverbs, and you pass the gun to the next player.

Every time around the circle is your turn again. Last player still alive wins...1 billion dollars.

Wanna play?

Gary Corby said...

Cut all exposition. There'll be piles of it if you're anything like me. Now re-insert the minimum necessary for the story to make sense. If you're normal, you probably just saved a thousand words. If you're me, you saved three thousand.

Find your noise words ("just" in my case). Delete them all.

Paragraph by paragraph, find and fix all weak sentences. Everything you touch will compress up to 50%. You will go mad doing this but insanity is a small price to pay for the big improvement in the text.

Anonymous said...

"Just" is a crutch-word in my first drafts, too. everyone at first is "just doing this" and "just doing that" and "if we culd only just..." and "They were just short of..." that kinda thing. It's just not necessary!

Carradee said...

Cutting and I don't get along. I'm too concise. Seriously, my novel-in-revision at the moment started out as a 17k word draft. It's now 73k words. I'm not yet sure if it's going to be closer to 70k or 80k by the time I'm done with this revision.

I pack so much into so little space that any attempt to do a significant amount of cutting (say, 500 words for an informal competition's 3k word limit) usually cuts something necessary.

Granted, I use "meaningless" words, too, but most of the time it's after I've stared hard at it and decided to keep it.

Joelle Anthony said...

How funny to see this today. Yesterday, I sold an article to SCBWI about how to cut large amounts from your manuscript. When my book sold to Putnam last year, it was 375 pages (YA). Over the course of editing, I cut 150 pages and wrote about 50 new pages to take their place. When a friend was faced with this dilemma a few weeks ago, what started out as advice to her in an email ended up being this article that I sold. Unfortunately, for the questioner, it probably won't be out for a few months, at least. When I had to face all those cuts, the wonderful author Arthur Slade gave me this advice. "Be ruthless." It paid off for me.

joelle said...

I know I left the last comment, but I'm back an hour later with this. was just listening to an interview with author Paul Auster and he said these things: For a person to tell a good story, it has to be as economical as possible so that your listener [reader] is hanging on every word and doesn't get bored.

Everything is in the service of the story.

And he quoted Micky Spillane: Nobody reads a book to get to the middle. said...

As I edit for pace (a very nice word for cut-out-the-crap), I create a file I call "lifts."
I simply scroll-copy what I am cutting to that file.

These are things I like or I believe are well done that I really hate to lose. The idea of "lifted" dialogue, action, description and, yes, even entire scenes, is that I will use them in the sequel. Or another book.

Somehow, this practice saves me from angst over the loss of things I might like. (I still have them!) Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely, once my editor has my revised manuscript in hand, that I will ever find a use for these lifts.

Kristi: Killing a character is always tough to consider and then, often, so perfect once it is done. I notice scriptwriters who bring a novel to screen will often have a single movie character fulfill the function of two characters from the book.

I wish I could learn how to do that for the book itself. Dang.

clindsay said...

I welcome this kind of complaining, especially when they do it in public or online. Makes it that much easier to cross the high-maintenance types off my list. =)

Carmiel said...

Would you be so kind as to address the opposite problem too? I just finished a three plot interwoven story that only reached 53,000+ words.
Thank you.

Stephanie L. Weippert

Anissa said...

Trusting your gut is excellent advice. Often times I'll find myself questioning a scene, whether it needs to be moved, expanded, etc. After hours of debate and thought, I almost always find something wrong at the heart of the scene. More often than not the entire thing is cut. All from a little gut feeling, which I think becomes more developed the more we write. Excellent post.

Tina Lynn said...

That darn pork just sneaks in on some of us:)

Anonymous said...

To Carmiel:

As an extremely short writer, I recommend leaving the story for a few weeks. When you come back, read it as a brand new reader who has never been in the story or world before. As you go through the scenes, consider your tone and what you can flesh out and add richness and detail to. Go for a relatively consistent tone (as opposed to pace).

I'm a girl who averages 330 word scenes. I had a lot to learn on that.

Thanks for the post. I find it timely and helpful.

Mostly I got to be such an underwriter (27,000 words AFTER revisions on my last one...still working on that) because I took the advice until I just don't write in padding. It means my foreshadowing sometimes gets lost and I practically never use a word that doesn't do something for the story without deciding I'm okay with having it.

So now, I'm working on changing that and turning that side of me off when I draft and realize I'll still need to add more, even if I cut some words here and there. I can't decide if overwriting or underwriting is worse. Hmm...

moonrat said...

Carmiel, Anon 2:42: thanks for asking. Good question.

I don't mean to generalize here, but what I've *generally* found (ok, I guess I am generalizing) is that overwriters often tend to be overly generous when relating (often telling) their characters' thoughts and feelings; meanwhile, underwriters often are underly generous with "thoughts and feelings" insights, and tend to focus on action.

This doesn't apply across the board, of course. But one writer friend and I developed a theory about underwriters that is based on the Myers-Briggs personality test: overwhelmingly, on the T/F spectrum (that is, either Thinkers or Feelers) writers tend to be Fs. (Hence overwriting people's feelings.) There are, of course, some writers who are Ts. We believe that the portion of underwriters and the portion of writer Ts are closely linked--Ts have less reason to overshare touchy-feely details. What do you think? Does that apply to you?

Should this maybe be a separate post?

Anissa said...

Moonrat, I'd love to see more discussion of the Feelers vs. Thinkers phenomenon. So interesting. I'm pretty sure I fall on the Thinker side. Hmmm...

Megs said...

I'm weird. Underwriter that overwrites thoughts, feelings, and sometimes scenes. I always have to add more description of surroundings and action.

I also keep all my choplings in a separate file, entitled, "clips." I regularly cull it for thoughts, snippets, and dialogue to readd into the work or use elsewhere entirely.

S. L. Weippert said...


I would appreciate a separate post please. On both subjects if you're up to it. :)

Thanks for all your help!
Stephanie L. Weippert

Anonymous said...

Every word in your manuscript should do one of three things:
1) Drive the plot
2) Reveal character
3) Delight the reader

If it does not do this, cut it.

distresseddamsel said...

Very helpful information.Thanks! Often, the main concern in whittling the part of the character is that loss of the original soul intended for him. I do agree that in doing so, the original voice of the author is somewhat changed. But this is a hard lesson most writers have to learn, and the number of years and effort it takes to master this is something newbies like me do not want to focus on lest we want to be discouraged. For now, taking your advice to heart and learning as much as we can while trying our best to get a damn good story down on paper is what matters most.