It was a classic good news-bad news situation.
The first draft of my new novel was complete. Yay!
However. It was 120,000 words. That meant at least 20,000 of those hard-thought words had to go.
I was looking forward to it, since I know that editing and revision will make the book shine. But even as I knew I would make my book better, where would I start?
It feels daunting to fix a whole book. But this is my thirteenth, and I’ve discovered it’s easier to begin if you take on smaller tasks first. Of course big changes are in the works—you can’t surgically take out 20,000 individual words. But starting small is a painless way to gradually re-familiarize yourself with every one of them.
Of course, taking out 20,000 words means big chunks must be slashed. Entire chapters. And that’s fun. I promise. Especially when you see the book you meant to write.
But before you get to the big chunks, there are smaller chunks you can delete. Here are some secrets to finding them.
Cut your pet words
First, I use the list of favorite words I’ve compiled as I write. At some point in each book, I’ll realize I’ve used the word flickered or flattered or crimson or authentic —I’m making this up–more than once. But instead of trying to change them on the spot, I write them on a piece of paper next to my computer, knowing I’ll look at the list later.
SO day one of editing, I do an edit find-for my pet words. Word by word, it allows me to enter the paragraph where the word resides, and ask myself: why did I choose that? What work is it doing here? Should I simply replace the word? Or is there another way to handle this paragraph?
In the back of my mind, or maybe the front, is: is there a way to make this shorter?
Cut the thats
A fun thing to look for, (very gratifying and rewarding), is to do an edit-find for the word “that.” That word just appears, almost magically, throughout our writing. And I wager that half the time, it’s not needed.
See how many you can take out.
Again, it’s not about seriously trying to lower your word count by only taking out the thats. It’s a way to think about the sentence and the paragraph and the scene differently. If you take the that out, what are you left with? How can you make it shorter?
Search for said
Another edit-find that’s rewarding is to search for “said.” I love said, and I don’t mind it, but my goal is to see how often I can shorten my tendency to use the construction: “..blah blah,” she said. She slammed the door behind her. And stepped out onto the terrace. Do we need ‘she said’ there? We don’t.
Again, the ‘said’ is only the starting point. What about the line that came after that? How would you combine and cut? Now that you’ve used choreography, you may not need the next line either. (She stepped onto the terrace, slamming the door behind her.) That’s one idea.
Search for rhythm
I also have a tendency for construction like this: Something happens. The character thinks about that. The character thinks about it in a different way. The character makes a very short conclusion about the thing.
Hmm. Those four sentences are essentially one idea. I wonder: can I make that into one line?
Don’t ask permission
Another easy and fun extraction is qualifiers. An example, okay?
And that’s the example. Why am I asking you if it’s okay for me to do something? I’m writing this essay, I can say whatever I want. Do your characters constantly ask for permission to do things? Or ask for approval by saying Right? at the end of a sentence. Or ‘don’t you think?’ Or ‘do you think?‘ Why?
When you cut those requests for permission, your character becomes stronger and more confident. Try it. Now. How does that change your character going forward?
Cut the qualifiers
Look for: maybe kind of sort of potentially pretty much a little bit somewhat. Why does whatever it is have to be a little bit that? If someone is a little bit surprised, how can that be? They’re either surprised or they’re not. When you take out the qualifiers, your sentences will be stronger. Your characters, too, will become decisive instead of wavering.
(Ellipses, too. Cut them all. You won’t save any words, but it’ll be a good thing.)(Or, if you must use them, cut the “he seemed to be searching for a word” line which inevitably follows. That’s what those ellipses mean.)
Secret fun thing: when you edit-find, count the number you discover. Then challenge yourself to see how many you can cut. I had 23 uses of certainly. I got it down to one.
Cut the brainstorming
Since I don’t use an outline, I know I brainstorm with myself on the page, instead of in my head. So I’ll wind up with passages which have the character wondering what happens next. (Like I am.) Maybe he doesn’t mean that, your character muses. Maybe he’s just doing that to drive me crazy. Maybe he’s doing that so I’ll leave. Maybe he’s doing that so I won’t leave. When I find these chunks of internal dithering, it’s not so much the character dithering as it is the author dithering. Often, all of that can go.
You know how your editor writes REP in the margin? The abbreviation for repetition, or as one might say in person: we already know that. As I’m editing, I look for things I’ve said again and again and again. I imagine my editor reading the pages, and try to look for places where she’d write, oh-so-politely, REP.
Mine the artifacts
Because I write without an outline, there will turn out to be segments of the manuscript that don’t matter anymore. Pathways onto which I’ve taken a step or two, but which led, eventually, nowhere. Ask yourself for every paragraph: do I still need this? Is this still meaningful? What actual work is it doing to propel my story or illustrate character? Sometimes things that matter when you wrote them become meaningless artifacts as you understand the story you’re actually writing.
Check your log line
Now, go back to the beginning of the book. Look at your log line, those 25 words you crafted to describe what your book is. Now that you have a first draft, and you know the book’s beginning, middle, and end, what did your book turn out to be? Are you writing that log line book? Might you have to change your log line? Try doing that.
Then: Everything that isn’t that log line book–can go.
And remember this: it is not terrible to “kill your darlings.” If they are clogging your pacing and gumming up your story, they’re not really darlings. They’re disasters. Cut them all. And be happy.
Of course you have your own methods for getting into your manuscript. But I hope these methods allow you entry into your manuscript, and even a way to fool yourself into tackling a job that can be incredibly satisfying. What secrets do you have to enter the world of revision?Let’s talk about them on the Career Authors Facebook page.
PS. I cut my manuscript to 98,000 words. And it’s so very very much better. I mean–it’s better.