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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Revision 4: Cutting Words

In these times, editors are having to push back on writers more and more to keep their stories lean. This is not necessarily a factor of the reading market, but rather a factor of the bookselling market. Readers may love their Big Fat Fantasies. But paper is expensive. And booksellers are jealous of their shelf space. And, of course, more words does not make one a better writer! You CAN make a grand, complex story with luscious prose in less than 900 pages. (Keep telling me that.) So what do you do when your editor says, "Pare it down by 10-15K?"

First remember that the story, characters, and setting are the most important. Get them out there in the most wonderful fashion you can. That being said, we all have fat in our prose. I know I write lots of extra words. I think it's a product of my "start from the beginning and go" plot development. I think I'm writing tighter these days, but at revision time, here are some techniques I use - very fresh in my mind from these past three weeks.



1. The Easy. Start with a goal of removing one line per page. That's pretty painless unless you are a truly "spare" writer. (In that case you probably don't run into the cutting words problem!)

2. Nibbling. Look at any paragraph with just a word or two dangling on the last line. Challenge yourself to move those danglers onto the previous line by shortening the paragraph. Somehow this tactic makes you read the paragraph more carefully and find lurking phrases you don't need.

You can do also do this with sentences at the end of the chapter. If your chapter runs onto a new page by three sentences, challenge yourself to push those sentences onto the previous page. You can always find a way. Don't ask me why this works even after you've reread the chapter and worked until you feel as if it is drumhead tight. There is always a little more slack.

3. Fat Patterns. Look, for example, at dialog where you've put a short response and then an explanatory response:

"No, I won't," said George. "I never take a girl to the prom."

Why not just answer:

"I never take a girl to the prom," said George.

You still get the negative and the explanation. Much more concise. Now consider the dialog tag. Is it needed?

4. Two to One. I am an inveterate "say it two different ways" person. Read carefully to see if you're saying the same thing twice.

This sequence: Time was short. I needed to get down to the harbor. Midnight approached.

Could be rewritten as:
Midnight approached. I needed to get down to the harbor.

(Note that these are much briefer sentences than I embroil myself in, but you get the idea.)

This also applies to multiple comparisons or multiple metaphors. Your prose is often stronger with just the one really good one. "He was strong as an ox, tough as nails, and he wore a crust on his skin like barnacles." Drop the tough as nails and you can recast the sentence without the second "he". [Of course strong as an ox is cliche,too, but this is an example, OK?]

5. Excess Baggage. Target long descriptive paragraphs. If you have five sentences of description when Portier first sees the estate of Montclaire, which one can you leave out? Target the least vivid, the most cliched, the one that doesn't reflect anything unusual. Put in the four best ones and the reader will fill in the rest. If you're in a smelly alley, you probably don't have to mention the refuse. If you've got a lurking cat in the refuse heap, you probably don't need to mention the rat. Things like that. Vow to reduce all descriptive paragraphs by one sentence. Often when you start pulling out the least vivid, you realize you can actually do with only three little goodies. Or can combine two so-so pieces into one.

6. Micro-management. Look for places you're boring the reader with extraneous movements. "He walked across the room." First off, "He crossed the room" is stronger and shorter. But why not skip the walking and use the preceding and following text to indicate the change of position? Is the walking itself so important?

Or, "She lifted her purse, rummaged through it, and pulled out her wallet." Unless the lifting is particularly meaningful (ie. she's a paraplegic or you are focusing on micro-movements for a literary purpose) lose the lifting. "She rummaged through her purse and produced her wallet." Micro-movements get tedious.

7. Macro Removal. Deleting whole threads or scenes hurts. But sometimes, something that seemed a good idea at the time you wrote it, doesn't pay off. Yes, you like the words, and it's interesting, but will the reader miss it if it's gone? I found a couple of those. Maybe worth 500 words each. And what was left was cleaner. The cool thing in these times is that you can save those deleted scenes for your website or blog. If you read your work aloud, you'll hear when the pacing bogs down because of a digression. Lose the digression.

8. Sinkholes. These are little places that chew up wordcount. Things like dialog tags. We often put in far more than we need. Empty dialog exchanges. ["Did you really?" "Uh-huh." "Really?" ] Repetition. Extra adjectives that can be obsoleted by using a better noun. Extra adverbs that can be made unnecessary by picking a better verb. If you use two adjectives to describe a newcomer onto the scene, try to eliminate one. Summarizing statements that do nothing but reiterate what your character just said, offering no new insight. "Those were the reasons I hated him." All of these things clutter your prose. The story will be stronger, cleaner, and clearer without.


Good luck and happy revising!

8 comments:

A. Grey said...

Great post! And so in sync with my life right now. As an aspiring writer, I'm going through the work of trying to make myself appealing to agents and publishing houses in a bad economy. It's like pushing a chain uphill, and a constant struggle because I've got to have utter faith in my own potential, while at the same time, giving my ms a cold hard, look.

I'm in the process of slashing and burning. It's like picking a scab. Nasty, and yet very satisfying in its own way. So far, I've gone from 161,874 (I know, high drama) to 136,122 words, and I'm still going. The truth, of course, is that I didn't NEED any of what I cut.

Except, I DID need it, in a way. Because within that garble of excess baggage is the story that I believe in. I thought I'd hate this part of writing, and I'm sure it'll kick my ass at some point. But for now, it's a treasure hunt, finding the right sentence in a paragraph, the right scene in a chapter etc.

Sarah said...

A very interesting post. Thanks so much!

I learned something about tightening when I was requested to cut a short story from 2300 to 1500words (I ended up at 1498, actually!). At the time, I thought that was simply not possible – but it was!

Well, truth be said, I do think that in that case the story was better (and more comprehensible) when longer, but still… there’s always something you can tight a little more ;-)

carolwriter said...

Yes, Sarah, I agree, that sometimes the longer form is better. I often end up putting words back in where I was too tough pulling them out. Especially if I read the passage aloud and find it choppy. Don't like choppy. The narrative must fit the voice of the point-of-view character.

Wow A. = 25K words - that is awesome. And yes, the ultimate test is: "will the reader miss this if it isn't here?" (Not, will I miss it?)

Anonymous said...

Lucky for me, I'm not at the point where I need to worry about word count with my work in progress just yet. But I do tend to edit as I write, and thus I find myself trying to trim the excess from each chapter as I finish them.

Carol, many of your methods appealed to me a great deal because I've used some of them myself.

I do a lot of "nibbling" myself, and always thought maybe I was just a neat freak. For some reason, seeing that lonely word on a single line at the end of a paragraph just always bothered me. So I constantly end up rewriting my work so as to get rid of it.

Hopefully I'm saving myself some hard work later, but if I ever caught the interest of an editor, I don't know how easily I'd be able to trim more words from the pages.

I'm sure I could find a way. There's always a way. Some of your other methods (which I don't currently use) look really effective, so I'll probably make a use of them.

Thanks for the great advice.

Reziac said...

A pet peeve of my own:

"would be able to" -- most of the time not only does "could" cover the ground, it's more accurate.

My natural fiction style is rather spare (I self-edit like the above as I go), leaving much to the imagination... so I occasionally get the opposite complaint, that people wish I would write more description and more sub-scenes! Well, isn't the real trick to leave 'em wanting more? :)

Something I learned from CJ Cherryh -- if you want action scenes to really work, they need to flow in realtime. Describing blow-by-blow lags the action.

Anonymous said...

Hehe. I especially like #2. People (like fellow aspiring writers) always call me nuts when I tell them that I use orphan control so that it forces me to look more closely at every page and cut just enough text to avoid orphans! (One page, for my personal use, equals 2.7 "standard" manuscript pages.) If possible, I also avoid paragraphs ending with 1-2 words on the last line. Same with chapter breaks. If the last page runs only, say, 1/4 page, I try to trim the chapter to the last full page.

"Isn't that too mechanical, too arbitrary?" I'm asked. "Isn't that the opposite of *creative* writing?" Huh. Well, in cases I absolutely can't find anything to cut, I leave the danglers and orphans in, but as you said: there usually is some slack, and the tightened version reads much better.


Thanks for sharing this great advice. "Word count" is a scary thing for me, as I'm one of those writers who write too much rather than too little, so I'm always looking for ways to trim trim trim.

Cheers,

Anja

carolwriter said...

Homing in on orphans and trailing words is not mechanical - unless you chop off those trailing words. What it does is refocus your eyes on that piece of text. We often read a paragraph first line/last line, while skimming the middle. It is worthwhile to ask: is there something in the middle that's extra? This is just a way to tease your brain into doing it.

carolwriter said...

Yes, there are a ton of phrases like "would be able to" that can be condensed. "I made my way to the store" vs "I went to the store." Of COURSE, sometimes you are looking for rhythm or excess formality in voice, but I think we all tend to lard our prose with such phrases, when we could think of better ways to use the verbiage.