Why is that? Because I am currently sitting on a WIP that is 56,689 words long. My first draft was a little more than 53,000 words. And this just doesn't seem long enough. Ideally, I'd like it to be 65,000, but at this point I'd be happy to crack 60,000. (I'm currently reading Feed, and I read somewhere that's just over 50,000. And it was a National Book Award Finalist. But I'm not M.T. Anderson, so I can't do whatever I want.)
What is it about me that makes me capable of writing a novel in 53,000 words, when other people have frist drafts that are well over 200,000? Simple. I'm a journalist. Journalists are trained in brevity. I spend hours - literally - each week at my full-time job cutting sections out of articles to make them fit the magazine layout. I got assignments in college where we were given a 2,000 words article and had to trim it to 500 words. Of course, the thing still had to make sense and be interesting. Most of the feature stories I write can be 2,000 words, tops. My freelance bar reviews aren't supposed to be more than 500. After years of practice at cutting news stories down to their essentials, I became a bare-bones writer, and have become an expert at doing the same thing in fiction.
With my WIP, that wasn't neccisarily a good thing. I'm adding words as I edit, not as filler, but because sections of the story were definitely lacking in descriptive detail. But I thought, for those of you who have the opposite problem that I do (and it seems there are many of you out there) I would tell you what I learned in copyediting class about what to cut from your story (with a little fiction fun thrown in).
- It's all about the Ws. And I'm not talking about our former president, here. I'm talking about Who, What, Where, When, Why and (sometimes) How. (That's a vowel joke; I don't mean to imply that the How isn't important. It's very important.) As you look at each scene or subplot, think about those Ws. Which sentences answer those questions? Which ones don't? Once every question is answered, pretty much everything else is extra. Look at all that extra stuff and decide what you really need.
- Keep detailed records. This one isn't specific to cutting stories, but it is key to journalism in general: keep a record of everything you do, whether it's an interview, a draft of a story, anything. This translates simply into fiction writing with an idea I picked up from Sarah McClung, but I know lots of writers do it - keep a deleted scenes file. Every time you delete a word or phrase or paragraph, no matter how big or small, put it into the deleted scenes document. You might find a place for it later, or, at the very least, you'll get a thrill from seeing the progress of all the words you've so far. (For the record, my deleted word count is up to 1,616, which really isn't much - but I'm on my first serious pass.)
- Necessity vs. Interesting Detail. In newspaper journalism especially, all of the necessary information rises to the top of the story like fat. Anything that's not totally integral to the news piece - quotes from the second or third witness, for example, goes at the bottom, if they make it at all. That's so the layout team can easily cut what's at the bottom of the articles and still have the story make sense. Of course, we all know it doesn't work that way in fiction. If the most important details of the Harry Potter series had been explained in the lead sentence, I doubt many people would have stuck around for 1 million + words. But the idea of necessary information vs. interesting detail is still definitely useful. If your manuscript is too long, with every sentence or paragraph you read, ask yourself: "Is this moving my story forward?" Even if it's only subtly, every single word in your novel must play a part in moving the greater story along.
- When in doubt, cut. Say there's a sentence you've been thinking about cutting for awhile. You're not sure if you want to part with it, but you think you don't need it. If you've thought about whether or not you need the sentence for more than 30 seconds, trust me: you don't. You want every word in your book to be needed, to be so absolutely essential to the story that it has to be there. If not, readers will pick up on that, and they'll get bored and put the book down.
(And don't forget to read Frankie's post on cutting your scene! She touches on some different points, so our posts work well together...I promise it's not reading the same thing twice. Or maybe I'm just trying to make up for the fact that I accidentally/subconsciously totally ripped off her blog post idea? Oh well, just read the thing.)