Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Short End of the Stick (On Cutting Your Novel)

I always think it's funny when I see people desperately trying to cut their WIPs down to a more marketable length. I follow a lot of seriously wonderful writers, both published and soon-to-be-published (do you like how I did that? Just went ahead and assumed you would all be published one day? I'm good like that.) on Twitter and blogger. Lately, I've noticed a lot of them/you talking about how you need to cut another 10,000 words from your novel because it's just too long, or how you can't believe that your first draft ended up at 225,568 words, because you know you're going to need to cut more than half of them out. (In fact, Frankie wrote an excellent post on the topic of knowing when to cut your scene, which I admit I totally forgot about when I started writing this one at 1am. So I'm giving her lots of linky love, because she is awesome, and I'm not worthy, and you should read her post, too, because it's very good.) I see these tweets and blog entries, and I laugh, then I die a little inside.

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).  
  1. 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.
  2. 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.)  
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
Those are just a few tips to help cut those stories down, while I'm over here feeding mine some steroids and trying to get it to fatten up.If you have other tips for cutting your MS, feel free to share them in the comments!

(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.)


  1. LOL looks like cutting is the topic of the week

  2. Such a great post. I am a master at writing too many words. But because of that I've become very skilled at cutting and revising. Your tips will help me even better with my current WIP, I just know it. ;)

    Oh, and Jim from the office. Yay! You get an extra entry for him being your crush. I love Pam, but some days I'm jealous of her.

  3. Excellent post. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Excellent post! I am not far enough in the game to know where I'll end up, but I am sure I'll be surprised when I get there!

  5. This is great advice. All of it!

    Also, I'm like you. I end up with first drafts that fall way short of my end goal. I write adult genre fiction, and my first drafts run around 60-70k. Generally, I aim for 90-100k. My first pass at the story lacks that descriptive detail, so it's on my first re-write that I flesh it out with the detail necessary for the story to come alive.

  6. Frankie - I know! It's on a lot of people's minds, I guess :) And I actually TOTALLY forgot about your entry when I wrote this one, so now I'm going to link to it, because it was awesome and I feel like I stole your idea, which I promise I didn't. #HeatherFail #becausehastagsareawesome #EventhoughWe'reNotOnTwitter

    Karen - Oh, Jim...he is so charming and sexy. Pam's OK, but I would definitely push her over for a chance (well, maybe not right now because of her delicate condition, but you know what I mean)

    Liza - Thanks!

    Jen - Everyone is different. I pretty much knew I was going to fall short, but I think most people end up too long. Good luck!

    J. - That's exactly how my drafts/first re-writes go.

  7. Great post!

    The first draft of my last ms clocked in at 54k which was surprising because all my others were in the 70k range.
    I wouldn't worry too much about word counts though. I've learned that your ms will be as long as it needs to be and I've read plenty of shorter YA books. Lisa McMann's WAKE was in the 50k range and I just read THE SECRET YEAR which is a very short book too.

    Good luck with your editing!

  8. Awesome post! I've never thought about fiction writing from a journalist's point of view. Very informative and helpful.


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