Friday, May 30, 2014

Slash and Burn: Cutting Words From Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm fortunate that cutting words from a draft has never been hard for me. It might hurt to cut favorite lines or scenes, but I know in the end it makes for a better book, and that's the ultimate goal--to write the best book I can.

I cut 20K words of my second novel (Blue Fire) right after the first round of critiques, because a subplot didn't work at all. That got rid of a character, so I had to get rid of everything in which this character was mentioned, or actions relating to what this character had wanted my protagonist to do. Then there were scenes that didn't work anymore, because the entire middle changed. That was probably another 10K words.

In my current WIP, I just eliminated an entire plotline. It had been a dual timeline, alternating between present and past, and after critiques it was clear that past timeline wasn't serving the story. So off it went. Another novel that had been giving me trouble is also getting a major re-haul, and I'm eliminating the POV of what was originally the protagonist of the novel.

I'm sharing all this to show that sometimes the best thing you can do for your novel is to rip it to shreds and get rid of the parts that aren't working. Even when everything is working, you can still trim out words when you have to.

Here are some things to do when faced with a big word cut:

1. Remind yourself it's not about the words, it's about the story

This is why deep cuts don't bother me. My story doesn't change much, even when I'm tearing the manuscript to pieces. My plot might change, but the story doesn't.

Look at the story at its core. It's not about that scene in the diner when Bob is attacked by six zombies, it's about Bob's quest to escape the apocalypse and save the woman he loves. The words themselves are just a means to tell that story. Which words you end up with don't matter that much in the grand scheme. The story is still there, even if the words change six times.

(Here's more on finding the right words)

2. Cut before you polish

I like to have a solid workable story before I do the heavy editing. Since everything is a first draft, changing it isn't as big a deal. I'm not cutting words I polished for days, I'm just working to get the plot right.

Don't start polishing until you get the plot and story the way you want it. There's no point in fixing the text of a scene you might decide to cut later. You'll also have a better understanding of what needs to be there and what can go, and if scenes get moved around, it's easier to make them fit the narrative flow.

(Here's more on knowing what to cut in your manuscript)

3. Give yourself distance before you cut

It's hard to be objective about our work while we're writing it, so I like to take some time off before a big editing session to gain perspective. I come back with fresh eyes and spot things that really don't need to be there.This is especially handy to see how the story flows, and if the characters are making logical choices based on what's happening, not what we as the author know we want them to do.

(Here's more on cutting a major part of your novel)

4. Give yourself distance after cuts

Once I cut down the novel, I let it sit before I do another editing pass. That way, the story will feel fresh and I won't have as many memories of what used to be there. Not only does this help with the emotional tie to the words, but it makes it easier to spot the lines that don't need to be there now that a scene is gone. So I get to trim out even more without really trying.

(Here's more on revision smudge and leftover details after an edit)

5. Keep your core conflict in mind

This is a great tool for figuring out what you need and don't need, especially if the cuts are deep. Look at each scene and see how it relates to your core conflict. If it doesn't advance the story in some way, chances are it can go. If there's a small bit that needs to be there, but most of it is extra, try taking that bit and see if there's another scene you can put it in. Thinking about your core conflict also reminds you that it's about the story, which helps keep the big picture in mind.

(Here's more on the core conflict)

6. Give the extra words a new home

I've had scenes or lines I love and wish I could have used, even when I knew I had to cut them. When this happens, I save them in another file and look for places where I might be able to salvage those favorites. Sometimes I can keep them, or parts of them, but most times I can't. But having them there is enough emotional satisfaction, that I don't feel bad about taking them out. This even works for scenes I'm not sure about. I take them out and re-read the chapter. If the story flows fine, I leave the scene out. If it doesn't, I just paste it back in.

(Here's more on pulling elements out of a scene)

And an extra...

7. If you know you tend to write long and will need to cut, try starting out with a target word count in mind

Not everyone likes to outline, but even a loose outline can help keep you on target for a specific word count. If you know you want an 90K-word draft, and you like to have chapters around 5K words each, then you know you'll have about 18 chapters. You can break down your plot arc so it plays out over those 18 chapters. If you discover you need more chapters, then you can adjust your per chapter word count and keep it where you want it to be. You'll know right away if you start to go over, and then you can cut back before the words become set.

Still uncertain about reaching that target word count? Here's a story to both inspire you, and prove that it can indeed be done. 

Have do you feel about cutting words? Is it easy to trim or like abandoning family? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I think that I've cut more words from my WIP than I have in my overall word count. I've never been bothered by it because each cut feels like a fresh start. There was a reason I was cutting the scene, and I usually feel that by cutting the scene I just made the book stronger.

    Thanks for sharing your take on it. I always love reading your blog!

  2. Yea, this is a tough one. I've been learning about this in the workshop I'm taking at Juliette's blog right now. I went through three different revisions before I submitted. The first one I completely threw out, so that was hard. The second one I ended up cutting about half of it and redoing that half (though the overall word count was lower the second time.) Now for the final revisions Juliette requested that I cut the scene almost completely (or at least compress it) and start at a different point in the story. I've learned so much taking that workshop it's been great. Not just about world building, which is the main theme of the workshop, but about the writing process in general.

    That's why I love reading both your blog and hers. They're great insights into the writing process. Juliette gets more into the world building aspects that I'm so interested in, and you get into the more detailed aspects of writing and the mindset behind it, which is something I really need to learn more about.

    Thanks again!

  3. Most welcome! Juliette has a great take on world building. We've had plenty of interesting discussions on the topic :)

  4. I'm getting used to cutting things. I've found that practice helps; I've also started cutting early into realizing something's going off-track, so I'm generally cutting a lot less.

    I like your #6, giving bits a new home. In one WiP, so far, the thrust of every single scene I cut has found a new home later in the manuscript, in some fashion, save one. That one started out near the beginning of the manuscript, but I realized that one of the main parties couldn't have been there, so I've been trying to nudge it back in. It looks like it's going to be in one of the last chapters.

    In my novel draft that's on its 3rd revision, things aren't going quite so smoothly, in part because it's the 2nd novel I've ever finished a complete draft of, so it needs a lot of work from the things I learned while writing it. I've had to do so much expansion on it (it started out 17k words, then became 73k), that the thought of cutting it makes me wince. But I'm starting to see the diamond beneath all that coal, so it's bearable.

  5. Just been doing #6 this week have cut two scenes completly and for good from WIP however they have found fresh life as two short stories for my next collection - love a good re-cycle me:)

  6. Grats Alberta! That's wonderful. It's so nice when you can find a new home for cut scenes.

  7. Pantsers should cut before they revise. That way they don't waste time on tangents that wandered into the story. I do a very fast pass and chop anything that no longer fits, and then do a second slower pass and grab anything I missed the first time.

  8. I agree with all your points here. Cutting isn't always easy but you're right...the story usually benefits!

    1. Sometimes you have to prune to let the flowers grow :)