Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Break it Down: Trimming Words From a Too-Long Manuscript
Cutting down a large manuscript can be a challenge, and one most writers would like to avoid. Even if you write sparse, odds are you'll face this at some point in your career. I've done several posts on trimming words, but what do you do if you need to cut large amounts of text? Tens of thousands of words instead of a few thousand.
This happened to me recently. My first draft was done, and way too large. During revisions I changed the plot a lot and it got even bigger. My first act was clocking in at 34K words, which meant my novel was going to likely end up about 140K words--about 50K more than it should be. Since I was aiming for the 80-90K word mark, I knew I had to get that first act down to around 20-23K words. Even 25K would be acceptable, as I could trim the rest after I was done.
However with so much to cut, my usual plan of attack was only going to get me so far.
So I broke it down.
I use the three act structure, so my novel was already broken into four parts. Act one (the first 25%), the ramp up in act two to the mid-point, the ramp down in act two from the mid-point (25% up, 25% down), and act three (the last 25%). This is a very standard plot structure, so I knew by keeping my major plot turning points at these key percentages in the novel kept the pacing tight. I knew my first act was too slow and bloated because it was 10K longer than it should be.
I took my first act and copied it into its own file. That way, I had a running tally of the actual word count, which made it a lot easier to keep track of what I was cutting away. It also let me fiddle all I wanted without having to worry about deleting something permanently.
I wrote down the word count for each chapter so I could see where the bloated chapters were. I use the document map function in Word, so I put the word count next to each chapter heading for quick and easy reference. My opening chapter was over 4200 words, so I knew right away that had to come down.
I did a little math and determined what my average word count per chapter would be. In this case, it was diving 25K by 18 (number of chapters) and getting roughly 1400 words. (1388 to be exact). Now, just because I had this number didn't mean every chapter had to be 1400 words. But it gave me a target to aim for per chapter. Some chapters were shorter, and that left room for the ones that were longer. This average was just a way to set some target goals. I didn't try to get down (or up) to this every chapter.
It's also helpful to look at various chunks and gauge size that way. For example, break it into half. Since I'm aiming for 25K words, then half of that is 12.5K. Nine chapters could make up that 12.5K, even if some of the individual chapters are over the 1400 word average. (This is where adding up the word counts per chapter really come in handy. I can see how far over that 12.5K I am, and trimming 1K words from 12K isn't that hard)
I opened a second file and copied the chapter I was cutting into it. That gave me a word count to watch as I trimmed. It's a lot easier to hit your goal when you can see those words dripping off. I also found that by isolating the chapter, I was able to look at it more objectively. Reading it over and over as I trimmed words made the unnecessary ones jump out.
Once a chapter was cut as low as I could (or until it hit that 1400 mark), I copied it back into my act one file, and updated the chapter word count. Then I moved onto the next chapter.
It might sound crazy, but this is the easiest way I've ever found to trim large chunks of words. Seeing the smaller numbers makes it less intimidating. Watching your word count drop from 123,345 to 121,467 doesn't feel like you're making any progress. Seeing it drop from 2156 to 1887 does.
Once I'm down to the 25K per act (which makes the overall novel about 100K), I'll do another pass with my editing lists. Get rid of overused words, unnecessary dialog tags, check for passive verbs and all those lovely red flag words that are often found with trouble spots. At that size, to cut another 10K words I'll only need to trim about 25 words per page, which isn't too hard to do. And if I can't, then I'll feel confident that the novel has a solid pacing even if it is a tad longer than I planned.
How do you approach trimming a large word count? Are you facing any cuts now you aren't sure where to start? Have you ever broken your manuscript into parts?