From Fiction University: I'm currently taking a blogging/writing break during the month of September to deal with family health issues. There will be no new posts until October. But please feel free to read through the archives for posts you might have missed. Thank you for your patience during this difficult time.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Knowing What to Cut in Your Manuscript

By Marcia Wells, @WellsMarcia

Part of the How They Do It Series

Dealing with a too-large or unwieldy manuscript can be frustrating at times, or even disheartening if you're not sure how to cut it down to manageable size. Please help me welcome Marcia Wells, who's here today to share some tips on trimming down your manuscript.

Marcia is the author of EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER, a new MG mystery series from Houghton Mifflin. The first book in the series, MYSTERY ON MUSEUM MILE, is coming out April 1, 2014.

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Take it away Marcia...

Are you frustrated by vague comments about your manuscript? Things like “The plot isn’t tight enough,” or “I just don’t see an overlying arc to the story line” or “It feels like too much is happening here.” How do you revise when no one can quite pinpoint the problem?

I’ve been struggling with this issue for the past year, writing and rewriting a manuscript that I just can’t seem to nail down. And throughout each draft, I keep coming back to the same issue: knowing what to cut. When you cut the story down to its essentials, you clearly see what needs to be rearranged or added. Free your mind of unnecessary scenes, and new, more exciting scenes will take shape. But hacking away at your story can be a daunting process, one filled with self-doubt and insecurities. How to begin?

1. Figure out your main character’s central conflict

This seems obvious, and yet many of us are guilty of neglecting this important issue. I’ve read many manuscripts (and books) that have a great story idea filled with adventure, but there’s no underlying force that drives the main character from beginning to end. Without the central conflict, the plot can feel flat and / or scattered. What drives your character? Once you’ve established that, consider each scene in your book. Does the scene support the central conflict in some way, either directly or indirectly? If not, it may be a scene to consider cutting.

2. Do a play-by-play

This is the #1 most important thing I do in my revision process. I call it the “Kristin Nelson Ninja Plan” named after my agent. (Check out her amazing webinars about writing) A play-by-play is a list of what happens on EACH page, for EACH chapter. It’s written in simple terms, things like “John and Nancy talk about the divorce” or “John gets into a fistfight with Carl.” Once you have a list in front of you, you’ll be amazed at how the unnecessary scenes jump out at you. John and Nancy discuss the divorce in Chapter 1, but then in Chapter 3 Nancy discusses the divorce with her friend Mary. Ask yourself, is there a better way to introduce Mary than rehashing the same conversation? Something more exciting that keeps the plot moving?

I do the play-by-play for every draft I write. It is a time consuming process, but the results lead to a tighter, more tension-filled story.

3. Examine all travel scenes and dialogue scenes

After you have your awesome play-by-play list in front of you, take a look at all travel and dialogue scenes. By travel scenes, I mean your character getting from point A to point B, whether it’s walking through a hallway, taking a spaceship, or riding a horse. Do we need to be there for the journey? Or can the journey simply be mentioned in one sentence? (or not all) The same goes with dialogue. Do your characters rehash events that have just taken place? For example, there’s a car crash in chapter 10. Do the characters then discuss the crash in chapter 11? Sometimes that’s needed, but in many books I’ve read, I’m thinking, “I already know about the car crash. I was THERE.” Cut the fluff, push yourself to dive deeper into the characters and action for new scenes and tensions.

4. Be a great listener

If you’re like me and someone suggests you make a huge change to your manuscript, your first instinct may be to scream, “Are you kidding me? No way!” But being a good listener is key in the revision process. Many times our trusted readers see problems that we don’t. Don’t try and defend your manuscript to your reader; keep quiet and listen to what he or she is saying. Then let it marinate in your mind, play around with possibilities in your imagination. Take long walks and meditate. The new ideas may lead to changes that neither you nor your reader had considered, changes that make for a much better story. You need time to do this right. Which leads me to the final point:

5. Give it time!!

It takes time to do all of the above. Most writers are so anxious to get their work seen by an agent or editor, that it’s hard to remain patient (this is my #1 problem). But publishing moves at a glacial pace, so you’re not missing out if you wait a month or two or even six. And isn’t it better to take your time so that an agent or editor says “I MUST have this book!” instead of saying, “This isn’t for me.” Put it away in a drawer for a month, then come back to it with fresh eyes. If you do, you won’t be as attached to the scenes / characters / plotline. Distance is your best friend in the revision process.

When people talk about knowing what to cut, many joke that you have to “kill your babies.” A vivid metaphor, but a negative one for some writers. A wise friend of mine put it in different terms: Think of your words as colors. You’ve painted a beautiful picture with them, and now you need to frame it. The canvas must be cut and stretched and cut some more to fit into the proper frame. Do that, and your final product will be a masterpiece.

About Eddie Red:

Art, mystery, fun and friendship, combine in this illustrated middle grade series debut. Sixth grader Edmund Xavier Lonnrot, codename "Eddie Red," has a photographic memory and talent for drawing anything he sees. When the NYPD is stumped by a mastermind art thief, Eddie becomes their secret weapon to solve the case, drawing Eddie deeper into New York's famous Museum Mile and closer to a dangerous criminal group known as The Picasso Gang.

With page-turning adventure and fun characters, this first installment in the Eddie Red series is a must-read for any fan of puzzles and mystery. A Spring 2014 Indies Introduce New Voices selection.


  1. Congrats on the release of the book. It sounds like a fun and fantastic idea!

  2. Thank you Marcia for #3! Oh golly I about scream at people in my head when they do that... la la la forest airplane hanger long road empty meander... I only show travel to get the reader into WHO the person is or exactly what is on the characters mind... Nice going:)

  3. Heavens to Betsy. Thank you. I put my first novel to bed (and in the hands of beta readers) in mid-January. I'm finishing draft one of a second novel in the coming days and then I shall tackle rewrites/revisions of #1. My mind is already reaching out, anticipating with mounting anxiety the rewriting that must be done. Your tips are like a tank of O2 to my hyperventilating soul. This is a most awesome post-Thank you, and thanks to Janice Hardy for inviting you in!!

    1. Wow- thanks so much for your kind words! And don't be anxious about rewriting- it can be an adventure in itself, looking at new scenes and new possibilities! I'm glad this could help- it's taken me years of doing it the wrong way- and I'm still trying to figure it all out- lol Thanks!

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  5. as usual, another great post for writers and student writers!

  6. Hi Marcia
    Great post, thanks.
    Idea two is great! As you say, lots of work, but what a great way to really understand what's necessary and what's not. I'm mid-edit at the moment, so I'll be doing that as soon as the first pass is finished.

    1. Good luck with your edits- When I first did the play-by-play, I couldn't believe how clearly things popped out at me. Let me know how it goes:)

  7. Oh yes, it can be difficult trimming the fluff. Some things we just don't want to cut because we've gotten attached to them but you offer some great tips for making the MS leaner and streamlined for reader enjoyment.

  8. The patience is the hardest part for me. All sense of accomplishment from finishing the first draft is out the window once I see all the problems I need to fix. I'm going to try the play by play, it sounds like a helpful tool.

    1. I hear you on patience. Try the play-by-play; It's amazing how it works. Good luck and let me know how it all turns out:)

  9. Guess what? I used the ninja thing on my ending and BAM! Realized I can cut some flab out of there and condense. Thanks so much for a great post!

    1. Hooray! So glad to help- the ninja thing is amazing, right? Like a magic wand...:)

  10. Agh, too many things to do to polish!! Oh wait, hey, checklist.

    Thank you; I'll be using these tips :)

    1. Glad the tips are helpful- have fun with the journey:)