Thursday, August 10, 2017

Forget the Scissors, I Need a Machete!

Will these do?
For this week's writer roundtable, we're going to talk about cutting words -- and not just a word here and there but a significant amount of them. 

Here's the scenario... You finish your latest novel or novella, but you're WAY over the word count. 


How do you get it back to the side your editor wants? 

What are your techniques for serious trimming on your work?

Lee Houston Jr.: Actually, there have been a lot of times where my writing buddy and friendly neighborhood beta-proofreader Nancy Hansen says I write too tersely and always fall short of the minimum word count, so I go back and keep re-reading and adding more until I've reached the goal.

In the end, if I'm over, I just reverse the process. I keep rereading and subtracting. Making choices in that category is tougher because you cannot be so in love with your own prose that you are unwilling to cut anything, even if in hindsight the passage in question actually doesn't add anything to the overall story.

But whichever way you're headed, you have to be careful not to subtract too much or your story might not make sense and adding too much could have your readers think you "pad" your stories.

It's a tricky tightrope to traverse, but every writer finds themselves walking it at one point or another during any project. The real trick is to get to the other side successfully.

PJ Lozito: I am a big believer in cutting out (but save it to a file!). That's one reason I don't think giving a daily word count means much. As for getting up to size, I have notes I can and do use. Nothing makes me prouder than finally being able to use some interesting tidbit I was saving.

I heard you were looking for a word-cutter.
Nancy Hansen: Anybody who's had to edit or publish me knows, I write too big at times. I have to cut all the time, and it's hardest with your own work. I can show you where to cut, but I can't seem to see it in my own stuff—at least not initially. So first off, if I have time, I set the piece aside and go on to something else. It's kind of like cleansing your palate with something in between courses. When I go back, I have fresh eyes. If that doesn't work, I'll hand it over to someone else, a trusted beta reader or even the editor who is waiting for it, and explain that I've tried to cut back but I am too close to the material to see where, and could you please take a look. Nine times out of ten with a short piece people are happy to help, and they give you an idea where and what should go. On longer pieces like novels, the usual advice is to look for a spot where something momentous is about to occur and taper it off there. Most times I can figure it out myself, but now and then you need a different pair of eyes.

Frank Fradella: Step One: Check your ego.

Step Two: Ask yourself if you have started this story as late as possible. Do I need this first chapter? The first three? Am I creating too much preamble? Do I REALLY need this characters origin or can it be revealed as necessary through dialogue or flashback later on?

Step Three: Ask yourself what purpose each character serves in the story. Do you have two characters who play the same or similar role? Can you eliminate one of them?

Step Four: Identify the purpose of each and every scene. Chances are you have one or two that you're chalking up to "character development" that can be axed outright.

Step Five: Push back. If every single character or every single scene has an unshakable purpose, present your case to your editor and ask them to suggest edits, and then be prepared to show why those scenes or characters need to be there. But remember Step One. Very often, they're right and you can make the cut. So cut.

Robert Krog: I start by searching for and deleting adverbs, interjections, needless intensifiers, words like just, so, and well. That always reduces the word count by a bit. Then, I go through and find wordy phrases that can be supplanted by fewer or even one word. Why be lazy and write "very happy" when "elated" means the same thing and so much more? When this too has failed to reduce the word count into the acceptable range, I begin looking for passages that don't advance the plot or build character. This is the painful part because I thought they all advanced the plot and added to characters when I was writing. I have, occasionally reduced the role of or even cut extraneous characters from stories. This usually does the trick. If the protagonist is still able to do all that needed doing without the sidekick, and the sidekick didn't add much or anything meaningful to the story, then out the sidekick goes. This greatly reduces the verbiage. Sometimes, I have already written lean enough that such cannot be done, in which case I've had to ask the editor for leniency on the word count. This has been known to work, but not often. Sometimes the editor will shoot back with suggested cuts, and I will have to admit that the editor is correct. Another trick is, of course, to look for inadvertent info dumps and eliminate them. Working the required information into the story in a show rather than tell format is usually less wordy, and the reader didn't buy a work of fiction expecting textbook style writing, anyway. Information dumps often insult the intelligence of the reader. Respecting the reader's ability to pick up what is needed from context is a good policy and should be used whenever possible.

The Internet called and said you wanted an editor.
Ellie Raine: Usually, I first look at each chapter and determine if I can afford to cut those out, or cut them in half. Sometimes, the hardest things to catch are the not-so-integral scenes before and after the good, important, meaty bits that actually matter, and firing those. It's usually mundane things like the character asking the desk clerk to check in, when that can be wrapped up in a paragraph to get to the scene where his hotel suite is broken into. Basically, I just look at what I think should be the focus of the audience's attention and cut the fat out.

Bobby Nash: The first things I look for are any side trips or character moments that, while can be great, don't necessarily advance the plot. After that, it's looking for extraneous words, adverbs, and tags that can be cut.

Lance Stahlberg: I am literally going thru that scenario now. Was also thinking it was blog worthy of listing off what I did. (Posted here:

Matt Hiebert: The words "Kill Your Darlings" always haunt me. But I don't kill them. I cut and paste them into another document. Although I never go back and read them, I know they're there and not gone. Not dead.

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