Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to Reduce Your Novel By 50,000 Words in 50 Easy Steps


Okay, so it's not quite 50,000 yet, just about 48,000.  My neo-Victorian novel stood at 174,000 words at its longest.  Now it's just under 126,000 and falling.  The goal is to get it as close to 120,000 as possible, or even lower, without killing it.

So far, with just under 6,000 to go, the novel still lives.  So how did I do it?  It's easy!

1.  Read through your entire book, snipping extraneous "even"s, "that"s, "only"s and other filler words that don't alter the meaning of the sentence if removed.  That's good for 1,500 or so.

2.  Read through your entire book again.  This time, on top of snipping extraneous words, snip certain extraneous sentences as well.  Now you've cut almost 6,000 words from your novel.  Wow!

3.  Cut a short chapter that, though it provides character moments, disrupts the flow and doesn't really add anything to the story overall.  So out it goes, all 2,000 words of it.  Goodbye fun little chapter.  Maybe years from now, you'll be included in a "cut scenes" release.

4.  Read through your entire book again.  Cut more extraneous sentences.  Realize that the other sentences in the paragraph don't make as much sense without them.  Then realize that you don't really need that paragraph.  Adios!  Keep performing this exercise throughout the novel.

5.  Take stock of your situation.  Worry about whether your novel sentences will read choppier due to so much cutting.  Realize that even though you have trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, you have still cut just 15,000 or so.

6.  Put your novel aside.  Work on something else.

7.  Realize that novel isn't going to cut itself, and no agent will read a novel as fat as yours.  Drag yourself back to the novel and read through from the beginning once more.  Repeat Steps 1, 2, and 4.

8.  In addition to the above, start reordering sentences, in some cases combining them.  Cut unnecessary "she said"s or "he exclaimed"s from the work.  The words will melt away.

9.  Grow tired of reading the same passages time after time.  Question whether a certain plot point makes sense.

10. See Step 6.

11. Take stock of your situation.  The novel is now just above 140,000 words, only 20,000 to go!

12. Hire an editor to read through the book and do a through trimming, as opposed to a butchering.

13.  Give your book to others to read for feedback.

14.  See Step 6.

15.  Look at the other readers' feedback.

16.  Review the editor's suggestions.  She has delivered a version of the book that cuts it down to 125,000 words.  You accept 70 percent of them, rejecting edits that oddly, cut out a major plot reveal.

17.  Based on the readers' and editor's suggestion, cut another chapter.  As in Step 3, this chapter is not super-necessary to the novel and may even disrupt the flow.  However, unlike the other chapter, this one delivers a satisfying conclusion to a secondary character's story arc.  This chapter is harder to cut, but all 3,000 words of it must go.

18.  Add a couple of paragraphs to the next chapter to give a sense of what happened in the cut chapter.  It's not as good, but still better than nothing.

19.  Tinker with a plot point that's been bothering you.  It has nothing to do with cutting your novel down, but you've been staring at it so much, how can you not?

20.  Realize that the beginning starts too slow, and that you can cut 3,000 to 4,000 words by making events start faster.

21.  Cut out your second chapter.  (It is recommended that you save the first four chapters as a separate file before you do this.)  Reorganize events in your remaining opening chapters.

22.  Read what you wrote.  Hate it.

23.  Take notes on what needs to be more effective in the new beginning.

24.  Despair that you will ever complete your trimming project.

25.  Question what made you turn to writing in the first place.

26.  Rewrite the remaining opening chapters.

27.  Read what you wrote.  Hate it slightly less, but still think that it is far from adequate.

28.  See Step 23.

29.  Go through the remainder of the novel and repeat Steps 1, 2, and 4 because it's easier than rewriting something that wasn't bad to begin with.  Now you're down to 126,000 words.

30.  See Step 23.

31.  See Step 26.

...
...
...

50.  Yay, 120,000 words achieved!


Okay, obviously I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer.  That said, my experience has led me to observe a few things:

1.  While the novel is better in some respects for being trimmed down and sharper, I don't know if it's an objectively better book than when it was 174,000 words.  Some things have been cut that I wish could remain.  Maybe in some "master edition," they will.

2.  Cutting down on my novel word length is harder work than writing the novel itself.  In fact, I would say writing the first draft is the easiest part of novel writing.

It's easy to get impatient, but it's coming along.  That said, once the book hits around 120,000, I don't think it can go any lower.  Yeah, yeah, I've said that before.

I'll continue to give more progress reports as I push toward that arbitrary word threshold.  Stay tuned.

Somehow this feels necessary...

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