ON EDITING: kill 'em, those darlings
A fellow writer on Twitter asked if anyone had tips for cutting a manuscript down. And so I overenthusiastically wrote this blog post.
I spent a couple years sanding off 50,000 words from STARLIGHT. From 180 to 130. And so, on reflection, here's what I think most refined my manuscript.
1. Print it out. Pen & paper it.
That's it. That's the tip.
I definitely ink up those pages more with hard copies.
I just keep chipping away at the fluff until only my story is left.
The first and biggest way to cut is to eliminate scenes. I recommend going through each scene & defining it's purpose. If it does not further your story, your character's arc, your plot--it needs to go.
Put it in a file. Maybe you'll be able to use it, somehow, someway. But if it's not serving your current story: take a deep breath & say goodbye.
Example: A few areas of STARLIGHT just didn't sit right with me. I evaluated: would my character actually respond this way? The answer was no. And so: I had two spots needing huge rewrites. I ended up scrapping those chapters & writing fiveish new chapters for each area. Around 25,000 words, when I'm trying to CUT words.
But, in doing so, I created some of my absolute favorite scenes. One of my core characters evolved from one of those changes. (One of those created characters now has his own novella in the works.)
So: follow you gut. Keep going. And stay true to your character & their journey.
2. subplots & characters
Same as above. Cut subplots & characters that aren't working. Some just don't work.
Your story will evolve & change. Let it.
Q: Any characters serving the same purpose? Can you combine them? Is anyone related in a way you didn't realize? It wasn't until like draft three when I realized: "Oh my, what the -- so & so are SIBLINGS and their father is THIS GUY." After that there was a whole new level of cohesion to the story.
2. unnecessary words
I compiled lists of wordy, useless words to eliminate. I complied them from a variety of books, such as Rayne Hall's THE WORD-LOSS DIET.
began to (begins, beginning, begun to), ex: began to run -- run
shrugged shoulders -- shrugged
tiny baby -- baby
clapped hands -- clapped
unnecessary dialogue tags (if it's clear who's speaking)
NOTE: Keep watery or useless words to help distinguish & characterize your dialogue. For example, one of my characters used qualifiers because she was timid & insecure. So add filler words to dialogue, if you are doing it purposefully.
I love me some description. It's essential for world building, especially with historical fiction. But, do you need two pages of how they baked bread? No. You need a few sentences threaded throughout an entire scene.
I had a checklist when reviewing description. If my description did not serve a purpose, it was cut. This applied at the paragraph, sentence, & word level.
Here are times I "allowed" description. If it:
set mood, foreshadowing
showed emotion (of characters)
continued a motif or metaphor
was essential for world building/historical clarity
The last bullet point can get pretty subjective. I was ruthless with my decisions. I made myself question if each sentence (and word) was adding to the story, if the description was essential to world building--or if I just thought it was a unique image or pretty sentence. If I just "liked it," I cut it.
Essentially: Kill your darlings.
I re-trained myself to thinking of description as having a purpose. If it didn't do something, I cut it. I have the ambition that every word in my novel counts.
Make every word speak.
You've written beautiful sentences before. You will write them again. If this one isn't serving your story, it has to go.
I also tracked my POV character's worldview shifts, making sure their thoughts didn't wander about aimlessly.
I tend to circle & meander & track backwards. For more on how I made sure my character's worldview was progressing see ON EDITING: focused revisions.
I also think unnecessary dialogue tags & meandering dialogue can really clog up your manuscript. I prefer snappy, punchy dialogue. Check back for a post on refining your dialogue.
Overall, I think simply believing that every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word matters. You need to choose those words & make sure each word speaks.
I'm currently researching (19th century racism & folklore & everyday life), as my current wip sleeps a smidge. Then I'll be jumping into the editing fray with you.
Happy editing! Please let me know how it's going for you today.
Books to Read:
YOUR MANUSCRIPT! Over & over. Printed out in various fonts. Maybe even print out as an actual book & edit that? I used Lulu and loved having a printed book to mark up.
LITERATURE & POETRY. Anything you deem beautiful & inspiring. Study sentences you love. Think about how it makes you feel & ask why.