Saturday, April 21, 2012

Novel Editing Part I : The First Cut is the Deepest

Smile for me Pretty
Ok, I am doing a little writer happy dance right now. No not that happy dance. I don't have an agent or a book deal or anything. But this week, my writer happy dance is all about this:

Chop-a-thon 2012 Update

Goal: Cut WIP by 10,000 words 

Goal Achieved.  
Under 90K people!!

This is huge for me. You know those writers that post those cute little word counters to track their progress toward their goal? Yeah, I'm not one of those writers. I'm one of those writers that's like Holy-Night-I-Just-Wrote-A-200K-Manuscript-And-Its-Not-Even-Finished! For me paring my writing down is the big accomplishment. Need proof? Just look at the length of this blog post.

How Long Should Your Manuscript Be? 
There are lots of lovely webpages that discuss how long your novel should be.
       || Janice Hardy || The Swivet || BookEnds || Wordcount Dracula ||

Basically, the target YA is right around 50K-80K. For YA Fantasy, it can go a tad higher, but under 90K is highly recommended, especially for a debut author. My manuscript was a little too long, so the editing began! Several rounds later, I've learned a few things, so I thought I'd share!

How to Cut 15,000 Words From Your WIP
In Three slightly painful "Easy" steps
Before this latest round of edits, my word count sat right at 99K. I really wanted to get it under 90K. Under 85K if at all possible. Wait a sec, I said, that's over 10,000 words I have to cut!

I Can't Do It! I Can't Cut That Many Words!

False. You can do this, and here's how.

Chainsaw? Check. Pruning Shears? Check. Scalpel? Check.

Disclaimer: I am no editing expert, but I do like heavy machinery and sharp pointy things, so get out your toolbox, and let the cutting begin! Also, there are a ton of folks out there with awesome novel editing tips. Some of the most comprehensive include: Janice Hardy(she has a great big-picture strategy here), Holly Lisle, Rachelle Gardener, NaNoWriMo and of course Absolute Write folks!

Let's Get Dangerous
The Chainsaw:
You don't really need that scene do you?

No, no you don't and here's why: it's (a) subplot, (b) backstory, (c) developing a minor character. Before getting into the nit-picky line-by-line edits, it's important to look at the big stuff first. Why waste time polishing up a sentence if you're going to cut the scene?

Side-plots: Be honest, are your characters running around on minor tasks just to keep things interesting while they wait for the real plot to happen?
See also: Over-plotting || Overactive or Inactive Subplots

Backstory: Authors need backstory. Readers don't. Or not as much as you'd think. Too much can make the story drag. Skim through your chapters with a highlighter. How much is backstory? How much of that backstory is 100% essential?
More info: Baby's Got Backstory || Create Suspense ||  B is for Backstory || What's the Story on Backstory? || Cutting Back on Backstory ||

Side Characters: Do you really need all those characters? Do you have a character that serves primarily as a plot device? Could you merge that character with one of your key characters?
More info: Cutting Characters you Love || Murder Your Characters || Combining Characters || Good Reasons for Combining Characters || Overactive or Inactive Side Characters || Sorry Your Services are No Longer Needed

Don't be afraid to get dangerous: Ctrl-X is your BFF. Cut and paste all those questionable scenes into a separate "Outtakes" document. Save it. Read the passages over independently, and highlight the moments that are critical to the central plot or your MC's development. Figure out a way to work those bits back into the manuscript. Ditch everything else.
More info: Ruthless Revision ||

However ...  
Yes you can cut too much from your story. Yes you may need to haul some of those things from your outtakes files back in. But the point is you want to make big cuts first. No use polishing what isn't going to be in the story in the first place!

Just because you're doing large scale, chainsaw type cuts, doesn't mean this is where most of the word count will drop. I ended up dropping 5K using this type of edit, but 15K from line-by-line polishing, which I will discuss in subsequent posts.

Stay tuned for posts on Part II and Part III of my novel editing, word count cutting saga ;)

If you need to cut down the word count, especially read Part II!


  1. I cut 30,000 words out of my manuscript. It was surprisingly easy. You're right about cutting useless scenes and side characters. A lot of it also came from cutting unnecessary words. Once you start, it's quite easy to clear out what's not needed.

  2. Agreed. I was so surprised how easy it was! I was thinking that I'd be sitting there, staring at the screen, thinking, 'well I have to keep this' ... 'well I can't make that sentence shorter' ... But that was totally not the case! The whole process was actually really fun.

  3. I have the opposite editing problem - adding more words and filling out scenes, haha. But, if I ever have to do some major trimming, I'm coming back to your blog ;) Great post!



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