Saturday, May 8, 2010

Cutting Words

I've been working through Book 1 of my WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy, getting it ready to send to an agent I met in April at a writers' conference.

The manuscript is long (100,000+ words), so I'm seriously looking for stuff to cut. I'm applying the advice of Noah Lukeman (The First Five Pages), who said:

"When rewriting, pretend someone will give you $100 for every word you are able to cut."

At that price, I'm making money! Even though I've been through the manuscript "a time or two" before this (my writer-friends will laugh, since they know how long I've been working on my trilogy), I'm still finding stuff to cut. My inclination in writing is to both "show" and "tell"; in rewriting, I have to take out the little summaries that "tell."

I also tend to get too detailed with my descriptions. I see each scene so clearly in my imagination, I write down every element instead of just giving the reader the vital parts.

Another task I've set myself in this latest read-through is to streamline the characters' movements from point A to point B. In one chapter, I extruded a lot of words as my main character moved through the rooms of a large and imposing house. My critique group helped me cut about 500 words from that chapter. Instead of something like this: "She went downstairs. Hearing only silence, she walked down the hallway to the library. There, she ..." I ended up with: "Downstairs in the library, she ..."

It's good to cover the geography adequately, so that the reader can follow the character's movements. But there's no need for a step-by-step account.

My critique group has been immensely helpful with the whole paring-down process. When I read my pages aloud to them, I realize just how overwritten certain passages are. Details that don't overwhelm an 8-and-1/2-by-11 page do become overwhelming when I'm reading aloud to an audience.

Listeners have shorter attention spans than readers do, and a listener cannot retain a superfluity of detail. Reading to my critique partners is an excellent way to identify the parts that I need to distill down to the truly essential elements.

They're being wonderfully patient, my writer-friends, as I work my way through a 300-page manuscript. (We've reached page 57.) I probably won't get to read the whole thing to them, but between meetings I imagine that I still have them for an audience. I sit up in my second-story office, door closed, and read them a chapter at a time even when they're not with me.

Pretending to have an audience isn't as good as actually having one, of course. Even so, my make-believe listeners are helping me to identify unnecessary phrases and sentences. I can't get away with belaboring a point when I'm imagining myself reading to my fellow critiquers. They remind me constantly of the advice offered by John Gould, editor:

"When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."


  1. I understand what you're saying about using description in excess. That's something I've recently started considering, too. However, I still have some questions.
    It appears that the amount of desired description varies from reader to reader. For instance, I'm not a big fan of Stephen King because of the overwhelming number of details in his books. I lose interest very quickly; but, some peope really like his work. So, do you think there can be a happy medium between between brief and extensive detail? Or should we write with one audience, or the other, in mind? Obviously, the reader will notice the amount of description involved, but will wavering between the two be annoying for an editor?

  2. You bring up such good points, Laura, that you've inspired my next post. Please see "Omit Needless Words" (May 15, 2010).