Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Writing Strategy, Part 2: Trim Like You Mean It

If you've been following the saga of my current work in progress, you know the first draft strategy involved hauling ass to write 400 pages.  410, to be exact.  I finished in a somewhat burnt-out stage, but theoretically impressed at the fact that I'd done it all in about 9 weeks.

The second step is a rigorous chopping of those 410 pages.  I'm almost through with the first editing pass, with one more to do after this.  The stats are a little surprising: I can't believe I've already cut this many words!  I'm still 45 pages from the end, and I know the end sucks, which is why I've been avoiding it.  But up to this point, here's the blow-by-blow for the first draft and this revision:

First Draft
Final word count: 117,531
Final page count: 410

Second Draft (almost done):
Word count: 93,550
Page count: 345

Total words chopped: 23,981
Total pages chopped: 65

Now, you might wonder why I'm bothering to chop so damn many pages.  The answer is threefold:

(1) Anytime you can chop, you should.  The best fiction is *always* told in the fewest number of words and sentences.  You want your story to skip along at a tight pace, without extra words cluttering things up.  If your attention wanders at all while re-reading, something's not right.  In my experience, it usually means the characters aren't getting to the point.  Or there isn't enough tension.  Cut the parts that make your attention wander, or figure out why it's wandering.  Is it just too long?  Does it fail to advance the plot or offer a new perspective on your character?

If cutting is painful for you (as it is sometimes for me), here's a tip:  I keep all the lines that got axed in a text file, always open as I'm revising.  That way, everything I cut is still there...I could add it back if I discover that it really did add something I don't want to let go of.

(2) Don't forget that revision includes addition as well as subtraction.  There are two or three scenes I think I need to add to this book.  I'm picking apart the main character's motivation, and I don't think she's been pushed hard enough to defend it.  There are at least two scenes I need to add, where both her friends and her family question the path she's taking.  I think readers are going to have the same questions, so I need her to defend against their disbelief.  The problem is that, with a ms that's already well over 117,000 words, you have no room whatsoever to add.

Ruthless chopping gives you the breathing room you need to step back and figure out what's missing.  Then, you have all the space in the world to add material where you  need it, without the pressure of thinking, "Shit, I can't make this scene more than 3,000 words."  Don't limit yourself--free yourself by cutting what doesn't belong before you go back and add what does belong.  This works especially well after your first editing pass because as you read the book a second time, you'll have a better feel for where your story needs to be shored up.

(3) It forces you to dig deep into your story.  What's really necessary?  This is where you think about plot and character on a deeper level than pure language and the cutting of unnecessary words, like in step 1.  Think about scenes and chapters in the big picture of your theme and what you're really trying to say.  Does that scene add to your theme?  Does it set up the next plot complication?  Does it tell us something we didn't already know?

If a scene's sole purpose is to show that one character is a pain in the ass for your hero, ask yourself--is that something we already knew?  Can you combine the important words or events from the second instance of that pain-in-the-ass character to the first, so we get one powerful confrontation or instance where we're told that this character will be a thorn in the hero's side?  If we've already established this, we don't need to beat a dead horse.  The next time we see this thorn, he or she should be actively plotting the hero's demise, not merely annoying him or her once more.

There are eight million reasons to revise.  I'm just covering a few of them here to get you started.  I've said it before, but I'll say it again....revision is the most important thing you can do for your writing.  It's where your craftsmanship shines through.  Your plot might be inspired, but unless your writing and editing support that vision, it's not going to win over agents, editors, or your future readers.

My husband shakes his head when I mention spending hours on a single paragraph, but that's the kind of attention you have to give to crucial scenes.  Read them over and over and over.  Inspect every word and make sure it's earned its place on the page.  Any time you stop reading, whether because of a strange reply from a character or a phrase you have to read twice to understand, stay stopped.  Go back over it and tweak it eight ways from Sunday until it's so smooth you can read over it without a snag.  This might mean you devote an hour to one conversation, or have three versions that you have to decide between.

This is how it should be.  I am firmly convinced that this is the only way you can make sure you stand out from the crowd.  If you can give that much love and attention to your work, editors and agents will notice.  And so will readers.