Can I cut 30,000 words?

By Carol / June 13, 2012 /

The editing task in front of me is daunting. The average novel runs about 350 pages and 85,000 words. The first draft of my manuscript weighed in at a scale-busting 130,000 words. Even though there are authors who get away with tomes of that length – Wally Lamb and J.K. Rowling come to mind – I’m not them.

I’ve never done this before, but I know one does not cut 30,000 words by eliminating ‘and’ and ‘the.’  I need to be brutal. So, I’ve waded in each day, one finger poised over the delete key, asking myself a number of questions.

Is this back story necessary? As I wrote, I built the scenes fully. I needed to know, for instance, that my main character’s father was a second generation American whose grandparents came from Cambridgeshire, England. That he insisted all his children graduate from the 8th grade. That he was well read and active in civic organizations. All that went into my manuscript. Now, most of it is coming out. While the information contributes to who my characters are, readers probably don’t care. Plus, it slows the story down.

If back story is necessary, can I include it as part of dialogue or as action rather than exposition? I’ve found that a few well chosen details gleaned from the back story and slipped into a scene are far more interesting to read than paragraphs of prose.

Have I used two words when one will do? My tendency is to write long, to explain situations in detail. People tell me they like the richness of my writing. But I know that one good example or a single word can be more powerful. I’m looking for the one word.

Is this info someplace else in the manuscript? Since I wrote the original manuscript over two years, making up much of the story line and developing the characters as I went, I didn’t realize until I read the whole story start to finish that there were bits of information I included multiple times. Finding those duplications is like finding editing gold. I only need the info once and sometimes not at all.

Does a scene move the story along? As I developed the story, I wrote lots of scenes. All of them beautiful. To me. But now that I have a firm grasp of my characters and point of view, I realize some scenes aren’t all that helpful. I take them out. But I love them, so I put them in an outtakes file. Just in case.

On this go round, my goal is to cut at least 10% from every section. Preferably 15%. Today, I started on a section with 13,700 words and have already cut 1,254. I’m getting there.

Recently someone commented that editing is like weeding a garden. An apt metaphor since I garden as well as write. I know that when I step into my garden, I have to be careful what I pull out, but generally I can pull a lot. That’s where I am as I edit. Pulling out a LOT!

Are there special techniques you use when you edit? Let me know. I can use all the help I can get!

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  1. giacomo giammatteo on June 13, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Carol: I hate to see you, or anyone, look at it in terms of word count. All novels, IMO, should be looked at with one thing in mind—trim it to the finest point—but to hell with word count. My suggestion, if you haven’t done it already, is to get it into the hands of as many beta readers as possible. Do anything you must to ensure you get honest feedback. Threaten. Bribe. Whatever it takes. Tell them to mark all the spots where they slowed down in the book. ANY time they found themselves skimming, or looking ahead.

    once you get the results, you have to make the decisions of what to cut, but now you have a starting point and you can determine if those parts can be sacrificed. Or reworked to make them more interesting. I’ve read many books that cross the 100,000 word barrier that are far more interesting than others at 80,000.

    Think of it this way—if you capture a reader’s attention, they don’t want it to end.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 13, 2012 at 10:28 am

      Thanks, Giacomo. You’re absolutely right. My highest level goal is to write the best story I can. Far more important than the word count or many of my other goals.

      I have a great writing buddy who’s walked the path with me so far, and I’ll be engaging beta readers in a couple of months. I want to be respectful of them and get the greatest value from their effort, which I expect to be considerable. I hope my editing efforts at this point will prevent them from wasting their time pointing out areas that I should have seen.

      Since this is my first novel, I’m basing much of my thinking on what I’ve liked as a reader. And the word count is one way for me to be tough on myself to write the best, tightest work possible.

  2. Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle) on June 13, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I agree with Giacomo. If you were writing an action/thriller type of book, maybe you want to be lean and mean. But if your book is character driven, some type of family saga, and that’s what it sounds like to me, then the background information of what makes your characters the way they were is important. For example, insisting his children graduate from the 8th grade is an interesting characteristic because it shows what the standards for higher education were without you “telling” us that was the way it was. It also shows his LOVE for his children that he’d have them stay in school instead of working (which was also common those days). Even more so, if he had girls that he insisted stay in school.

    I would be glad to trade beta reads with you once you’re ready. My schedule is beta reading in July.

    I know there are sections I should cut. But guess what? There are readers who want those feel-good sections. The others can skim them. But if I cut too much, I get stale, cardboard characters who only do the “important” things. They don’t stop to play with their children, or enjoy a sunrise, or snuggle with their spouse. One of my crit partners insisted I add an Epilogue to my latest story, a romantic suspense. I figured the action reader would stop at the end of the last chapter where everything is resolved, but the romantic reader may want to bask in that last bit of happiness. Sort of like watching the sun set, or lingering at the end of a movie to watch all the credits and bloopers.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 13, 2012 at 10:33 am

      You make important points about the background, Rachelle. It says something critical that they’d have their daughters stay in school – and the boys, too, – since this is a farm family. I’m looking for ways to insert that into a line of dialogue in a way that uses a phrase instead of a paragraph. The impact is the same, I think.

      Thanks for the offer to trade beta reads. I accept! But mine won’t be ready for that until August. I think.

  3. Christina McKnight on June 13, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Carol – I had to cut 3,000 words and it about killed me! As a reader, I love longer books. This gives me time to immerse myself in the characters and the plot. When I finish reading a good/great book its akin to me losing a friend. It actually hurts! Great post!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Thanks, Christina. I read Stephen King’s book on writing. He commented that after he finishes a manuscript, he forces himself to cut 10%. It always makes it better. I thought that was great advice. Editing is hard work, but good readers appreciate the effort.

  4. Constance Wallace on June 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Carol, I’m with you on the editing, it is so daunting. A thought came to mind…perhaps your back story would make a great sequel. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 15, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Or a prequel! I’m not throwing anything away. My outtake files are huge.

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