Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Story Diet

By Jonene Ficklin

I've never had this problem before and I'm a little blown away.

My current WIP has two story lines that come together at the end. I asked three writing friends to read it and give honest feedback, sparing no feelings.

What an awesome experience! (Thanks a million, gals!) I learned which parts don't work. They let me know the parts they wished were different, or needed serious changes. It was interesting, because all of them liked one of the story lines, but felt the other needed work.

So, off to work I went.
I cut.
I changed.
I added.
I rewrote the entire ending. Again.
And when I was done, my novel was 108,000 words.

Yikes! It used to be 97,000. (It's a serious no-no to submit anything over 100,000 words, even in adult fiction.)

I'm not a horror fan, but I have read Stephen King's book, ON WRITING. He recommends cutting at least 10 percent after your first draft. That's just about where I am now, except this manuscript is several drafts down the line. It's been cleaned, chopped, and tightened many times before.

Still, that's not good enough.

So I'm putting my story on a serious diet. I'm cutting out all unnecessary words. I'm hacking out every single part that doesn't speed the plot along. I'm being ruthless, and boy, am I learning a lot. Rebecca is right on with her weeding analogy!

You know, a story diet is just as hard as the real thing. Each evening, my brain feels like butter in a hot frying pan. But . . . right now, I'm down 3,000 words and I'm not even a quarter of the way in.

Writer's high!

Is that how you feel when you put your story on a diet? Any advice?


  1. What a marvelous post, Jonene!

    I've heard so many good things about cutting. Like sticking to your grocery budget week after week can save hundreds of dollars by the end of the year, making each sentence lean and tight will save you thousands of words at the end of the manuscript.

    Readers appreciate fewer words, too. It keeps the pacing snappy.

    One principle I really like comes from screenwriting. It's called "In late and out early." That means to start a scene as close to the action as possible, and then cut out as soon as you can. Leave out all the chatting, all the strolling, all the brushing of teeth and, well, I'll leave out the rest.

  2. Thanks, Rebecca, that's great advice! Now if I can just get it down by draft two . . .

  3. Awesome! I recently did some whacking myself, pure and simple word cuttage, and it made the story SO much better. You can do it!

  4. Leisha and Susan, thanks so much for the encouragement. I'm putting along, anticipating what it's going to feel like when I cross the 100,000 word threshhold.

  5. Good luck with the diet. It's tough now, but I'm sure you will be pleased with a tighter finished draft.

  6. Maggie, thanks. I'm really looking forward to finishing and seeing how it flows.

  7. I wrote a short story for a contest once that was supposed to be no more than 1,500 words. My first draft ended up 2,357 words. I think I had to revise it 8 times. But then it got first place in the contest. So, cutting hurts, but it also wins.

  8. Amber, congratulations! I'd love to read your story. Wow, 8 revisions. Now that's commitment, and it really paid off. I'm trying to follow your example. I've cut just over 5,000 words in the last few days. Only 2,988 more to go. : )

  9. It's not a serious no-no to go over 100,000 anymore. It'll weigh against you if you don't have a fantastic pitch letter, but a lot of bestsellers have been that long or longer. It's rare in young adult and just about unheard of in middle grade, but don't kill a good book to cut it down to size - weeding is one thing, but don't lobotomize it.

    On a totally different note, hope things weren't too exciting in Hawaii today. We're just reading the news in London right now.

  10. Emily, it's good to hear things are changing! Last fall, an agent spent quite a while talking about the excess cost of printing and stocking books over 100,000 words, and how the publisher basically eats the loss. She wouldn't even look at a manuscript if it was too large. Although it's a bit torturous, I'm glad I went back to pare things down. I've found, to my surprise, how many words weren't necessary. I'm with you, though, I don't want to kill the story.

  11. Yes, over a certain page count, the publishing cost does jump, and yes, in order to sell something that big, it better be really sellable. But... just to land an agent, you need to write stuff that's really sellable. Most of the time an over 100,000 word ms is bloated, though for some writers that is their natural length and it hasn't hurt their sales. (If it was one of my novels, it'd definitely be due to bloating. I have to trim out a *lot* of fat.)

  12. Emily, you're a sweety. I wish I could claim my ms was brilliant, but no, it was bloated. On the flip side, J.K. Rowling is brilliant. She could add another 100,000 words to each book and we'd all be thrilled. I'm glad someone took the risk.

  13. Yeah, I was in a writer's group with George RR Martin, who thinks that a quarter of a million words for a fantasy novel is perfectly appropriate. Hasn't hurt his sales, but I won't be trying his approach myself.

  14. Emily, wow, that must have been some writer's group, you lucky gal! How was that?

    And the people getting away with that many words are few, but very deserving. I'm grateful they do!

  15. It was good. I still keep their calendar. I was with them for ten years (they're Critical Mass, one of the highest caliber writer's groups I've ever encountered). They let me join because I'd graduated from the Clarion West Writer's Workshop - I *highly* recommend the Clarions or Odyssey. Not only do they provide first class training, it's where you make first class connections.

  16. Shoot me if you will, but I think the HP books would have been better if they'd been shorter. If they'd been shorter, I might actually re-read them sometime.

  17. Emily, the Clarions and Odyssey sound wonderful! It never hurts to have connections.

    Rebecca, ha ha! I think I like them because they're so long. I listen to them (books on tape) when I'm doing commissioned artwork and it makes the hours fly by.


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