Friday, May 20, 2011

Put Your Words On a Diet

Last Tuesday I finished the third draft of my latest masterpiece, tallied up the word count, and nearly fell off my chair when it weighed in at a whopping 92,000.

Ow! I gotta cut back on the cream puffs.

There's a range of opinion on appropriate word count for a manuscript, but for middle grade and a first-time author, 92,000 is too high. I can just see the literary agent reading the first line of my query, groaning, and clicking the delete button.

I'd like to get rid of 10,000 words. 15,000 would make me really happy. But that's 40 - 60 pages! Four to six chapters!

What am I going to do?

First of all, I can cut extra phrases from my sentences. I love to tack on extra phrases like this: "He ran down the street and hid under a hedge that was next to a fire hydrant." Who needs to know that the hedge was next to a fire hydrant? CHOP!

I can also prune my dialog. If I let them, my characters would sit around, chatting all day, and never get to the story. Much of it is charming, but I'm on a word diet. CHOP! CHOP!

Another temptation I have is to show my characters going through their daily routines. If nothing important happens until after lunch, then why do I need to show them brushing their teeth, making their bed, eating breakfast, walking to school... CHOP!

Then in each scene itself, I tend to do some throat-clearing before I get to the point. And after the action, my characters want to sit around and discuss what just happened. There's a screenwriting principle called "in late and out early." If I start each scene as close to the action as possible, then cut out as quick as I can, that's more words to CHOP!

If all this doesn't work, I may have to resort to plot surgery. Yes, as much as I'd hate to admit it, there may be a subplot that needs to go.

I'm waiting for my test readers to give me their opinions while I sharpen up my axe. I'll let you know how the chopping goes.

Where do you find words to chop?


  1. I had to put my first Act through some serious word-choppage - all your ideas are good ones, and will trim it up quite a bit. I'll be on the lookout... :)

  2. I always have to chop my transitions. All that unimportant stuff that happens between scenes. Chop indeed. :) Oh, and descriptions. Chop chop.

  3. I've heard it said that the bestselling books of all time tend to be longer than average, but that's no excuse for flab.

    It will be like moving to Hawaii. I had to get rid of anything that didn't fit in the shipping container. Now that I'm here, I don't miss what I don't got (except my hat collection. I miss that sometimes).

  4. Great post. It is hard to cut those precious words sometimes but it is necessary. Happy chopping!

  5. You'll find your chopping rhythm in no time, and it will actually become fun. When I hacked away at my last manuscript, at first it was excruciating, but after fatigue set in, I got ruthless, and then I got my second wind. Don't worry. Before you know it, you'll have a tight, shiny, VERY trim story. Happy axing!

  6. Good chopping ideas. :) Sometimes it's amazing how much you can trim down.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    I thought of you when I wrote this post, Jonene. How many words were you able to axe?

  8. Anything that ends in "ly" deserves deletion, with *very* few exceptions. The same is true for adverbial phrases - take them out. Don't cut description, condense it with similes and metaphors. Your description is your ability to sink the hooks into the reader. Use it to the fullest. Condense long verb phrases. Kill all passive voice. Cut dialogue tags where you can - if the reader can't tell who's speaking from the scene set up and the kind of thing said, then you've got deeper problems that dialogue tags only patch over. Ellipse out dull spots - you can actually do a ton of cuts and jumps even within a scene. Watch a movie sometime and see how often that happens. I.e. someone is told they've got a phone call - cut to them at the end of the phone conversation - cut to reaction of them telling the conversation to another character, etc. 10-15,000 is quite do able.

  9. Thanks, Emily! That's some exceptional advice. I was tearing my hair at first, but I'm beginning to feel that I can do this, and the MS will be better for it.

    And Sue, your Act 1 totally rocks now. I can't wait to get back to work.

  10. I tend to repeat myself in different words. It gets easier to spot it if I read it through with only that in mind. I get rid of TONS of words that way :)

  11. Rebecca, 12,000 words are now floating in word-heaven after my chopping spree on my last manuscript. It felt so good - after I was done, of course - but it wasn't a picnic when I first started.

  12. Jemi, I do that too! My critique groups keep pointing it out, and I'm learning to see it myself.

    Jonene, that's great! I hope to get some similar results. This draft I'm going to read through and mark things as "essential," "important," "interesting," and "chuff." I'll start by slashing the chuff and work my way up until the book feels just right.


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