Friday, August 24, 2007

The Great Word Chopping Challenge

Boy, what a month it's been. Craziness at work. Nuttiness at home. Ups and downs with the writing. Summer is almost over, which means Christmas is around the corner. And we all know what that means. Christmas Eve dinner with my extended family, wherein I will deflect questions about my lack of love life and my continuing status as an unagented, unpublished writer. But that little drama is still four months away, so no use worrying about it quite yet.

What have I been up to, you ask? And what the hell does my blog post title mean?

Frequently on AbsoluteWrite, a thread will pop up (very often from an overzealous newbie) asking about word counts. The common theme: "I've written a 200,000 word fantasy/thriller/mystery/whatever, but agents say they won't take anything over 120,000. I can't possible cut anything, because my baby is perfect the way she is. Since my book is so awesome, do you think the agent will make an exception?"


Once a month. Seriously.

It got me to thinking about editing and cutting and making a story stronger. I pondered two books that I wrote several years ago. They were originally one long novel, but it kept growing in scope, so I split it into two average length books. Together, their word count was approximately 170,000.

I love those books. I love the characters and the world and their unique powers. It's been part of my life since the year 2000. I had queried the first novel as a standalone, unsuccessfully, for nearly two years before my final rejection arrived this summer. I had planned to simply stick it in a drawer for a while and move onward with other projects. And I did. For about a month.

Then I started thinking about editing and word count trimming. Did it really need to be two books? Were all of those subplots necessary? Could I trim it down to a manageable 120k words without losing the overall story?

No. No. We'll see.

So I opened up Word and pasted both documents into it, and thus began the Great Word Chopping Challenge. I excised an entire subplot that, while fun and research-heavy during the first draft, wasn't absolutely needed for the story to work. I chopped out whole scenes. I cut two beloved flashbacks. I removed extraneous details, excessive dialogue tags, and about a hundred "nods, smiles, and grins." The words melted off, leaving a tighter, leaner story behind. I finished with a word count of 119,890.

Was it painful to cut away favorite scenes/moments? Hell, yes. Was I proud of myself once I hit the delete key? Definitely. Do I think this single novel is an improvement over the duology? Yes. Why? Dunno.

My point is that it can be done. Words can be trimmed. Often, getting rid of that extra fat will make the overall novel healthier and happier. Is this true in all instances? No. Some stories are just long. I'd love to see the original duology in print, but if the combined version is what sells, then I'll be satisfied. It's a story I want to share with others, whether it's the Theatrical Release, or the Extended Director's Cut.

Either way, the challenge was worth it.

Happy Chopping!


J m mcdermott said...

Sometimes I get tired of saying the same thing over and over again, too.

I have said this for years:

Whenever I think I'm done with something, I try to edit it in half. Literally. If it starts as 300 pages, I sit down and consciously try to chop it into 150. When I can't do that anymore, then I am probably done.

The other thing I get tired of saying all the time:

Don't brainstorm into a message board post. Brainstorm into an excel spreadsheet, or a word document, or a notebook that you can come back to and edit and revise and play with.

Happens about once a month. Lately I've stopped saying anything. Some things people will never learn.

Kelly Meding/Kelly Meade said...

"Some things people will never learn."

Truer words were never spoken. Er, typed. Brainstorming is something done alone (unless, like me, you have a wonderful roommate who lets you bounce ideas off her head), not in public. Especially when all some folks want is others to publicly say their ideas are great.

Usually they aren't.