Thursday, November 5, 2015

Unraveling a Mess of Threads

Alternate Title: How I Survived the Editing Axe
As many of you may know, my writing time over the past couple months has been all-consumed by editing The Brightest Thread, my Five Magic Spindles entry. (You can learn more about the contest HERE. I've also posted snippets, as well as featured my heroine and villainess for Beautiful People.)
But I've yet to regale you with how the actual process went, aside from brief mentions here and there.

First things first: I finished!!!!! At long last, fueled by sheer grit and determination and Two Steps From Hell music (pardon the name), I cut my entry down to exactly 20,000 words. Excuse me while I collapse in relief. Actually no, I can't collapse. I have a post to share with you. Ahem.

I could go into all kinds of detail about how I finally came up with the idea for the story, how I read the Grimm and Perault originals, how I considered various genres before circling back to fantasy . . . But that would take too long. And if there's one thing this contest has taught me, it's conciseness.

So we'll skip the beginning stages of my writing process, and simply say that I decided to pants this thing (as in, write by the seat of my pants, with little to no plan), which is not my usual method. What an adventure! Half the time I hadn't a clue where things were going, and the other half of the time, I had only the most basic directions to follow.

Maybe that's why the first draft ended up at 29,934 words. A huge problem, considering that the contest rules state 20k is the limit.

I should've seen it coming. My first chapter was 3k. THREE THOUSAND WORDS. Practically a seventh of the story! By the time Prince Hadrian entered the scene, I was halfway to the word limit. By the time he was anywhere close to rescuing Luci, my goodness, I had long since waved goodbye to 20k.

About two months after starting, I finished the first draft in a rush of glory and panic, ecstatic over the story I'd just unspooled . . . and freaking out over the task before me. How in the world could I amputate a third of the story? How would the tale survive? How would I survive?

I let my obese novella sit for a week and half, during which time I bemoaned my existence and wished I could pluck Aleida's wand from the pages and use it to increase the word limit. Even 25k would be a relief!

But alas, it was not to be. And my complaining, which I'm sorry to say continued into the editing process, did nothing to help. Heh. Let that be a lesson to all of you!

Anyway, on September 8th, I sat down at my desk, opened the document, steeled myself, and commenced editing.

Now, here is another lesson. Do not try editing anything before reading over it first. Yes, you just wrote the thing. Yes, those words came from your brain. But you do not know them that well. You have been busy planting trees, but before you can prune them you must step back and see the forest, the big picture. I know this. A read-over has always been my first pre-editing step. Until The Brightest Thread. And I can't for the life of me figure out why I even dreamed of skipping this step. Things may have gone more smoothly if I hadn't.

So as I said, I jumped right into editing with high ambitions. I hefted my sharpened axe and attacked chapter 1.

And snipped off a teensy tiny few hundred words. "Well," I said to myself. "That's because this first chapter includes so much important setup. Surely the following chapters carry more fluff I can cull."

Ha. Wrong.

In the name of conciseness again, I shall sum up that first miserable editing pass like this: my efforts only managed to get rid of about 3k words. Oh joy, oh bliss.

I then decided to lay down that ineffective axe and read over my existing material, something I should have done in the first place. Getting a bird's-eye view of the story was helpful, but my next pass was still hard. I worked on it in a nonlinear fashion, combing over and over and over certain parts that I absolutely knew had the potential to shrink. I skipped from one spot to the other, targeting the easiest areas first and working my way to the grit-my-teeth-and-sacrifice-the-gorgeous-words areas. And when I thought I'd trimmed off all I could, I went back and shaved off more.

My techniques? Why, I'm so glad you asked! See, I'm not just rambling on about myself here. I really do want to offer you some nuggets of wisdom so that you have some tools next time your work falls under the knife.

  • Streamline. Streamline everything. Get that conversation right to the point. Put the characters where they need to be so that you don't spend paragraphs moving them there. Every single scene must carry its weight.
  • Speaking of conversations (ha, see what I did there? No? Just me? Okay, never mind) . . . Ahem. Speaking of conversations, take a giant machete to your dialogue. Brevity is the soul of wit. Your dialogue might sparkle. It might amuse. It might snap with fiery spirit. But if it's not serving to move the story along, it's baggage. You can also use less speaker tags in favor of better action beats if that helps.
  • Attack the descriptions. You'd be surprised how many blanks a reader will fill in his or her imagination. Instead of spending a long paragraph describing the weather or a room or a person, pick one description that will pack a punch. Choose the most vivid, or the most necessary. All else must go.
  • Make a list of your scenes if you haven't already. Having every piece of the story laid out made it much easier to see what was on the table, like having a map on which to mark out a battle plan. I even went so far as to write down the purpose of each scene. This helped me center each one around it's reason for existence, thus trimming extra fluff.
  • Minor characters. Which ones are actually necessary? I needed that guard because he provided an important revelation for Luci, my heroine. But I didn't need that oblivious elderly maid. She no longer exists. Poor Meris. Or another example: I needed at least one minor character to illustrate an important change in Luci's circumstances, but the scene held two or three. I shortened the laughs (it was an amusing scene, and one of my favorites) by keeping it down to one minor character. You can also combine characters if possible. I did this once.
  • Subplots. Again, what can you afford to cut? Yes, they may be delicious twists, but if you can simplify or get rid of them, it goes a long way. I sacrificed at least one subplot concerning the villainess.
  • Enter your scene late and leave it early. Does the scene take half a page to get to the meat, the really interesting part? Start right there. Forget the intro. And make sure you end off sooner rather than later, at a place that will make the reader want to keep going. This piece of advice was huge for me!
  • Look for unnecessary words and banish them to the abyss. There's nothing wrong with adverbs, but when every word counts, a punchier verb is often the better choice. "Whispered" is shorter than "said softly." "Trembling" is shorter than "nervously twitching." I Googled lists of unnecessary words and searched my manuscript for them. I was able to sluice off hundreds in one afternoon. Some examples of unneeded words or phrases are: could, start/started to, began/began to, that, then, somewhat, somehow, really, completely, very, say, all, just.

Some of this I simply realized myself. The point about starting late and leaving early I picked up from an article on Go Teen Writers. The entire post was helpful. And a couple more were given me by Rachel Heffington @ The Inkpen Authoress. (I discovered that her entry for Five Glass Slippers two years ago had been about as oversized as mine to begin with . . . yet she managed to trim it down, AND she won a place in the collection. Inspired by her success, I emailed her asking for advice, which she graciously offered. The advice about dialogue and description were largely from her.)

Because graphs are fun, and because graphs relating to wordcount data are even more fun, I made some!

This one displays my first draft wordcount as it went up to almost 30k.

And this one displays my cutting progress, as I shaved 10k excess down to zero. It was pretty intense at the end there. The last week or two, on every spare day or half-day off, I holed up in my room to work on cutting. Some days I put in as many hours as a full shift at work, emerging bleary eyed to update my family on progress.

I suppose that saying I went at it with an axe is inaccurate, because as hard as I tried to cut away entire scenes . . . I guess I'm too good at pacing? Most of the scenes were actually necessary. And trust me, I reassessed and reassessed many times to be sure. So I compressed like crazy. I think I vacuum-packed the story. I didn't hack; I whittled. Oh, and I wasn't just cutting: I edited too. Some of the corrections required adding words rather than subtracting.

Now I hope that what's left is a pithy story, rich despite its brevity--not a sack of story bones with no meat left on them. I really hope I haven't sucked it dry.

You can see how crazy the final sprint was: on October 26th, I started with 899 excess words remaining, and shrank it 54 excess words. Only 54! I would've wrapped it up right then and there, but at that point it was late, and I needed to sleep for work the next day. Oh, did that bite! I wanted so badly to be done. But I woke up early and managed to finish before heading out. Woohoo!

And now . . . Now the cutting is finished. I succeeded. I can hardly believe it. Every other step of the way was full of doubt. I even considered not entering the contest at all, for the sake of preserving my story. But I still have the old drafts, and if I don't win this year, I'll be more than happy to re-expand The Brightest Thread. There's so much I didn't get to explore, even in the chubby first draft.

For now, though, all that's left is to read it over a few times to make sure it's polished to the best of my ability, and then it gets sent to the judges!

But questers! My faithful blogglings! I FINISHED! Hallelujah!

And you have finished reading this lengthy post. So much for being concise, eh? Go on: share your own tips for shrinking stories. I'd love to hear them!


    I'm super impressed. You deserve a large chocolate cake and a gold star. XD
    I am itching to read The Brightest Thread - I'm sure it is spectacular!
    Speaking of conversations... :P
    My problem is always not enough words and not enough relevant words. My stories always need to shrink AND grow and the same time, if that makes sense. Though I have the feeling brevity is a skill that comes with practice (like so many other things in life, the answer is you have to put in the work :p).
    Happy writing and the best of luck with your submission!

      Chocolate cakes and gold stars are much appreciated. ^__^ I can for sure send TBT to you one of these days. Although you would be under strict orders not to read it until you have nothing university-related to get done. XD
      That makes total sense. The right words are so important. Not to mention elusive... >.>
      Thanks again!

  2. I'm so proud of you, and you did it without a magic wand and everything!
    Bookmarking this for when I have to take an axe to mine.
    It must be such a relief to have it finished.
    Funny thing is my last entry was only about 18,000 words, and I think I could've done better if I had utilized the remaining words.
    So maybe my problem is the opposite.
    Only about half way done my entry, and then there is editing. * heavy breathing*
    Anyway, I love your story and I hope you win.
    You deserve it!

    1. Thank you so much, Skye! Yes, it is a huge load off my chest to have this done. (Well, mostly. I still plan to read it over a few more times. But the hard work is complete.)
      You have no idea how much I wish I had that problem. XD Adding words is much more fun than deleting them!
      You're halfway done? Woohoo! Go you!
      Oh goodness, dear, thank you again! <333

  3. Yay, congrats, Tracey! Only a few weeks ago I went on a kick where I binge read interviews of some of my favorite older authors about writing. In one of the interviews I read that being forced to cut out a large chunk of your story always ends up making it much better because only the most important things remain. It's amazing that you cut out so many words, and I'm sure The Brightest Thread is much better for it. Thanks for the tips, too. I'm still writing my first draft, but I do suspect that it will be longer than 20k, I guess I'll have quite a bit of cutting to do for the final draft, and those tips will be a lot of help.

    1. Thank you, Ana! :D I've heard that said, too. (Now to apply some of this chopping skill to my novel WIPs...heheh.) Part of me thinks that The Brightest Thread was at a healthy, toned size halfway through the cutting, but I could be wrong. It could be right where it needs to be now, at 20k.

      Glad they'll be of some use to you! Happy writing, and best of luck for the contest!

  4. *Applause!*
    Good for you Tracey! It's difficult to leave out so many things, I know. I admire your persistence.

    1. Thanks muchly, Blue!! ^_^ It was hard . . . it hurt sometimes . . . but in the end it'll be worth it.

  5. AAAHHHH!!!! I'm still in total and complete awe of you being able to do this! I mean, hacking off 10k words! YOU ARE AMAZING!

    I've never done much editing. Goodness, I've hardly done ANY editing. I write first drafts and then just leave them in all their messiness in the dark corners of my laptop. Such a terrible cycle. So I'm sitting here stunned at your ability to do this.

    And your helpful editing list! I am going to copy it and save it and when I start editing Burning Thorns read it over again and again. So much invaluable advice! Seriously, Tracey, this was PERFECT. THANK YOU!!!

    Graphs! Graphs are awesome! :D And LOOK at your amazingness! GAH. Girl! You just did so GOOOOD!!! And I KNOW the judges are going to absolutely adore it. EEEEEEE!!! I'm so excited!


    1. Let me just hug you, you precious human. <3

      But the first draft snippets I've read are so GOOOOOD, maybe they don't need editing? XD (Kidding. I know what you mean. Still, your writing is amazing.)

      Ooh, yay! I'm kind of ecstatic that my advice is actually *helpful.* But I really hope that Burning Thorns won't need too much shrinking. Must have all the beautiful Christine words...!

      Thank you again! Your encouragement means so much.

  6. Yay! You did it! I know how time consuming the cutting process is. I recently had to cut down a book to a certain wordcount to a publisher then they ended up rejecting it and now I have to extend the book for another publisher. Oh a writer's life for me. XD

    1. Thank you, Tori! Ugh, that would stink--shrinking a story and then having to enlarge it again. Not to mention the rejection, which I heard about on your blog. :( But good for you for pressing onward! I wouldn't be surprised to see your books in stores one day. ;D Indeed, yo ho, yo ho, a writer's life for me. Wouldn't have it any other way! XD

    2. It was a bit of a bummer, but "Keep moving forward" as they say. Aw. That's so sweet. ^ ^ I hope to make that come true!

  7. CONGRATULATIONS!!! So very well done! That is a massive achievement O.o

    I am editing my novel currently, and that advice is all so helpful! You have inspired me! I want to go write right now! (Oops, I have homework that I'm avoiding my reading blogs ... ha. Well. It can come second to novel, right?)

    Keep us updated with your progress!

    1. Thanks so very much, Emily!! I'm excited that you find the advice helpful. All the best with those edits! I've been in that particular arena of writing for . . . heh, quite some time. If you need someone to commiserate with, ya know where to find me. ;) (And pffft, homework, who needs that? Story first, of course! XD)

      Shall do!