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."
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!