does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Writing on a Budget

My early drafts are long. A 125,000-word novel is not unusual. Mindful of market realities limiting first novels to a range of 80 to 100,000 words, I then use a scalpel. Usually I start this process grudgingly. After all, which of my darlings will I have to sacrifice, and won’t my novel be mortally wounded by their exit?

Having gone through this process recently with two of my novels, I have made an interesting discovery. A goal of reducing my novel to 100k or less is my best friend. The resulting novel post-surgery turns out to be a much better novel. Mind you, I am usually closer to 100k than to 80k; but, hey, a 25% cut is huge, and I’m proud of myself for pulling it off.

My process has two steps. I usually cut around 10k words just by eliminating passive voice, avoiding thens, ands, buts, ofs, saids, excessive stage direction, etc. That’s the easy part, especially when I see the salutary effect on the word count at the bottom of the screen. The hard part comes in stage two when I must excise an entire scene or, oh my, a chapter, maybe even a character. That hurts.

That 100k taskmaster, though, pierces my sentimental balloon quite easily. Of course, I save the earlier draft so that I can always rescue my maimed darlings. In the meantime, though, reaching that 100k-or-less goal clarifies in no uncertain terms what is at stake. Is this darling really, really necessary? Because if I save her, I might have to kill two other darlings instead of just this one.

I do sometimes gaze longingly at the long novels of prior times and wish our standards had not changed. In this Twitter et al. world, though, it is probably best to discard that sentiment. Otherwise, I might be ensuring that my novels never come out of their inglorious residence in computer memory.

As for those novels already succesfully reduced to below 100k, alas, I have since found out that to land an agent, I probably should reduce them further to fit the even shorter but Totally Cool category, as described in the Guide To Literary Agents Editor's Blog.

· 80,000 - 89,999: Totally cool
· 90,000 - 99,999: Generally safe
· 70,000 - 79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
· 100,000 - 109,999: Might be too long; probably all right
· Below 70,000: Too short
· 110,000 or above: Too long

I was therefore about to wield my scalpel again when I heard from a writer friend:

“You can actually reduce so much that you have only Story left and have eliminated your individuality as a writer, your Voice or whatever it is that makes your work particularly you... which is what agents really want. Maybe the unique Voice of your piece is still strong or even stronger because of all your cuts, but just in case, it might be interesting to focus as much on Voice as on Word Count... at least for a while.”

So I'm taking a breather from editing to finish my current work-in-progress novel. Oh, and to do food shopping, too.

Other relevant posts:

Write What You Know,” Marketing, and Me

What is Multicultural Fiction?

For Whom Does the Writer Write?


A Cuban In London said...

I love getting into the mind of the writer, as you know. That 'how'. This post was a gem.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.

Sun Singer said...

It's always fun to see how other writers work, and then borrow as needed.

Judith Mercado said...

Cuban: So glad to hear you enjoyed my post. I hope the air travel mixup will not affect you.

Malcolm: It is fascinating to know how other minds work, especially for a past time as solitary as writing is.

Nevine said...

Judy, I recently reread Stephen King's "On Writing", which is basically a book for writers. He describes this editing process as being painful, but he does stress that the result, at least for him, has always been a finer finished product. I do know that, as writers, we love our characters. They're our babies. We brought them into existence - even if it is only on the written page. But it's true that sometimes, when we write, we can get carried away. And, sometimes, when I go back to rework something I've written, and I try to simmer it down, I find that I can rewrite a sentence in a better way, and also in fewer words. The same holds true for chapters. And there's always the old-fashioned prologue - do I want to leave it in, or just try and incorporate that information into Chapter 1? And what about an epilogue, if there is one? Lots and lots to think about, and work with.

I'll take a look at the blog you referenced. I'm curious to see what other helpful information they have on that site. And happy writing... and editing! Oh, and shopping and munching!


Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, I love Stephen King’s On Writing! I wrote a post about it last year. (If you want to read it, scroll down the right column to the Labels section and click on Stephen King.) SK got me started on the 10% rule, which is that wherever you are, aim to cut 10%. Now that’s always the first reduction I do. Since my drafts are long though, I end up having to do a series of ten percenters.

All the questions you posed about revision are ones I ask myself. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether, instead of calling myself a writer, I should just say I’m an editor.