by Gina Conroy, @GinaConroy
When I contracted my mystery novella last year and had to cut 36,000 words from my WIP, I knew it was going to be hard. In fact, I almost bailed on submitting the anthology because I knew that would mean cutting more than half my story. The pain of deleting my brilliant prose aside, I knew it would be difficult to edit this mystery whose characters and clues were tightly woven together.
But I signed that contract, took a deep breath, and said a prayer. I could do this!
The first 10,000 words went easily when I realized there were plenty of unnecessary words I could delete. Then I started messing with my characters’ voices and that hurt. So I moved on to the boring, not so important scenes. Found a few of those. Cut a couple of fun, but unnecessary characters, and started the whole process again.
This went on for months until I was down to the last 8,000 words. I wrote to my agent telling him I was having a hard time swallowing this elephant. I couldn’t see how I could cut the last 8,000 words. He very wisely told me that when the ark is sinking, I should throw the elephant out first. In other words, find big chunks I could cut.
Problem was, I did that. Over and over again. Or did I? Sure, I got rid of the easy stuff, then the scenes I could live without, but now 8,000 words shy of my goal I had to take a closer look and go chapter by chapter salvaging the voice and heart of my story as well as cutting the stuff my book could live without. Notice I didn’t say “What I could live without!”
Was it easy? No, but I got my mystery from 56,000 down to 21,000 words. Here are some things I learned that hopefully will help you write tight and cut the fat from your WIP!
Don’t Show Everything
I know it’s been drilled into us to show don’t tell, but a wise author once said that refers primarily to emotions. I learned that I could “tell” how a person got from point A to point D and skip the details in between. Not only will it make your story move, but it will cut the word count.
Cut the Unnecessary Words
YOU KNOW that word or phrase your character ALWAYS uses all the time JUST like my character DOES. JUST cut it out ALREADY! JUST do a search for those words and CAPITALIZE them, so when you go BACK through your WIP, they jump out at you. I cut several thousand words this way.
Cut the Double Talk
I admit I’m wordy. Editing this story made me realize I often say the same thing a couple of times in different ways. For example, I might have internal dialogue and external dialogue that say similar things or my character might ask himself a question when it was already expressed in another way in a previous chapter. Not only can it be annoying to the reader, but it slows down the action. Just cut it out, no matter how much you’re in love with all the creative ways you’ve said it.
Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)
In an effort to make my character’s motivations clear, I often tried to explain them through internal dialogue, external dialogue or both. Then I started asking myself “Does the reader need to know this now?” If the answer was no, I cut it and looked for a shorter way to weave in the motivation later. I learned, most times it was unnecessary. I had packed the scene enough that I believe the reader understood without me telling them.
Pick Your Adverbs, Adjectives, and Conjunctions Carefully
Most times, if your writing is strong, you don’t need many adverbs and adjectives. Sometimes you do. I noticed my adjectives would sometimes come in pairs. That’s when I chose one over the other. When it comes to starting a sentence, I seem to favor AND and BUT. I’m not sure why, but now that I know, I can go back and keep the conjunctions that add to the story. And I’m not talking word count.
Get Rid of Prepositions Trying to cut those last 8,000 had me looking closer at my sentence structure and prepositions. I learned by cutting certain prepositions I could save one or two words. For example, instead of “the pieces of the telescope” I could say, “the telescope’s pieces.” “Clutching a bottle of Pepcid AC” becomes “clutching a Pepcid AC bottle.” With the search and find feature, I could track down these pesky prepositions and send them packing.
Cut the Scene Short
I like to wrap up a scene sometimes with a cliff hanger, often times with internal dialogue. But if I cut the last sentence or two from the scene, it still works. Often times it reads better.
Contractions are Your Friend
This might not work for historical stories, but since my WIP was contemporary, anywhere I could use a contraction, I did. Unless your character is “proper” or foreign, most people talk in contractions anyway.
Deleting our wonderfully crafted prose is one of the hardest things we do as authors, but it’s necessary especially if you’re contracted for 20,000 words and have a story that’s 56,000. I didn’t quite make 20,000 words, but I knew my anthology partners were a little shy of their word count. I submitted 21,000…and got a note back I needed to cut another 700. How did I do it? By going back through the list above.
How do you get your word count down and what techniques have you found to make it easier?
Gina will be giving away an ebook to a randomly-chosen commenter today. Thanks for your comments!
Gina Conroy used to think she knew where her life was headed; now she’s learning to embrace life’s detours. After seven years of dream pursuit, she held her first novella, Buried Deception in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, in her hands and recently released her first full length mystery, Digging Up Death.
Gina founded Writer...Interrupted to encourage busy writers and chronicles her triumphs and trials as she pursues her dreams while encouraging her family and others to chase after their own passions. Gina loves to connect with readers, and when she isn’t writing, teaching, or driving kids around, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter, or pursuing her new passion — ballroom and swing dancing!
Archaeology Professor Mari Duggins is adjusting to life as a single mom and trying to balance a television career, but gets caught between the pull of her former flame, a field archaeologist, and her ex-husband who is wanted by the FBI on an antiquities crime. Then her colleague is murdered, and she gets in over her head as she searches for truth in a desert of lies. Mari Duggins’ life caves in as she tries to excavate the truth, but realizes only God can dig her out of the hole she’s created. Will Mari sort through her muddled feelings and put her trust in someone else before her world caves in? Or will the truth bury her alive?
My Novella: Buried Deception in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection
Mount Vernon archaeology intern and widow Samantha Steele wants to provide for her children without assistance from anyone. Security guard and ex-cop Nick Porter is haunted by his past and keeps his heart guarded. But when they discover an artifact at Mount Vernon is a fake, Nick and Samantha need to work together, set aside their stubbornness, and rely on each other or the results could be deadly. Will Samantha relinquish her control to a man she hardly knows? Can Nick learn to trust again? And will they both allow God to excavate their hearts so they can find new love?