Four Ways to Cut Your Novel’s Draft (and Make Your Story Stronger)

by Ali on October 15, 2013

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Is your novel looking a little bloated? Do you have a sneaking feeling you’ve repeated yourself a few times? Are some of your scenes really just unnecessary padding between episodes of action?

Believe me, I’ve been there. I cut my novel Lycopolis from 135,000 words (Draft 5) to 85,000 words (Draft 6).

It made for a much stronger novel, and I’m hugely grateful to my editor Lorna Fergusson for her invaluable help in deciding what to cut.

Now, I’m hoping your novel won’t require quite such drastic pruning as mine. Chances are, though, that you’re going to have some cutting to do.

How can you tell if you need to do away with some of your hard-won words?

  • Most writers over-write. Unless you’ve been told (by a writing friend or an editor) that you under-write, it’s a pretty safe bet that a bit of cutting down will improve your work.
  • You might need to get down to a certain word limit for a competition, or for the requirements of a particular publisher. It could simply be that a shorter book will suit your chosen genre better.
  • Feedback from beta readers may tell you that you need to trim down your novel. They might say something like “the story seemed to drag here” or “your scenes were a bit slow to get going” or “this bit was quite repetitive”.

So, you’ve got work ahead. But where do you start?

(I’ll assume that the basic building blocks of your story need to stay; you’re not about to cut out a whole character or a massive chunk of your plot at this stage.)

Step #1: Cut Whole Scenes

“A novelist must have the intestinal fortitude to cut out even the most brilliant passage so long as it doesn’t advance the story.”

–Frank Yerby

Start with the biggest, chunkiest pieces of story: scenes.

(Why? Because if you start cutting individual words, you’ll end up later deleting a bunch of perfectly worded – but ultimately pointless – scenes.)

For me, there are two parts to this:

a) Look for any scenes that don’t advance the story. Ask yourself,could I delete this scene and not lose anything meaningful?”

Don’t keep a scene just because it adds depth to a character: unless it’s really part of the plot (or at the very least plays into your theme), you can get rid of it. Use other scenes to deepen the characterisation instead.

Don’t keep scenes because they’re “boring but necessary”. You can simply cut or summarise them: readers don’t expect you to show every moment in your protagonist’s life.

b) Look for scenes that are repetitive. Ask yourself, “could I combine these two scenes into one?”

Sometimes, you’ll have good reason for repeating something – but make sure there’s sufficient variation that the reader isn’t bored.

Personally, I often find I have two or three similar scenes for no good reason: I wrote them months apart, but in the manuscript itself, they might only be separated by a few chapters. I can combine the best bits of them and lose the rest.

Step #2: Cut Whole Paragraphs

One of the most flagrant areas of fat accumulation is in scene transitions. Too often, we write out the transitions in lengthy paragraphs that recount our character’s every step between one room and another.

– K.M. Weiland

Once you’ve got all the scenes you’re going to keep, start cutting out paragraphs. Pay particular attention to the first couple of paragraphs of any scene: can you take them out, start a little further along, and get straight into the action?

The final paragraphs of scenes can sometimes be cut in a similar way. Think about how one scene cuts to the next on TV – often in the middle of a conversation. You don’t need to tie up all the loose ends every time; in fact, your story will often keep moving better if you stop the scene when the action is at a high point, not when it’s run its course.

(As an exercise, you might try going through a few chapters of your manuscript and striking out the first paragraph of every scene. I was surprised how often I had a “warm up” paragraph getting me into the scene: I may have needed it during the drafting, but the reader didn’t need it in the finished novel.)

Step #3: Cut Sentences

Two people rushing through the night to the hospital is action, two people arguing in the car as they rush to the hospital is character development within action. The fact that one of them is six foot tall with blue eyes is neither action nor illumination.

– Caro Clark

Next, you’re down to individual sentences. I found myself cutting out a fair few that dealt with my characters’ internal thoughts: in a more literary novel, these might have been necessary, but I didn’t really need this level of introspection slowing the pace.

Watch out for:

  • Sentences that explain something that’s just happened. Readers can often infer what a character is thinking from their dialogue or from their movements or body language; they don’t need it spelling out.
  • Details that don’t add anything. If you’re describing a building / room / person / item, go for a few telling details rather than a blow-by-blow account.
  • Repetitive sentences. Unless you’re going for a particular effect, you don’t need to say the same thing in two or three different ways: the reader will get it the first time.

Step #4: Cut Individual Phrases and Words

What lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what’s it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse.

– Isaac Asimov

You’re down to the smallest building blocks now: words. Often, you won’t be cutting out single words in isolation – you’ll be looking for over-worn or unnecessary phrases.

Look for:

  • Clichés. Occasionally you’ll have a good reason for these – it’s the way your viewpoint character talks and thinks – but normally it’s better to get rid of them. Phrases like “a blast from the past” or “on the one hand” or “keeps his cards close to his chest” can be cut or replaced. There’s a handy (and quite exhaustive) list of clichés here.
  • Vague language. Nine times out of ten, “It was somewhere around noon” can be “It was noon.” For more on this, see K.M. Weiland’s excellent post Why Vague Writing is Weak Writing.
  • He said / she said. You don’t need to use a dialogue tag every time: an action can often stand in its place.
  • Weak verbs.He made her a promise” can become the stronger, more direct “He promised her.” (For more examples, see 17 verbs that cut fat from your writing.)
  • Qualifiers like really, quite, very, a bit. Occasionally you’ll need one of these before an adjective, but you can often get rid of them and perhaps use a more powerful adjective instead. Laura was really very warm can become Laura was boiling or even better, something specific like Sweat dripped down Laura’s neck.

 

Ultimately, what worked for me was taking a step back, looking at my novel manuscript as objectively as I could, and heeding editorial advice!

It’s always tough to lose words you’ve written – especially if you’ve gone through several drafts – but don’t see them as wasted. They served their purpose in helping you get your novel to this point.

 

If you’ve cut down a novel (or short story, or book) manuscript, share your best tips in the comments!

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Uttendorfsky October 15, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Excellent post! Thanks for sharing this great information, which I’m going to keep for my copy editing customers who need it!

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Ali October 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Thanks Susan! Hope your customers find it useful too. :-)

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Daniel Rocha October 16, 2013 at 2:34 am

Hello, Ali.

These are good advices… But I subscribe myself in the Nanowrimo today, so I will write A LOT in the next November, and maybe later, yes, I will have many, many things to cut out..:) Did you make Nanowrimo one or two times, didn’t you? How was it?

Hope you’re fine.

All best,

from your brazilian friend,

Daniel

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Ali October 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I did NaNoWriMo properly once (2007) and got over 50,000 words. Last year I had a go at a mini-NaNo but didn’t get as far as I wanted.

I’m hoping to do NaNoWriMo again this year as for the first time in the past few years, I’m at a good stage for it (ready to start a new novel draft). It depends a bit on my workload though, so I’m not committing myself just yet!

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Garry Rodgers October 16, 2013 at 2:59 am

Hi Ali,

You’re ‘write-on’ with these points. Cutting stuff out is almost as hard as writing it in the first place and some things that you really like, nobody will care about. Good old advice is “Kill your darlings.”

Garry from Vancouver, Canada

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Ali October 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Garry, it’s always lovely to hear from you. :-) I’ve had to kill a lot of “darlings” in my time, but my writing’s always been better for it!

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TJ October 16, 2013 at 5:11 am

I’m a bloatist when it comes to writing, so paring down is always a concern for me. My first major work was 367,000 words, after really looking at the work objectively, I managed to chop that figure in half, and had a better story after the purge. So, I have a few tips.

1. Don’t underestimate the reader. If you’ve placed an item in a room for a reason, for example, that is essential to a later point in the story, you don’t need to reiterate it a dozen times to “make sure they understood the importance”. If the reader were that stupid, why’d they show the intelligence to buy your story? Try not to reiterate yourself.

2. Chekhov’s Gun. Wikipedia has a great article on this topic, and one I highly recommend to any budding writer. Try not to reiterate yourself.

3. Parse the flowery details. “He slowly walked across the gorgeous rug and collected to his hand the perfectly pristine rosewood cigarette case with brass hinges. It lay just where her delicate hand had left it the day before. Deftly, he eased it into his pocket, a memento for his memories of her silken lips.” That, my friends, is keyboard calisthenics. 50 words to say that he stole her cigarette box because he had the hots for her, and a clear waste of 38 words. You can fill the paragraph out slightly more, but it’s not a statement that needs 50 words and 5 adjectives. Try not to reiterate yourself.

4. Keep the details on a need-to-know basis. The work should be a novel, not a manual. There’s little use in describing step-by-step the process to start a car when you can have them down the road and on to the next element. Try not to reiterate yourself.

5. (This is where I had my biggest problem) Don’t assume a short story is a bad story! It may look more impressive to plonk down a 900 page manuscript with a smirk, but only if there are 900 pages of solid writing. If it’s 50 pages of solid writing and 850 pages of wasted print cartridge, it’s a 50 page book. My flaw was assuming that to be respected, the book needed to be long and intricate. In truth, a short book that takes the reader on an adventure is far superior to a book which is not entertaining enough to keep them engaged. Try not to reiterate yourself.

6. Garry nailed it, and I’ll go in a slightly different direction with the advice; don’t try to put every little thought into the work. I love writing dialogue, but I find that in large doses it breaks the flow of text, so I write plays on the side, where large blocks of chatter are more acceptable. Just because I love dialogue, that doesn’t mean I have to cram it down a reader’s throat by the ton. I know a writer who absolutely lives to create characters. Rather than create a work with two hundred characters, he has a list of character profiles “banked”, which can be used in future stories. Because this element, be it character profile, dialogue, etc. isn’t a good fit for the current project, it may work well in a future story. Save it. For all you know, the character you create in passing might become the primary in the story you write five years from now. Try not to reiterate yourself.

7. Try not to reiterate yourself.

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Ali October 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm

TJ, wow, you’ve added practically a whole post here! These are really excellent points, and I definitely agree with you on not underestimating the reader — I had a bad habit of explaining in Lycopolis, until my editor got hold of it.

Oh, and let me add another — try not to reiterate yourself. ;-)

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Alicia October 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm

This is great advice. I tried to stretch my novel to reach my word count goal, but I know there are a few places I can polish up that I don’t really need in the story.
Alicia’s last blog post ..Where to Find Inspiration for Your Characters

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Ali October 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Having a too-short novel is another problem (and one I’m facing right now too…) Perhaps a topic for a future post!

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Joel D Canfield October 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm

You quote Asimov on writing. Is that from a book, I hope? That man was in a special place in the world of writers who get things done.

I tend to underwrite scenes and overwrite sentences. Much for me to consider in your post.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Chasing Attention is a Bad Thing (but It’s So Hard Not to Do)

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Ali October 17, 2013 at 9:37 am

Joel, I’m not too sure where it’s from — I found it in multiple places online (e.g. here it is on Goodreads), I liked it and it fitted my post!

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/897245-what-lasts-in-the-reader-s-mind-is-not-the-phrase

If anyone knows the original source (book? article?), drop me a comment and I’ll update the post. :-)

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alexander October 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm

I read John Braine’s book Writing a Novel. Some blunt advice to budding writers. . I recall one of his suggestions was to write your first book then bin the whole lot and start again! I am too old to do that but I think he is probably right. When I kicked the PC power supply off by accident and lost the big spreadsheet I had been working on all day I recreated a better one in a couple of hours. I was pretty angry as well. I also like the first person writing John Braine used for Room at the Top. Alexander of Allrighters and Ywnwab!

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Ali October 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I scrapped my first two novels after completing and editing them (the second I shopped around to agents for a bit before giving up). No regrets at all — they were great learning experiences.

I’ve not read Writing a Novel but will look out for it. :-)

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Tracy Wilson October 18, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Hi Ali,

Another info-packed post! Thanks for writing this one. I have a secret draft of a novel lurking on my computer. It’s all over-grown and bloated and in need of a swift course of editing. Your tips are stimulating my brain and enticing me to get stuck in with that blue editing pen. Thanks!

Tracy xx

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Ali October 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Thanks Tracy, and how lovely to see you over here! I hope you do get stuck in again — novels are such fun (most of the time!) to work on. :-)

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Iubiri secrete October 20, 2013 at 10:58 am

Thanks Ali, very useful article for me.
Iubiri secrete’s last blog post ..Iubiri Secrete – Sezonul 6 – Episodul 18 – ONLINE INTEGRAL

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Tom Southern November 23, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Practice helps cut over-writing, I’ve found. When I look back over some of the stuff I wrote years ago, boy is it over-written! More claustrophobic than over-written in many cases.

Practising your writing can help you to put your point across in each sentence more succinctly. Three pieces of advice someone gave me about writing which has helped make my writing more crisp have helped my writing improve greatly are:

1. Don’t try to describe anything down to the last detail because you want the reader to get an exact picture. Because, no matter how well you describe it your readers will see what they see regardless.

2. Describing something in great detail because you think this detail will show off your research or knowledge will only bore readers (and mark you out as an amateur, or expose your lack of experience) to those in the know. For example, describing every detail about a rifle because you want to show off your hitman or sniper credentials only exposes you as neither because – hitmen and snipers know their weapon of choice so well they fire it without thinking about the process.

3. Detail is boring and can kill a story dead. Like Stephen King says: “Plot should never be allowed to interfere with the story.” Hear-hear.

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