14 JANUARY 2013
TRIMMING THE FAT – HOW TO CUT YOUR WORD COUNT
As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been agented twice for my forthcoming novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE. I’ve lost both, one to misfortune, the other to indifference but I’ve learnt something to my advantage on both occasions. They each suggested I reduce the length of the work, particularly in the central section where the pace of the narrative needed to pick up. This is not an uncommon problem, many good books get off to a cracking start (we tend to ensure that they do) and have strong endings but sag in the middle like a well-used bed. Mine was apparently no exception.
It was not the first time I’d heard the comment – at least one other agent had made the point. Now, I usually work on the principle of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. Once is luck, twice is coincidence and thrice is enemy action, so when I got this for the third time I knew I should do something about it. I only wish I’d paid attention earlier ...
I started off by reading the offending part carefully myself. I probably thought there was nothing in it - how could I possible throw away huge chunks of what I’d laboured so hard to produce? However, mumbling something suitably derogatory about the triumph of commercialism over art, I set about the task and soon realised they were right. Looked at in the hard light of day, the middle not only sagged, it positively collapsed and even I became frustrated with the failure of the book to move forward sufficiently quickly. I made a few phone calls to garner advice and swiftly came up with the following plan of action.
1. Firstly I determined the extent of the damage. The book was then 114,000 words in length and conventional wisdom suggested I should get it down to 100,000 max. One part in particular was overly long (49000 words) and needed to come to no more than 39000. The other 4000 would come from the rest.
2. How? One agent I happened to be speaking to gave an immediate reaction. ‘The first thing you should do dearie,’ (sic) ‘is cut out the sex scenes’. Unfortunately (or not, as the case may be) the book didn’t contain any so I was unable to follow her advice - but I offer it here as your first port of call. Writing sex scenes is notoriously difficult and unless you’re writing erotica or soft porn, DUMP ‘EM. By all means lead your characters into the bedroom – but close the door firmly behind them and DON’T FOLLOW THEM IN. It may surprise you to know that your readers have vivid imaginations and can probably think it through without your help.
3. Now cut out the other unnecessary scenes. I was amazed by how many I’d included and I’m sure that when you come to examine your work in objective detail you’ll be surprised too. In the passage I was concerned about I was able to identify 6 distinct pieces WHICH ADDED NOTHING TO THE PLOT OR TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF MY CHARCTERS – and on the basis that they were purely ornamental, I got rid of them. In my case they were mainly descriptive passages about Egypt and its history and although they were of passing interest to potential tourists, I was supposed to be writing a novel and not a travelogue. With each scene coming in at around 1000 words I racked up savings of 6000.
4. Now cut out any unnecessary paragraphs. On much the same basis as above, there’ll be some lurking in there somewhere, even in the scenes you need to keep. Another 3000 word saving.
5. The next job was to get rid of what I call my ‘grammatical crutches’. We all have them and we’re tempted to think that they’re purely part of our writing style. They’re not – they’re simply there to make us feel better about our writing and they’re really no more than verbal clutter. Here are a few of my personal examples. In truth, in reality, the fact of the matter was, in the meanwhile, on the face of it etc, etc. Recognise any of your own in there? Getting rid of them will not only cut down your word length but will also help to tighten up your writing. When I first started taking them out I felt the prose lifting off the page – it was a truly liberating feeling. 1000 word saving.
6. Lastly, look at your sentence construction. For me, I can lose 10% of any piece of work without compromising its meaning (or its poetry) merely by simplifying the way it’s phrased. Here’s an example. What was originally ‘It was as I approached the door that I noticed it was already open’ (14 words) becomes ‘As I approached the door, I noticed it was already open’ (11 words). Simple, but effective – and it will read better too. You may say it should never have been written like that in the first place. You’re right – but we all do it, just the same. With my book at 114,000 words I could have saved a lot more but another 4000 did it for me.
7. Finally, monitor your progress against target. If you need to shift 10,000 words and you’re getting to the final stages and you’ve only managed 5000 you should have been more ruthless earlier on. Keep checking you’re on course to even it out.
The result for me was a shorter book (now 99,991), a faster paced narrative in the middle section and much better prose all round. Not only that but I felt truly professional in doing it. You can read some of my efforts in The Weekly Read where Chapter 33 of BIRDS OF THE NILE is available.
By the way, this article was supposed to be 1000 words long. It’s actually 1037. Hmm ... let me see ...