As implied when I first mentioned this next installment, there’s been a lot of discussion–discourse–cropping up regarding word counts in traditionally published books. It’s daunting to trim a book down; I’ve been there several times. Infamously, I’ve sloughed off as much as 40,000 to 50,000 off fantasy books so that they would be within a range that’s considered acceptable for most agents.
Most advice, however, on tightening stories and making them more efficient is around removing filter words and dialogue tags. It’s never been enough, in my experience. Mostly because that’s a line edit, not a true revision.
In this latest installment of Writing is Hard, I’m going to outline some steps to pull off a revision that not only will make your story more focused, but also remove a whole bunch of words because you’ll be focusing on your story at a more holistic level than the words on the page.
A lot of this post is inspired by Elana K. Arnold’s Revision Season course, which changed my entire brain around how I approach revisions. This will not be a summary of that course, but some of the concepts will be familiar to those who have taken it.
On Narrative Efficiency
There’s wisdom around writing where each scene needs to do one or two of three things:
- Advance the plot
- Reveal something about the characters
- Develop the world
The most efficient stories manage to do all three in every scene. That is a level of efficiency that is a master stroke to pull off, and I’m honestly envious of people who can. It takes practice, and is only something that can really come about in a second round revision or later.
Can it add words? Sometimes.
Going over narrative efficiency is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s something I thought I should mention, especially since the topic of pacing comes up, and it’s a very frustrating way to discuss the speed and density of a piece of literature.
Those opinions are also beyond the scope of this post.
Scenarios Where a Revision is The Next Step
- You’ve finished a first draft and don’t know what to do next
- You’ve received beta reader feedback that you’re not sure how to implement
- You’re pursuing traditional publishing and the word count of the latest version of your story is well above a generally accepted word count
- You’re pursuing traditional publishing and your editor told you to shave thousands of words off the story with little-to-no direction
Step 1: Close the Word Document
The type of word-sloughing work that needs to happen won’t get done on a line level.
What you’re going to do instead is save it as a PDF or otherwise uneditable format (if you have the means, print it out). Send it to your kindle or preferred reading implement. No editing tools.
Step 2: Read the Book
Pretend this thing you pre-ordered just landed on your device. You’re hype to read it. It’s going to be the greatest thing. (If typos are a thing that will interrupt your reading, pretend it’s a highly-anticipated Advanced Reader Copy.)
The way you’re going to read this book is the way your intended reader would.* What are they going to love about it? What are you loving about it?
I have a hard time shutting off my own critical brain when reading, well, anything, so I do keep a separate document of things that are genuinely bothering me, but I do not measure the success of that version of the work based on that discomfort alone. It’s about the whole experience from start to finish.
* If you don’t know who your intended reader is, go take a half hour to figure out who the book is for. Every book is for someone. Ideally, you’d be your own intended audience, but that can be hard to define.
Step 3: Summarize Your Book
People call this a reverse outline and one of the first steps to writing a synopsis. (I’m not asking you to write a synopsis, don’t worry.) Make the notes as detailed as you need them to be for your own understanding of this piece of prose you put together.
The thing I realized about books is that they are both longer and shorter than they seem. Since my expertise is in fantasy, four hundred to five hundred pages seems like a lot, but most books consist of anywhere between five and ten scenes. (I’m refraining from calling them beats or this entire exercise a beat sheet because it’s such a narrow view of putting a story together. This opinion is also out of scope for this piece.)
Identify the five to ten scenes that your story wouldn’t be your story without. Arnold calls them tentpole scenes, but they are essential to the core of your work. It could be that if you remove them, the story falls apart in terms of keeping up the plot’s foundation. Or the story falls apart in terms of what makes you enjoy it so much.
What do you do with the other scenes? Honestly, put them away in a document somewhere. If you’re writing a sequel or need bonus materials, these are great for that.
To be clear, that work wasn’t wasted or busy work. It’s still important because it got you to the end of a story.
Step 4: Review the Remaining Scenes Through the Lens of Narrative Efficiency
Is each scene doing more than one thing? Is it serving more than the plot? Are we learning about the world and the characters in similar measure? If not, figure out how. Perhaps you dropped it in the scenes you discarded. Mix and match until something that feels right and true to you emerges.
Step 5: Itemize Your Characters
In the same way scenes should do more than one thing, so do characters. Yes, there are massive books with sprawling casts, but those, unfortunately, are the exception, not the rule. Most books have a protagonist, an antagonist, and a handful of side characters. Each serves a purpose.
At this step, you’re going to write out every single named and every single speaking character.
Then, you’re going to assign tiers, from primary to tertiary. There’s no clear assignment for what a “good” number of characters is. Some books need one main character and a handful of secondary characters. Others require more. Depending on the scope of your book and who needs to be featured in each scene.
At this point, entire sections and characters should be coming off your book. If they aren’t, dig deeper into the necessity of the darlings you’re holding onto. This entire process can be iterative. It doesn’t happen all at once–at least, in my experience, it hasn’t.
Step 6: Rewrite the Book
Take the scenes from Step 3 and the characters from Step 4 and rebuild the book. Hopefully, if you’ve done the digging for the essentials, you’ve made something more efficient, more compact. You’ve sloughed off a bunch of words in the form of concepts that might have worked for a longer version of the piece, but no longer serve the purpose.
The important thing is this: you’ve kept the parts that keep you interested in the work as both author and reader. That’s the perspective that matters most, especially if you’re told to remove things without any direction as to how.
Step 7: Get Feedback
Send it to beta readers, and make the request as specific as possible. I covered this a bit in my beta reading entry into this series. But when you’ve excised so much of a book that you’ve read and reread, it’s important to get a fresh set of eyes on the work. Ask where they’re confused, ask what’s working for them. Get a clear picture of this entirely new version.
Is it a lot of work? Yes. But it’s much better than poring over the piece word by word and expecting a different piece of literature to fall out.
If you’re still working on the story on a line level, stop.You might slough off a few hundred words by removing “just” and other filters, but it won’t tighten your story. You don’t want to purposelessly remove words. Entire concepts and characters have got to go. Revision is the thing that “killing your darlings” is all about. Put them in a separate word document for a rainy day.
Or, if you’re me, remove them from your lexicon altogether.
Until next time,
P.S.: If you enjoyed this post, I’d really appreciate it if you checked out my novella, Ice Upon a Pier, out now where ever books are sold and on itch.io.
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