Slashing Strokes

As an editor I receive submissions that have been deemed, by agents or friends, much too long. The desired maximum length agents frequently cite these days is 100,000 words, or 400 double-spaced manuscript pages. If you are a debut author, an agent or editor may not read past that figure in your initial query letter.

Ah, but I’m planning to publish independently, you say. Yet length is still an issue: to readers. If the Amazon listing says the book is 600 pages, readers may well decide to pass. Beyond even marketing concerns, you have to ask yourself: are my characters and plots strong enough to support that much reading?

You can employ a variety of strategies to pare down the length. You can comb through the draft looking for extra verbiage, redundancy, and the like. You will probably not achieve as much reduction, however, as you intended. I make my living as a line editor, and yet I expect to take out only 10 percent of a manuscript that way. In our hypothetical example, that reduces 600 pages to 540. You’re still not even in the right ballpark.

You need to think in terms of broader strokes. One useful place to start is examining the plot lines carried by minor characters. That character may appear in 5-10 scenes, say. Oftentimes when you take a closer look, you may realize that you wrote all those scenes for her because once you started her plot line, you had to play it out to a satisfying conclusion. That is a prime candidate for elimination.

When I suggest this strategy to authors, a common response is: I guess you’re right. I’ll just cut her out of the book. Yet you may not have to go that far. Cutting a character entirely out of a book can require significant rewriting, and all you want to do is cut down the book’s length. She could be cut down so that she appears as only a supporting character in her early scenes. That way you don’t need to worry about filling out her plot line—because she has been relegated to another character’s plot line.

One other possibility is merging characters. If one of your major characters could take over a few of those scenes, then the other ones could be cut—because that major character already has a plot line of his own in which those scenes aren't needed. An added benefit: you are strengthening a character in whom you already want readers to invest their emotions.

Exercise: Many authors devise characters to express underlying themes. Those are the first ones to cut. Theme is less important than plot, and plot is less important than character. You can find plenty of ways to express a theme besides the totem approach. Rather than using a character, look at the actions he performs and then give them to that major character you are keeping.

“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
—Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.