Only Ten Percent

Hours of intense writing sessions produce volume, if nothing else. The better the writer is, the harder it is to cut material after beta readers or literary agents advise that the manuscript is too long. The first impulse is to trim sentence by sentence. That way nothing major has to be sacrificed. Yet I know as a line editor that this approach is doomed if the manuscript is very long. You won’t gain more than 10 percent in savings.

Instead, regard the manuscript as a series of steps from the top down. What are the major timbers? They are theme, character, and plot. So start at the top. How many themes do you have? Which ones, if you had to put them in order, are the most important? Once you have that list, a good first step is examining the book solely in terms of how well the characters and plot action support each of them. You may spot one or two that, while they seemed promising at the outset, haven’t really been carried through in the writing. Could you take out the parts supporting that incomplete theme?

Next, because a character can embody a theme, judge how taking out a theme impacts the character(s) supporting it. Let’s say you have a teenager damaged by a brutal father that left the family a number of years ago. The only parent that plays an ongoing role in the book is the mother, with the father relegated to background stories and maybe a cameo appearance actively. Could you express the damage created in shorter strokes, cutting down on the back stories? Could you use the mother’s implied references to him  to accomplish part of the theme? Does the father really have to appear in the story at all? Slashing in this direction could gain sizable chunks.

Plotting is the last big element and often the one most amenable to cuts. That’s because a plot event can either be related in live action or in narrative summary. As you did with the themes, draw up a list of scenes related to each plot line. Which ones are vital to understanding the story’s passage? You may find a number of incidental scenes. Nice to have as stepping-stones, but they could be reduced from a scene to a paragraph or two. You may find, in the process, that you have scenes that overlap in function. How many times, to use the previous example, does the boy have to drive off for the evening with no destination known? Maybe save only the one when he nearly does drive off the edge.

The most attractive target may be an entire subplot. That’s because, depending on its length, that plot line might be used as a head start on your next book. In that case, could you realign the background stories so that they fill the gaps left by the subplot scenes you take out? A reader can be left dangling at the end of a chapter merely by switching away from the present.

“Writing for me is cutting out the fat and getting to the meaning.” —James McBride

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.