Sharp Scissors - Cutting Down Your Manuscript: A Guest Post by Veronica Roth

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thrilled to be hosting Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, to share her advice for over-writers!

We writers generally fall in one of two camps: over-writers and under-writers. I know a bunch of writers who finish their first draft and then go back and add descriptions and setting and inner monologue, oh my. I also know a bunch of writers who go through their first draft and hack it to bits. I am one of them. Mostly.

So, as an over-writer, I can say it’s hard to cut that much content. It feels like releasing a beloved hamster into the wild, or setting your favorite possessions on fire. (I don’t know why you would do either of those things, but you know what I mean.) But here is my major concern: some over-writers don’t know that they are over-writers.

I see it everywhere. Someone asks in a blog comment or on a writing forum: “is it a problem that my YA paranormal romance is 120,000 words long?”

On rare occasions a 120,000 word novel might be well paced, but my suspicion is that it probably isn’t.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say this: there is ALWAYS something to cut if your novel is that long.

I will pause here for you to throw things at me.

So here are some things you can cut.

1. Let’s Start Small

Most of the trimming you can do is on the sentence level. The reason I know this is because I am pretty sure I cut 20,000 words from a manuscript just doing this. Before then I never realized that I could change my sentences that much, so when someone showed me, it altered my writing life permanently.

Here’s an example:

Before: “Barbara lifted her hand and touched Jim’s face.”
After: “Barbara touched Jim’s face.”  TA DA! Four words gone and it still says the same thing.

“Barbara started to walk toward him.”  You really don’t need phrases like “started to” or “began to.” They just weigh your writing down. Instead, you could go with…
“Barbara walked toward him.”

“Barbara took a sip of her water.”
“Barbara sipped her water.”

I think you get the point. There are so many phrases that we use on a regular basis that are completely unnecessary. When you revise, think about each sentence. Is there a cleaner way to say what you’re trying to convey? That doesn’t mean sacrificing creative language, but there is a way to use creative language where each word is important and each phrase is clear and intelligible.

I recommend doing this in smaller chunks or your brain might start to ooze out of your ears.

2. And For My Big Finale

These are always the hardest. But you’ll be happy about them later. I certainly was.

A. Characters. Characters always serve a purpose. That purpose isn’t always plot-centered—they might support your main character, or antagonize him, or create tension. But each major character should have his/her own arc. If you find that you can lift a character completely from the MS and very little is disturbed, that character should go. If a character in the beginning doesn’t return, you can consider removing them. If two characters occupy the same role, you can combine them. If your readers are getting two characters confused, maybe only one of them needs to be there. These are the questions you ask yourself. Preferably while eating chocolate.

B. Scenes. I generally ask myself the following questions. What is the purpose of this scene? Is there a better way to get from point A to point B? Does this scene change its tone from beginning to end/go from positive to negative or negative to positive or positive to more positive, etc.? Does this scene contribute to to the plot?
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