August 31, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Case Study

So far in my investigation of how I shortened my manuscript, I've explained the big picture concepts that allowed me to cut 35,000 words without changing the story, and I've delved into the nitty-gritty of some recurring opportunities for compression. To wrap up this series, I'll share a before-and-after excerpt.

A couple of years ago, during a previous round of revision, I made a similar post, and I considered using the same passage again. However, the new changes don't serve as the best example, so I've picked another section to look at. You can still check out that old post for an illustration of the ideas I've been talking about (as well as an illustration of the infinite repeatability of this process). And in case you're wondering, I chopped 65 more words from that scene, including the narrator sitting down and then a minute later moving to his wife's side, a pair of actions that struck me as glaringly unnecessary.

I selected today's excerpt because it shows off a number of the small-scale strategies I discussed for saying the same thing in fewer words. The scene also makes sense out of context, though I'm riddled with anxiety that out of context, every page of my novel seems ridiculous and uninteresting. You don't need any information to understand what's happening here, but I'll mention that the narrator is the son of the narrator from the scene I used before.

August 28, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Nitty-Gritty

In my previous post, I explained that shrinking my manuscript by over 20% was as simple and as difficult as giving myself word count constraints and rewriting with those goals in mind. Here, I'll get into more detail about how that worked by discussing some categories of changes I made in the pursuit of compactness.

One principle behind my shortening method is that it allows me to adjust my sense of scale. If I've decided a piece of text must be this much shorter, I get an idea of how many of its moments and details can be kept in and how many have to go. When I reassess in light of this rationing, it's often quite clear which bits aren't significant enough to save.

For example, I knew in my heart that I had to abandon the couch argument. There's a scene where two characters are starting to work out the logistics of moving in together. They're in love, but they have incompatibilities that will present problems for their cohabitation, and this conversation is one of many escalating disagreements. I had a few lines of dialogue in there about whether to replace an ugly but comfortable couch, and at points later in the story, the ugly couch was referenced again. I liked the debate about the couch and the way it encapsulated the differences these characters continue struggling with, but the rest of the dialogue also illustrated these issues. The shorter the scene grew, the higher a percentage of text was devoted to the couch, and I couldn't justify giving the detail that prominence since there's no couch-based breakup farther along. Losing the lines about the couch removed 50 or so words, which may not seem like much, but making decisions like this on every page resulted in cutting 35,000 words from the manuscript.

This deletion was one of many places where I targeted repetition in the story, which required becoming a lot more diligent about identifying this problem. The couch exchange was a good, specific detail showing the mismatch between the characters, but it wasn't necessary, because everything else in the conversation demonstrated that point. I also cut multiple additional conversations from the novel that mainly served to convey the same idea about this relationship. In previous drafts, I'd worked hard to eliminate anything repetitive, but closer scrutiny revealed plenty of areas where sentences or scenes rehashed an idea that was already well established.

This time around, I was pleased to realize that addressing repetition didn't merely reduce word count. In many places, I'd inadvertently weakened my story by driving a point in a little too far, and easing back made scenes stronger. For instance, I minimized the number of mentions of a character's recurring worry, trusting the reader to interpret his actions appropriately, and those episodes became more powerful. When a sentiment was expressed with a few similar sentences, I dropped all but the strongest one, giving that best sentence an opportunity to shine.

Another place where less can do more is at the edges of scenes. Most of my scenes start with a paragraph or three to establish how much time has passed since the previous scene and what's happened since then. I trimmed almost every one of these so the action could start sooner, and in many cases, I also ended the scene earlier than before, as soon as the necessary points were made. The advice to get in and out faster is a good general writing tip I've encountered and experienced many times. With one of my previous novels, I dropped the first chapter during a rewrite and started the story with later events, and then I axed that new first chapter in the next draft. The chapter-level changes for this revision were in the middle of the story, and I made those merged chapters fit through a lot of compressing scenes at both ends.

Of course, while I deleted large chunks of scenes and removed repetitive sentences, I also inspected each individual word in the manuscript and discovered plenty that were easily discarded. Numerous instances of "I am going to" turned into "I will", and constructions like "she was wearing" often became the simpler "she wore". I didn't make these changes in every case, and I certainly didn't use a global search and replace, but whenever it was appropriate for the rhythm of the text, I was happy to bid a swift goodbye to these extra words. I eradicated an impressive number of unnecessary "that"s and suspect (that) many more could still be edited out of this novel as well as everything I write.

That sums up the common types of big and small changes I noticed recurring as I went through this revision. Next time, I'll conclude the exploration of my shortening process by looking at how these techniques played out in a real live scene.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Opinionator, Ben Dolnick explains what crossword puzzles taught him about writing: "It will very often happen that I return to a puzzle, after an hour or two away, and find the answers coming in such a cascade that I hardly have time to wonder what kind of idiot was working on the puzzle before. And so it is in writing."

August 26, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Big Picture

When I finished the recent revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I promised to report on how I went about making it significantly shorter. During the first half of this year, I took a 160,000-word manuscript and trimmed it down to 125,000 words. That's a reduction of over 20%, from around 500 pages to around 400. It took approximately 5 months.

The 160,000-word manuscript I started with had been pared down from a draft that was 20,000 words longer, so I'd already taken a good hard look at this text and removed everything unnecessary. My writing style isn't flowery, and I have little patience for scenes that don't advance the plot. I'd written a long book, but I was confident the three intertwined narratives and sixty-year scope of this family saga justified the length. (Earlier incarnations of the novel were shorter, but also far less complex and interesting.)

The new draft of 125,000 words still contains the three storylines and the same multigenerational tale. No major plot events were lost in the Great Shortening of 2015. In fact, no minor plot events perished, either. I cut surprisingly few scenes. Somehow, I didn't have to lose any part of the story to get my manuscript down to a more acceptable length.

So how did I cut 35,000 words without changing the story? I have no idea. Bye, thanks for reading!

Okay, fine. While I'm unable to give a complete analysis of what I did, I can probably explain a few parts of the process to satisfy the curious. I don't have a guaranteed, repeatable formula to pass along for other writers, but perhaps something can be learned from my experience.

The first crucial step was spending time away from the manuscript. Once I began querying this novel, I didn't look at it beyond pasting the first chapters into a great many email messages. Almost a year passed before I read the whole thing again, and that gave me the distance to evaluate the story with a different perspective than I had while deep inside revision. During my year away, I read all sorts of books and wrote things besides that novel, and those activities also developed my critical eye. Upon rereading the manuscript, I was very relieved to discover I still thought I had something good, but I noticed plenty of sections that dragged, plus numerous bits that made me cringe.

Those boring parts were also a relief to find, because they gave me hope that a shorter manuscript was possible, and I used them as a starting point for planning this revision. (I've written before about planning and how valuable it is for approaching a rewrite, or for avoiding ever starting that rewrite.) When I contemplated the sections of the novel that struck me as too long or even unnecessary, I saw scenes and chapters that could be merged, particularly in the middle of the book.

August 18, 2015

An Adolescent Survey of Poetic Forms

The previous installment of my early writing took us a bit out of chronological order to examine the museum-quality pieces preserved in my childhood home, but today we'll return to our journey through the main archives. We left off with a last look at fifth grade, and I said we were in for some middle school angst ahead.

I may have oversold the angst idea, since the trials of adolescence aren't especially apparent in the school assignments that make up most of what's been saved. I do have a personal poetry journal that probably contains a few emo gems, but I've been cringing too hard to look at properly. We'll get to it soon, I promise.

The most miserable year of my childhood was sixth grade, when I was bullied and nearly friendless (shout out if you're responsible for keeping me at "nearly"). The curriculum that year didn't involve much in the way of creative writing, and I only have one surviving piece of sixth grade work. It's a script called "A Broadcast From Valley Forge" that imagines a television news correspondent visiting General Washington's cold, starving troops to report on the desperate conditions. I have no idea whether the assignment called for this experimental anachronism or if we were expected to write something more conventional, but I do recall delivering this report in front of the class and playing all three parts. I can only imagine what this did for my social standing.

Seventh grade went better, and one bright spot was my wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Mahoney. As a unit in her class, we studied different poetry forms and composed examples of each. Let's see if my poetry skills improved any between fourth grade and seventh grade.