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.

Now, each version of my novel has had a different number of chapters, and adding or subtracting is tricky, because the chapters rotate between three different time periods, and I need to keep events lined up for readers to experience in the correct dramatic order. It took a lot of staring at the problem before I came up with a solution that didn't destroy my carefully constructed dramatic tension, but eventually I developed a grand restructuring plan. Frustratingly, in several places I merged together chapters I'd previously split, but that's how it goes sometimes in the glamorous world of revision.

planning the 2015 revision

Of course, combining chapters doesn't automatically reduce the word count, but I was optimistic it would lead to trimming opportunities. For one thing, I intended to take out all those dull sections. Additionally, a certain amount of transitional and hey-remember-what's-happening material would no longer be required. But the most significant factor was that I knew I'd be forced to cut those now double-sized chapters down to a length within the range of the other chapters, since an outlier would create a problem for the structure and pacing. (This is not a universal principle -- some novels work just fine with huge variations in chapter length.)

As it turned out, my plan actually worked, and it demonstrates the key to the whole process. I condensed my manuscript mainly through a repeated strategy of telling myself that a chunk of text absolutely had to be rewritten to a certain shorter length. With a goal in mind for a chapter or conversation or set of paragraphs, I was able to chip away conscious of how much story I had room to tell in that section. Sometimes I had to scale back an event or an exchange of banter or the narrator's musings. In other places, I kept the scene intact and concentrated on choosing more concise and powerful language.

Each time I finished saying all and only the things I needed to in as compressed a way as possible, I was never quite down to my goal, but I usually got close. And when I went through the section again the next day, I was always able to remove just a little bit more. With infinite time, I might have abridged my story down to a piece of flash fiction, but I think I chose the right stopping point.

The fact is, I made my manuscript shorter by requiring myself to make my manuscript shorter, but that's not a very useful explanation. In the next post, I'll take a look at some specific types of changes that helped my manuscript shrink.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Literary Hub and Litquake present Terrible Writing By Great Writers, a collection of embarrassing work produced by writers in their younger days.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty much how my editing process usually works, too (I make it shorter by requiring that it be shorter). I'm currently engaged in doing so on my dissertation.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Desiree: It's comforting to know I'm not the only one who works this way. I fear the concept may be bewildering and unimaginable for anyone who doesn't already operate like this.

Henri Picciotto said...

It's sort of like tweeting, only less so.

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