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."


Henri Picciotto said...

Ursula LeGuin was interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition this morning (about five minutes, near the end of the show). The occasion was a new edition of _Steering the Craft_. At one point, she makes an interesting point about (if I remember correctly) "crowding" vs. "leaping", which seems very relevant to this post. Presumably that's addressed in the book.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Oh, cool. My writing group worked our way through Steering the Craft years ago and really appreciated all the lessons and exercises in the book.

Here's that interview for anyone interested:

And here's the section of the book (original edition) about crowding and leaping. I'd forgotten her terminology for these concepts, but I like the idea:

I'll have to check out the new edition and see how different it is. I definitely recommend the book to other writers.

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