Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How I Cut 33K Words (Twenty Percent) From My Epic Fantasy Novel


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Many of you know what I’ve been doing the past few months. If not, let me recap. I received the content edits on King’s War (Kinsman Chronicles, book three). This is the last book in the trilogy. There was a lot to tie up, and I knew the book was long. Too long. The full book came in at about 265K. So I wasn’t surprised when my editor asked me to cut some words.

He asked me to cut 40,000-50,000 words.

I failed.

But I came close! This was partly because I had to add some new content, which took up some space. In the end, I managed to get my word count down to 33,695 words, which made me dance and sing. There is an unwritten rule that says when you rewrite your novel, you should trim at least ten percent. This has never been the case with me. I write sparse rough drafts, and my final drafts always grow. Which was why when I first heard how much I needed to cut, it knocked the wind out of my sails.

If I was going to do this, I had to have a plan.

I like plans. I work best when I have a plan. So I knew I’d need a good plan if I was going to come anywhere close to cutting so many words. I thought you all might like to see how I tackled this daunting project.




1. I “saved as.”
If I was going to cut that many words, it wasn’t going to happen bit by bit. This book was going to undergo major surgery. I was going to have to hack into the thing with a machete. And I wasn’t going to do that without saving what I had someplace safe. Because I was pretty sure I would cut some things that later I would wish I had again. By saving a copy, I could always go back and find those things if I needed them.

2. I made a list of scenes.
Lists of scenes help me be able to see my whole book at a glance. In the past, I simply make a long list. This time, I wanted something a little easier to see. So I used Excel to create a page with twelve empty boxes. Then I scrolled through my book and put the chapter number, point of view character, and title at the top of each box. I wrote down how many pages that chapter was. Then I listed the gist of each scene in the chapter. That gave me a really nice way of looking at my book as a whole.




3. I cut twenty percent—in theory.
Math has never been my favorite, but it wasn’t too difficult to go through and subtract twenty percent from each chapter’s page count. If a chapter had ten pages, I was going to try and make that chapter have only eight pages in my rewrite. I went through my list of scenes and wrote my target page count at the bottom in a circle. Now, instead of a somewhat horrifying goal of cutting 50K from my story, I had close to one hundred tiny goals of cutting a few pages here and there. This was much easier to handle. And I could take it one chapter at a time.

4. I made a "To Do" list and added it to my manuscript.
I had my notes from my editor on things he wanted changed. I also had a pile of notes from myself of things I wanted to make sure were added to the story or got tied up in the end. I went through all of this, one item at a time. If it was something I wanted to fix or add, I scrolled to the right place in my manuscript and left a comment. “Add description of castle here” or “plant bad guy subplot.” With more complex matters like the latter, I would scroll through the manuscript and add comments in several key places. These acted as reminders for me. And if there were things in my To Do stack that I no longer wanted to add, I threw away those Post-Its or scraps of paper, which was a very liberating feeling. “Almost there, Jill,” I kept telling myself. “Almost to the end!”

5. I cut twenty percent—for real.
Then I started at chapter one and worked my way through the story. I cut everything I could. I especially looked for conversations that added nothing to the story or places where characters were being too wordy. I trimmed and trimmed. And if a chapter ended with five or fewer lines of text on the page, I went back through that chapter again, searching for paragraphs that ended with a few words of dialogue on the last line, then I cut and cut until I managed to pull those paragraphs, and eventually that chapter up until it ended one page earlier. This is a tedious process, but it really creates a tight manuscript. And it cuts words!

6. I added when I needed to.
When I needed to tweak or add things, I did. And there was a lot to add. I kept a spreadsheet in which I kept track of my word count each day, and it was always painful to have to log a positive number instead of a negative one. Still, overall I did pretty well. I had to add two new chapters at the very end, so that hurt my word count, but it also made the story better.

So that’s how I tackled the beastly rewrite of King’s War. I’ve turned it in, so it will be interesting to see if my editor finds more to cut. I will get the story back for line edits, then again later on for a proofread, so I’m not quite done yet. I’m close, though. I’m very close.



What do you think of my process?

Have you ever had to cut a lot of words?

If so, how did you go about it?

20 comments:

  1. Cutting words is something that has always filled me with this chilling sense of dread! Deleting words? Deleting entire scenes? How COULD I?

    Nevertheless, I began microediting my contemporary novel a few weeks ago with the intention of cutting 12.5%. The second draft was 103k words and I'd like get it under 90k. I'm one chapter in and...well, I don't think I've gotten off to a good start. On the plus side, I'm really pleased with my one chapter.

    This post has given me some food for thought, though. I might have to set up a spreadsheet of my own...

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    1. It is SO HARD, Rebecca! I feel your dread. But you can do it. Chip, chip, chip. :-)

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  2. I'm so proud of you, Jill! What a hard task!

    These are great tips. I absolutely love your spreadsheet of the scenes, and the way you made tiny goals for each chapter. Brilliant!

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    1. Thanks, Steph. That scene chart really helped!

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  3. That's so long! I'm so proud of you for getting that many words out of there. I need to start cutting words from my second draft, which is currently at 100k words (more or less) but needs to have both a lot of cutting and a lot of adding.

    This is going to be super helpful!

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    1. Thanks, Florid! It was nice to know that if I set my mind to it, I really could cut things out, even if I liked them how they were. *grin*

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  4. I really like how logically you took the approach of cutting so many words! Chapter by chapter makes it so much more manageable. I'd like to cut at least 10k from my Middle Grade novel, and this has encouraged me that it's more possible than it seems!

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    1. Thanks, Hannah. Yes! You can do it. Take it a little at a time and you'll get there. :-)

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  5. That is an incredible amount of dedication! Cutting words has always been a monumental task for me but your approach here is so logical I'm thinking I might try to adapt some of the steps for my current rewrite. Thank you so much Jill! I hope you have a nice rest after all that hard work--it sounds like you need it.

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    1. I hope it helps, Kelsey. Little by little is the way to go, I think. And, yes. I am lazing about in my own way. Ha ha.

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  6. Great job! I've never overwritten, only underwritten for a book. I can't imagine the torture of having to do that.

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    1. It's a bit dismaying to delete what you've created, so I couldn't look at it that way. I had to think of it like a discovery process. I wrote all those words to find the story, and now I need to pare it down to the essentials.

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  7. I was so excited to see this post! Because I was thinking about asking you if you'd do a post on how you've been cutting so many words. I've just been in awe at your progress! As someone who writes super long books herself, I need tips on trimming. I'm really bad at figuring out how to trim those excess words.

    I really love your thoughts on making out a list of scenes so you can have an easy way to look at your story as a whole. I've been thinking about doing something along those lines, so this really helped!

    This whole post was such a huge help! Thank you for sharing with us!

    And congrats on cutting all those words! You are a MAGICIAN.

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    1. Yeah, it was hard to cut that much, but I was glad I did, and I know the story is better now. You can do it too, Christine! I like the idea of being a magician. I should get me a pointy Gandalf hat...

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  8. I'm going to be doing this very soon. My second draft is again spilling over the boarders I set for it. Your tips here will be helpful, but the encouragement is what I needed to hear the most. It's a better story for it. Better!

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  9. I love the excel spreadsheet! My fiction romance was over 130k, when acceptable standard, I'm told is 80k. The biggest chunk came from deciding I had a sequel. ;-) The last 15k has been brutal though.

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  10. I actually feel like my first draft, when completed, will be much shorter than I want it to be. Are there any tips for making the story longer without adding things I don't need?

    ~Mila

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    1. Mila-
      Sorry I didn't see your comment until now. Stephanie and I each wrote a post with some tips on this subject. Here are the links. Hope they help!

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2017/01/what-to-do-w-hen-your-manuscript-is-too.html

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2017/01/too-long-too-short-closer-look-at.html

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  11. This post was so helpful for me!!! Thank you!!!

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  12. I write so short that I've never actually had to do this before! In fact, I've had books where I've needed to add words. But recently I wrote a "short story" (it turned into more of a novelette), and I've been doing some cutting because it just came out too long ... and so this post was great! :)

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