The Post Formerly Known as One Bite at a Time

The Post Formerly Known as One Bite at a Time

So  originally, I had planned to name this post on editing/revising after the old saying:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

But after some thought (not much really), I decided to change it. The title, while fitting for the methodology doesn’t match my analogy. See  I routinely use too many words while writing. In my most recent WIP, I came in at 103,000 words. Now that isn’t crazy high for YA sci-fi. But it is outside the sweet spot. Add to that, I am currently an unpublished writer, so the farther outside the norm I am, the worse for my chances to attract an agent/editor.

The problem is, I had been through four passes of the novel, and the feedback I was getting from CP’s and beta readers was that I needed to provide more details to characters and give more attention to world-building. By the time that was done, I logged in add a genre-threatening 107,000 words. Not good.

Another pass shaved about a thousand words, but that still left me well over the mark. After some input from uber-freelance editor Chuck Sambuchino (Thanks Chuck!), I shaved about 2,000 words, but that still left me at 105,000–still, way too high. I took another pass using Chuck’s advice to eliminate scenes that did not:

  1. Further the plot
  2. Introduce or promotes characters and their arcs
  3. Establish the setting (which includes both the physical world building, but can also include things like establishing and furthering themes)

Doing this left me staring at a 103,000 result. Better, but still frustrating.

I believe in my novel’s concept. I believe in its characters and voice. But I felt like I needed to do everything I could to give my “baby” its best chance to succeed in this world. The problem was, I felt like I had done all I could do. Needless to say I was still frustrated.

During college I managed a health food store. Around the first of the year–every year–I would have people come in and want something, a pill, drink, etc. that would help them get into shape. Our biggest seller was a pack of pills that on average resulted in weight loss of about ten pounds. Great, right? Not really. It contained a daily water pill. A water pill can take off most of that ten pounds without having to do much work. So customers would come back and want a second pack. Problem is, with the water weight gone, the losses didn’t come as quickly. Worse, it didn’t take much for that weight to come right back. Frustrated, they gave up. Not just on the pills, but on the diet and exercise as well. Many times, I knew who would and wouldn’t succeed based on the level of commitment. It was then that I determined that success in dieting was based on a commitment to a way of life. Daily diet. Daily exercise. In short, a change in daily mindset.

It was at this time, I began to think about my manuscript in those terms. Was I ready to a commit to the same, slow, tedious, process? Pouring over every line in my manuscript, not just for line edits, but for the sole purpose of cutting all fat? Any writer who has ever poured his or her heart into a manuscript knows the answer. Yes, of course.

However, this time through I had a very specific goal. I wanted a word count below 100,000–preferably under 95,000. So just like a calorie-counting, workout-journaling dieter, I started my next pass by documenting the word count for the page I was working on. (I use Scrivener so this was easy to do.) Next, I wrote down the last couple of words for the page I was working on. (I did this because as words were deleted, words from the next page would obviously jump up onto the page, making it hard to figure how many actual words I had cut.) I then went through each page and each line looking for 20 words to eliminate. Why 20? If I could cut 20 words from each page (with a total page count of 350 pages), I would have trimmed 7,000 words from my manuscript. Still a little high, but well within the range of many popular books for my genre and focus age. And off I went.

Word by word, sentence by sentence, I cut. Documenting the results just as a scale-watching dieter might. Why? I needed immediate feedback and tangible proof that I was on track. With those parameters in place, I was pumped at the results. Amazing what can be done when you examine the purpose of every single word–the structure of every sentence. Can a phrase be reworded to maintain purpose without sacrificing power? The surprising effect was in most cases cutting and minor re-phrasing made the overall impact even more powerful. Phrase by phrase I documented the results, watching the words fall off. True, there were some pages where the count stayed or even grew, but in every case, I felt the overall writing was stronger. There were even some surprises. By examining things so microscopically, I was able to identify redundancies in phrasing or passages of dialogue that I could eliminate. Cut three sentences and in most cases the 20-word goal is met and then some.

Progress: After one month of editing, I eliminated 5,ooo more words and improved the overall quality of the manuscript by strengthening the words that needed to be there. I didn’t reach the 95,000 word goal, but I was able to make the extra 4,000 words much more solid.

This process isn’t going to shave 15,000-20,000 words off your bloated wip, but it will add definition to your story and make those scenes pop by trimming away the final layers of fat that keep your manuscript from being the very best it can be.

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