Reducing Word Count

There are plotters and there are pantsers.

There are putter-inners and taker-outers.

I’m the latter in both cases. My drafts are always too long. Woe!

After another round of feedback from my beta readers, I decided to go with the persistence wisdom of the lovely Beth Hull, and pulled out one of my characters (to save her for another book). My character was not at all happy about this, by the way. Even when I assured her that her new home will be even better. I haven’t heard from her since. I hope she comes back.

At any rate, I was sure this most recent set of revisions would result in a shorter manuscript. Since, you know, my goal was to strictly take things out. Well, somehow, when I was done, the manuscript was even longer than when I started! Which was endlessly amusing to my writer buddies (read: the poor saps who were often with me while I bashed my head against the table. “How is this possible?!”). It just made me want to cry. Especially since I was so happy with all the new additions.

Danica was forced, once again, to talk me off the ledge, and pointed me to a handful of posts by writers (aspiring authors as well published ones) who were in the same boat as me: stuck with a too-long manuscript. They had all gone through their manuscripts to check for repetition, and the necessity of every chapter and character and plot line, and still had a too-high WC. So then they went through their manuscripts in search of commonly overused and/or unnecessary words to axe. Some claimed they loped off 5-15k with this method alone—never touching a single scene!

Madness, I said.

But I tried it anyway because I was out of ideas.

It took me almost two weeks to get through the list (we compiled it from the several smaller lists), but, by jove, I cut out fourteen thousand words! Fourteen! Amazing.

I’m posting the list below for anyone who’d like it. It was helpful to print it out, and then cross the words off as I went.

A
about, actually, almost, appear, around

B – D
basically, behind, close to, down

E
even, eventually, exactly, extremely

F – J
finally, fairly, gaze/gazed, had, headed/heading, in order, just, just then

K – N
kind of, like, look/looked, mostly, nearly

O – R
only, out, over, possibly, practically, probably, rather, really

S
said, sat, seems/seemed, seriously, simply, sort of, somehow, somewhat, suddenly, supposedly

T
terribly, that, together, totally, truly

U – W
up, usually, utterly, very, was, were

I tackled each word individually. Typed it into find (click “find whole words only”), assessed the usefulness of the word in the sentence (sometimes the usefulness of the sentence itself–or the paragraph!), and then moved on to the next one. Reading sentences out of context made it easier to cut things, too. There were a few times where I deleted half a page! It’s like losing ten twenty thirty pounds!

I’m not going to lie… the experience was god awful. I spent hours and hours in Panera, often begging my writing buddy to “please just stab me in the face!” I said it so often she started to ignore me altogether. Sometimes I’d bounce up and down in the booth, or laugh hysterically, or declare I needed a cookie. Sometimes all three happened at once.

Every other type of editing I’ve done has required some level of creativity. This was tedious. I hate tedious!

It was worth it in the end, though. If you attempt this, know it will take hours (and the general breakdown of whatever sanity you might still have). I expected “that” to be one of the words to take me the longest, but the one that nearly killed me was “out.” It took two days. Two days.

What are your trouble words?

Oh, and if anyone has others to add to the list, let me know!

Happy cutting :)

The Art Torture of Revision

It never ceases to amaze me how much work revising is. I have a few friends who are still in the glorious stages of The First Draft, when everything is still new and you’re not bogged down by getting everything perfect. Since I’m a pantser (I fly by the seat of my pants when I write, and don’t have much, if anything, plotted out beforehand), when I’m in the first draft stage, I just let my characters do and say what they will. I’m open to any twists and turns in the plot that might come along. I just have fun.

But then revision starts. While I think pantsing is the best–okay, the only–way I can actually finish my projects, when I’m done, I usually have a hot mess of chaos roughly resembling a book. I set it aside and weep a little. And eat a lot of ice cream. Take the dog on many-a-walk, muttering to myself about how in the world I’ll be able to fix the mess sitting on my laptop.

I revise in stages. During the first (few) set(s) of revisions, I read it through and look for plot consistency, and try to logic-check everything.

+ Would Character A really do that?

+ Didn’t Character B just walk out the door? So how is she walking out the door again in the following scene?

+ HAHAH! Melissa, Character C would never say that.

Then I’ll go through it again and try to clean it up as best as I can before I send it off to a handful of friends, both writers and reader-only types alike. Then I let them find plot and logic issues. They always find ones I miss. Sometimes big ones.

I lament and pace and eat more ice cream. The dog gets to go on longer walks. I mutter some more.

Then I hunker down and start revising again. If I’m lucky, I can get a few additional people to read it. Once I incorporate their suggestions–assuming it’s nothing too big– I’m ready to query.

I was at that stage at the beginning of last year. I was ready to send my little baby off into the world! I sent it out to ten agents and got two nibbles. A partial request. I did a jig. And a full request! I had a dance party. I got a response to the full about three months later. A no. More ice cream was consumed.

I think I went through all seven stages of grief (this was the furthest I’d gotten in this whole process, you see).  I tried to convince myself that he probably didn’t even read it. Or that he was too busy to care about me, and had much better things to do. Like bathing in the tears of thousands of weeping aspiring authors whose hopes and dreams have been dashed on the Rocks of Failure.

But then rationality started to creep back in. Albeit slowly. I read over the agent’s feedback again, and, while vague, what I was able to glean from it was that my beginning just wasn’t working. So I took a deep breath, and tried to think about other ways I could start the book. Even though I’m a pantser, once I get the words down, I usually become rather attached to my story and all its details. I’d been hell-bent on keeping my beginning as is for a while, but I finally accepted that I might need to let it go. (Beth cheers.)

So I not only revamped my beginning, I changed it completely. I got six out of eight thumbs up on the new beginning from my ever-faithful readers. And then a whole new set of revisions came next. This new chapter one started a snowball effect, and I was quickly tweaking and rearranging everything in its path. I kept assuring myself that the major changes would mainly take place in the first half of the book. Once I hit the second half, the snowball would start rolling uphill. Perhaps come to a stop. It was the only way to get myself through the revisions, since they started to get so out of control that it felt like I was writing an entirely different book.

Then I hit the middle. And a snag. I skidded to a stop on the edge of the cliff as I watched the Plot Snowball of Doom soar off into the abyss.

Panicked, I called my resident Plot Checker (I think every writer should have at least one of these. Plot Checkers have two important characteristics: 1. They know your story, maybe even as well as you do, and 2. They’re honest, even if it might hurt). My Plot Checker is Danica.

I called her up, flipping out. Poor thing. She deserves a medal, I think, for putting up with me. She calmed me down, and we started plotting, throwing ideas back and forth. Then the conversation took an odd turn.

Danica: Do you think Character X would say something?

Me: *Pause* Character X? Character X? Are you nuts! Why would Character X do…

Danica: Hello?

Me: Ohmigod! …you’re brilliant.

Danica: I know.

The plot snowball had turned into an avalanche.

I’ve now rewritten the entire second half of the book based on one question. Something I never would have thought of before, but it was the right path to take. I think the book’s actually all the better for it. Well, at least I hope it is.

I’m rounding the corner on this last set of revisions now. Only four or five short chapters left. It’s much longer than I anticipated, but I’m trying to be okay with that. I’m trying to treat this very, very scary revision the way I treat The First Draft. I’m trying to see it as fun.

Because I know soon I’ll have to start the Plot and Logic-Check revisions next. And then a nit-picky edit to clean it up and trim the word count. And then sell one of my kidneys so I can afford all the fruit baskets and boxes of chocolate I’ll need to bribe my readers to read yet another version of this puppy.

I might have actually figured out where in the hell this story is supposed to go now…

But I’ll stock up on ice cream just in case.

So, what’s the revision process like for you?

Ghostly ramblings

To any of my fellow writers out there… do you find yourself constantly watching people, wondering if a story resides there somewhere?

For my job, I’m out and about all day long. I see (and often interact with–sometimes against my will!) strange and interesting people everyday. I watch facial expressions, take in attire, strain to hear pieces of conversation. I like trying to figure out people’s stories. Not just to have additional fodder for my stories, but because people on a whole fascinate me.

I often see the same people several times a week while I’m making my pet care rounds. Like the old hunchbacked woman with the giant orthopedic shoes, totebags hanging off either arm. She has distractingly long dentures. Of the dogs I walk downtown, she always asks, “Are they friendly?” I always say yes, she always reaches down to pet them. Then she laughs and says, “They’re sweet, aren’t they?” I always agree.

There’s the man who lives around the corner from me. He’s out on his front porch talking on the phone a lot. I think it’s to get away from the 4+ children who live in is house. And/or the chain-smoking woman I assume is his wife.

He always says hi to me and my dog as we go by. Often asks me about the books I’m reading, since I read while walking Diamond quite a bit. He’s a nice guy–though I’m worried there’s something wrong with him. His stomach, more specifically. It’s not just an oversized beer belly, but it looks misshapen. Like he’s storing things under his shirt. Perhaps his kid’s toys. Wooden blocks and Tonka trucks. Sometimes I picture a baby alien bursting forth from his abdomen. Something has to be growing in there.

I saw him marching angrily through the neighborhood the other day, further than I’ve ever seen him go. He was on the phone, of course, talking loudly. “I had to leave. I’m going to the store!” he said. “I can’t live like this anymore!”

But it’s the guy I saw tonight that made me think about crafting a story. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for about a year now. I walk Diamond twice a day, the times varying greatly depending on what my work load is like. Sometimes she gets her walk at six. Sometimes we don’t go til eleven. Yet somehow, regardless of when I go, nine times out of ten, I’ll see this guy walking. We pass each other on opposite sides of the sidewalk in the same general area, night after night.

I’m guessing he’s in his late teens, early twenties. He’s got shoulder length brown hair, always down, always parted in the middle. It’s in better shape than mine, which I find upsetting. I always marvel at how straight and sleek and shiny it is as he strolls past. He’s always in black jeans and a black t-shirt hidden behind a black leather jacket. He’s always sporting heavy black boots. And I do mean always. I’ve never, in a year, seen any variation in how he dresses or how he wears his hair. Never a pony tail, never blue jeans. He’s never talking on his phone or listening to music. He’s just walking at a steady clip, a hurried bounce to his steps.

The lack of variation has started to creep me out lately. I find myself often hoping something will be different when I see him. I hope someone will be walking down the sidewalk on his side, will say something to him. But it feels like no one else sees him when he goes by. No one turns to look at him. What if only I can see him? I’ve wondered. What if he’s a residual ghost forever walking the dark streets of Sacramento?

Most people, especially when walking at night, will glance over at anyone walking in their vicinity, just to make sure, ya know, the person doesn’t look like this. But in a year, he’s never even glanced my direction. Even when we’re walking on opposite sides of the sidewalk as late as eleven in the evening.

I was slightly relieved when Diamond heard those large black boots of his crunching through the fallen leaves tonight, and she watched him as he walked by. But it was only a temporary comfort. Dogs are said to be open to seeing spirits, too! As I watched him, I wondered if his destination lay somewhere around the next corner, or if he simply vanished, reappearing again the following night to make the same, endless journey.

I could, of course, just say hi. Call out an exuberant “Good evening!” to him and see if he responds. But, at the same time, I feel like that would break the spell. I realized tonight that I like seeing him. I like wondering about where he’s going, where he’s coming from, and if he only owns one outfit. I like wondering about what his story would be if he were a ghost. And about why I might be the only one who could see him.

Maybe when I get through this latest round of revisions on my book, and I’m letting it sit for a few weeks, I’ll attempt a short story.

But which way should I go? A ghost boy who’s trapped wandering the same street, night after night, or a living boy who floats through life unnoticed?