How to cut out 16% of your manuscript and still like your novel

This spring I submitted novel number two to my publisher. They took a few months to look it over and have the evaluators analyze it, then got back to me this summer. Overall, they had a lot of good things to say, but they wanted the manuscript shorter. A lot shorter. Like 20,000 words shorter (roughly 60 pages).

I’ll admit, I panicked for a few seconds. How could I cut that much? I was so excited about my manuscript—how could I chop it without ruining it? But I quickly decided to go for it, because I like my publisher and I want to publish my second book with them. Since my second book includes characters from Espionage, I wanted to maintain the same feel and the same distribution power, and I could only get that from Covenant. So I went to work. And you know what? I think I could have added 20,000 words more quickly than I cut them. It was an interesting process. There are some things I’d love to add back in, but there are also a lot of things that needed to go, and now that they’re gone, I don’t miss them.

So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, or if you’re just curious about how the writing process works, here’s how I did it (warning, I’m enjoying not having a word limit on this blog post, so it’s the longest I’ve ever written):

Casting call

One of the first things I did was eliminate a few characters (five, I think, but then I had to add someone else in, so I guess the net deletion was only four).

One of my characters spent some time in London. Originally she had a roommate. She probably still does, because she’s not rich enough to afford her own room, and housing in London during WWII was tight enough that she’d need to share, but the roommate wasn’t that important to the story, so she’s gone. Ditto the roommate’s love interest. The character had to figure out a few things on her own or from the book’s main character instead of the roommate, but overall, I think it’s a change for the better.

The main plot line of my manuscript revolves around a WWII commando team. Most commando teams of this type had 15 to 30 members. Originally, I went on the smaller end of that, 15, so I could stay historically accurate but have fewer characters for the reader to keep track of. I even had two of the commandos get injured or kicked off the team before they left for their mission, so it was eventually whittled down to a lucky 13. With the new version, I started off with thirteen. As a bonus (in terms of cutting words), I deleted the scene where one character was kicked off the team and shortened the scene where the other character got injured.

Cutting characters can be a little tricky. For example, I had one character get married when the team had weekend leave. I cut that out. Then I realized I needed the team to know something the character learned from his new bride. So I left the bride out, and had the clue come from a different team member’s girlfriend. Overall, it still reduced the word count, in a kind of roundabout way.

Take shortcuts

Remember that 13-member commando unit? I didn’t have enough words to bring them all fully to life. And that’s OK—some of the team members aren’t that important to the overall plot. I couldn’t get rid of all of them—I needed that many bodies. So while some of the commandos will (I hope) feel like real people, some of them aren’t all that fleshed out. To help readers keep track of them, I gave some of them distinguishing habits. (Confession: this was partially inspired by the movie Big Red One, where one of the squad members is always smoking a cigar, and another—Mark Hamill in a role other than Luke Skywalker—is always drawing, at least when he’s not in combat.) So one member of my commando team pops his knuckles, another chews gum, several of them smoke, and one is an artist with a sketchpad. If a reader doesn’t remember that Private David Mitchell is from Saskatchewan, went to college on a track scholarship, has gray-blue eyes, is a skilled sniper, and has a girlfriend named Sally, maybe they’ll at least remember he’s the guy always chewing gum.

Find your favorites

When you’re cutting a ton of words (more than 10% of your manuscript), there’s a good chance you’re going to have to eliminate or drastically reduce a few scenes. You don’t want to cut the best part, so as you begin cutting, think about what in your manuscript is most worth preserving.

For me, I really loved my initial action sequence. And I really loved the two missions my main characters are involved in that lead up to the climaxes of their stories. Frankly, once my characters were on location, it would be hard to do much plot cutting, because in both cases event A led to event B which led to event C, etc. So that left me with the middle: when my characters were recovering from the beginning and getting set up for the bulk of the story. That’s where most of my cutting took place.

Recovery: cut from two chapters to one. Training: reduced. Leave: condensed. It’s not that I didn’t like the middle, I just liked the beginning and the end better.

Take some hints from Hollywood

While we’re talking about plot changes, here’s something to consider: can things that happen sequentially happen concurrently instead?

Take The Hunt For Red October, by Tom Clancy. It’s been a while since I read the book. But if I remember right (warning, mild plot spoiler ahead), once Jack Ryan is on the Red October, he and the other characters have to deal with a threat on the submarine, and then with a threat outside the submarine. They deal with one, and then they deal with the other.

Now jump to the movie version. When I saw the movie for the first time, I was actually impressed with how closely it followed the book. But in the movie, while Ryan and Ramius are dealing with the threat on the sub, Mancuso and the others are dealing with the threat outside the sub, all at the same time.

This technique is great for books with multiple point-of-view characters, or for books with multiple antagonists. Think about Return of the Jedi, where the action bounces from the rebel team on the forest moon of Endor, to the inside of the Death Star where Luke is confronting the emperor and Darth Vader, to the space battle between the Imperial and Rebel fleets. We don’t see any of the three events in entirety—we don’t need to. Instead, we get to see the highlights–the most exciting parts–and we never get bored.

Did I do this with my book? Yes. Originally, I had a group of characters dealing with “bad guys A”. They took care of them, then they were attacked by “bad guys B” and had to fight them. Now they have two sets of bad guys to deal with at once. Did it cut out some words? Not as many as I had hoped. Still, it made for a more exciting scene, so I’m glad I made the change, and it did reduce the word count a little bit.

What genre are you?

When making drastic word-count-cuts, you’re probably going to have to leave out some details. But which ones? As you decide, ask yourself why your readers are picking up your books. What do they expect from you? If you write romance, you won’t want to cut much from the kissing scenes. If you’re known for beautiful descriptions of the scenery, than you’d better leave your description of the sunrise as is.

I had to tell myself over and over again that I’m writing a thriller, not a travelogue. I usually don’t spend much time describing the scenery anyway; now I spend even less time. And I don’t write fashion fiction. So my characters wear clothing. And if it’s important to the plot, I might use a few words to describe it. If not, my readers will just have to assume no one is walking around in the nude.

Some details are fun, but unnecessary. For example, in one scene my communications genius was snacking on a D ration bar. In a roundabout way, it’s related to the plot. My characters had to eat, or they wouldn’t have enough energy to fight Nazis, and eventually they’d die. But this was a detail I could leave out, so I did.

I’ll be honest, deleting details was often hard for me. I write historical thrillers, so I’m trying to satisfy two types of readers: adrenaline junkies and history buffs. I didn’t cut out all my historical details, but I went through and asked myself if they were relevant to the plot. Some of them were, so they’re still in the manuscript. I think most readers will still learn something new about WWII.

There are a few things I had to cut or condense that I’d still like to shove back in. For example, my book has a briefing scene, when the commando team is told what their mission is. Originally, the guy giving the briefing summarized what had occurred in their target area up to that point in the war. It seemed like a logical way for the briefing to unfold, and I felt a few details about previous (historical) missions that ended in disaster helped raise the stakes and set a tense tone. I didn’t want to get rid of the details, but in the end, I did. I still mention some of the history, but in a few sentences instead of a few paragraphs.

Here are a couple things that made it easier to cut out details: I’m working on another book after this one with several of the same characters. So when I had to cut back story, I told myself I might fit it into the next book. I also have a blog. When I had to cut out something really cool that I did a lot of research on, I told myself I could make it into a blog post. That way my research wouldn’t go to waste, nor would it be unnecessarily inflating my word count.

Say what?

As I went through my revisions, I noticed a pattern. Some areas were consistently easier to cut. I could often start a scene a few paragraphs later than I did, or end it a little earlier. I would turn a few paragraphs into a few sentences, explain how my characters had arrived where they were, and then move more quickly to the important part of the scene.

This was especially true with dialogue. Sure, characters might beat around the bush in real life, but why not get directly to the point? Does the last reply really need to be written, or can the reader figure out how a conversation is going without seeing it in its entirety? Can fewer exchanges still get the point across?

A word of caution: if all of your characters always use as few words as possible to say something, they might all start sounding alike. So cut the dialogue with caution. Some characters might be a little wordy—if so, I’d recommend finding a different place to cut so you can keep your characters sounding right.

Omit needless words

OK, I stole that subtitle from Strunk and White. But it’s huge. If you need to cut a ton of words, you’re going to have to go through each sentence and see if you can write it in a more concise manner. Here are a few examples.

Why have your characters stand up or sit down when they can simply stand or sit? Why have a character hear the sound of artillery booming in the distance when they can just as easily hear artillery booming in the distance?

Do a search for words such as: started, tried, began, decided. Often, they come in combination with other verbs. Sometimes it affects the meaning, but often the extra word can be deleted.

I also did a search for words that end in “ly.” You’d be surprised how many adjectives and adverbs you can eliminate. I’d also recommend searching for very. It’s usually unnecessary.

Another word that’s often not needed: that. Do a search for it. If you can read the sentence without it, leave it out.

I my manuscript I often said things like “about twenty-five yards away.” After all, it’s not like my characters are walking around with measuring tapes. So when they see something, they’re making a good guess. They don’t really know, not exactly. I might have a point, but few readers will complain if I use “twenty-five yards” or “a mile” instead of “about twenty-five yards” or “about a mile.” All my characters now have super-human distance-judging abilities.

Other words I found I was overusing: only, despite, just, then, and even though. Other writers may have different candidates for deletion, but that’s a good place to start. I also found it was easier to delete extra words when I looked at them in isolation. When I read my story chronologically, I had a tendency to get into the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. When I did a search for a specific word, it was easier to ask “is this word really needed?”

Get nit-picky

This is kind of a continuation of “omit needless words,” but it involves things that go beyond style. For example, I have a list of everyone on the commando team at the beginning of my book, just in case people forget who’s who. Originally I had the ages listed. But do the ages really matter? I decided they didn’t, so I cut that information from the list. It only saved 26 words, but every word counts.

Here’s a useful thing to say to yourself when you’re in a word crunch: contractions are your friends. Really, anywhere you can, use them. Don’t ruin your style or have purposely formal characters become informal, but look into replacing “did not” with “didn’t” and “he had” with “he’d”. Do it often enough, and you’ll notice a difference in the word count. Same thing with compound or hyphenated words: use them if they’re correct.

I had a lieutenant colonel in my book. According to my slightly-outdated Chicago Manual of Style, it’s written like this: lieutenant colonel (two words), not like this: lieutenant-colonel (one-word). So I gave my character a promotion and made him a full colonel. It’s probably the worst reason for a promotion since Catch Twenty-two, but it eliminated a few worlds.

Inch by Inch

Ultimately, you may have to go through each sentence and each paragraph and ask yourself why it’s there. Is it necessary to the plot? Does it reveal something important about a character? Does it help your reader see the setting? . . . Or can it go?

Cutting out words is tedious. It can be discouraging to go through a chapter and rewrite half the sentences so they’re more concise, only to hit the word count and find you’ve eliminated a mere 100 words. But 100 words a chapter, times however many chapters in your book, is significant progress.

So next time you have to cut down the size of your novel, save a copy of the original (it’s easier to cut words when you know they’re not completely gone), roll up your sleeves, and become intimately acquainted with the delete and backspace keys. Happy cutting!

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