I have just deleted 40,000 words (my doing, not the computer’s), from my work in progress, whose length over the last phase of writing and editing, had spun out of control, edging close to 130,000 words.
The book is now at 89,000 words – in the next round of writing and editing, its length cannot reach more than 90,000, not if I want a publishing house to look at it, me being a first time writer. It is a handy piece of magic I need to master, keeping the book length close to where it is now, while adding in the ending, plus a main character whose story is integrated with the protagonist.
That trick? In three words: Summarize. Reduce. Combine. This little epiphany is what keeps me from panicking late at night. Let me explain.
Most of my career has been spent as a newspaper editor and reporter, sometimes covering municipal meetings. A trick my fellow reporters and I learned was to turn the car radio off after leaving a meeting and summarize the events of the meeting in our heads, with nothing but our own thoughts to keep us company – it helped to get right to the meat of what happened. For me, by the time I got to the office, the most important thing I needed to get out – the story’s lead or opener – was ready to be typed into the computer. Then, I would summarize further, look to my notes for the specific facts and add in quotes. By retrieving the words from memory, I owned the story in a way that gave me command over the subject matter and made it a better read. The alternative would be to type in the notes, from start to finish, and then rearrange from there and eventually figure out where it all was heading, something that took more time and resulted in more words.
So then … along came January 2015. I was at an all-day writers’ conference up north, in which the phrase “inciting incident” was discussed, as in, every book has an inciting incident, the point from which everything begins. I realized that a big chunk of the book’s beginning was back story – the actual beginning of the book, and its inciting incident, hovered somewhere in the middle. I made the decision then to turn the book on its head, which was a big pain in the you-know-what. And I knew it would be. Moving the middle to the front, working in a new opener – it all took months in the midst of working full time, family illness and an anticipated move from New Jersey to Tamarac.
The result: a book of 130,000 words. Way too long.
What I realized was that I could employ the same principle as I did as a newspaper reporter. Summarize from memory. And I tell you: Do it. It strengthens the book and gives you command of the story that you would not have otherwise. Think of yourself re-telling a major experience in your life to someone who doesn’t know you. You only tell the important parts, right? You own it, you experienced it.
This is nearly the same thing.
After you have written every little detail of your book, from point A to point B to point C, and are left with something well beyond 90,000-100,000 words, heed this advice:
- Find your inciting incident, where the action actually begins. Chances are, it’s somewhere 100-200 pages in from the opener.
- Make friends with Control A, Control C and Control V (In Word – Mac users, I haven’t a clue). Assess what is excessive and send it into a new file, titled Deleted Copy or Overflow copy, and then delete this section from your WIP. It may take a bit of a trained eye to know exactly what gets axed, but my guess is, in your gut, you already know.
- Save everything. Save. Save. Save. Send it into an online holding area, a file in your email, Google Docs or DropBox, or wherever. Never get rid of anything.
- Now you have holes in the book from all those sections you’ve deleted. So you write, from memory, scenes that were way too long to begin with, and only really required a few sentences. Because you’ve already written it, you’ve already “lived” it. You own it. I bet the sentences you create will be stronger and more to the point.
- Refer back to the deleted copy if you need to refresh yourself on particulars or to grab a few quotes, but remember, the object is to: Summarize. Reduce. Combine.
This exercise will take some practice and force you to navigate the circumference of the earth when all you wanted to do was continue your linear line and fly directly from New York to London. But in the end, you’ll have a stronger book, as I hope to.