Friday, May 28, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Three: Trimming the Fat

It's the most dreaded part of novel-writing, I think. None one likes to do it. I certainly don't. If you do enjoy it, please let me know why. Did you have a head injury, perhaps? The rest of us, though... there is nothing worse than editing for length.

Over-long novels. It happens to the best of us. It certainly happened to me. When I finished the first draft of The Ledger Domain, my book had 202,000 words.

Yes, you read that right. 202,000 words. And that's actual words, not "manuscript length" based on pages. I had a whole extra book's worth of material.

That sort of length for a first novel is UNPUBLISHABLY long. Don't let anyone fool you or lie to you. I'll shoot it to you straight. If you have a novel that long, it's not going to get published as is. You need to edit. Period.

The thing about it is, if you're novel is that long... you need to edit. It's not just about being "too long to publish." There isn't a reason for your book to be that long. Mine certainly didn't need to be. There was a lot in there that needed cutting.

For some, that editing could be that you need to cut the book in the middle somewhere. If you have a place close to half-way through the book that would be a good stopping point... great! Now you have the first two novels in a series! Congratulations! More often than not, though, that won't be the case. For the rest of us, we need to edit.

Ok, so now what? Do you just go in and start trimming a word here and there? Not quite. I've read that a lot on blogs about this subject, but that's really more targeted for those writing magazine articles, not novels. Trimming phrasing is good, but it isn't really helpful if your talking, in my case, needing to cut 50,000 to 75,000 words or more.

Actually, the best analogy I've found for this comes in the commonly-used metaphor "trimming the fat." If your novel is anything approaching good, you'll have two types of scenes in your story: meat and fat. The meat is in the sections that are the heart of your story. These are the scenes that advance the plot. These are the scenes that tell the actual story of your book. The rest (the character development, the humorous scenes, the background stories, etc.), are "the fat."

The easiest way to get frustrated when it comes to trimming is to confuse fat for meat. You'll end up tearing your hair out saying, "I know that it's 180,000 words, but they're all important!" No, they aren't all important, actually. Yes, some of it develops your MC, but do you need that development in order for the MC to do what happens next? If it is not absolutely crucial, it's fat. How do you know it's crucial? If there is no way that the plot advances without telling that scene, it's crucial.

Typically, there are two ways in which character development is actually meat. First, it imparts something important. For example, the death of the MC's brother John two years ago might have been an important traumatic event that made the MC who they are today, but since it's not actually happening today, it's not meat. Now, if the book is about a potential terrorist attack, and John worked on the bomb squad and supposedly died in an explosion, and his body was never recovered... now that might be crucial to the plot. If we find out that John is actually the person behind the attack, then yeah. It's meat. Otherwise, it's fat.

The other way character development might advance the plot is by causing the character to do something they wouldn't otherwise do (assuming the thing they do advances the plot). Again, this development needs to happen during the course of the novel. This can't be a "background" element. If it happened before the start of the novel, it's not meat. However, even if the development happens during the novel, it's not meat unless that development directly affects the plot! Here's an example. Let's say your MC, Julie, finds out during the course of the novel that her father, Paul, is having an affair. Unless this is a novel that centers around Paul's affair, then the entire affair plot line is going to be fat, not meat, even if it helps us identify with Julie and develops her character. However, what if the person Paul is having an affair with is Julie's boss's secretary? Nope, still not meat. But what if Julie's boss is involved in a dangerous and illegal scheme? Well then, Julie learning about her father's affair might cause her to investigate the secretary to "find out who this girl is" (something she wouldn't otherwise do), thus revealing the truth about the boss's scheme. Now, if that's the case, then it's meat.

Got a good handling on fat and meat now? Good.

However, understanding what's meat and what's fat is only the first step. Now, you need to know when to cut. You want to start by cutting fat. Just not all the fat. Think of a good steak. For the best taste, you need some marbling. Some fat heightens the flavor of the meat. Too much fat just makes it greasy and unappetizing. The same is true with a novel. You need some of the fat so that we can learn to love your story. If you're story has too much fat, we'll be left wondering when we'll get to the meat. If your story is too "lean," then it's going to be... um... dry.

But what if you think you've done a good job of cutting the fat, and you're still too long? Well, now it's time to cut meat. That does need to happen sometimes. However, just as with steak, you should be careful where you cut. If you're going to cut down a T-Bone, you don't cut the tenderloin (at least, not if you want the best-tasting T-bone possible). Cutting the meat means simplifying the plot. Maybe there's a twist you just don't need. Simplify. Make the story easier for your reader to follow. Just don't cut out the heart of the story. If you don't know what that is... well, I can't help you there. Leave the elements that must be there, and cut the rest.

Now, this won't be easy sometimes, but to be an author, you must be ruthless. Just as you sometimes must kill off characters you like, sometimes you need to kill off your favorite scenes. Trust me. I cut my novel from 202,000 words to 125,000. I had to get rid of some scenes I liked, but the novel as a whole is much better for it. Trimming the fat can be a difficult process, but it is very rewarding, and your readers will thank you.

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P.S.: The tool I mentioned in my previous post is a great tool for fat-trimming. It organizes your plot into scenes. This can really help you see which scenes are fat, and lets you trim accordingly. I'll say again that I highly recommend it. And in case you're wondering, it's a free tool, so no they aren't paying me to promote them. I just really like the software.

P.S.S.: Note that you may have a lot of fat at the beginning of the story. This is often described by agents as "starting in the wrong place." Always start your novel with meat. If you're eating a steak, would you want your first bite to be a big hunk of fat?
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