How to Cut 33,500 Words From Your Your Novel Without Checking Into An Asylum

For the benefit of any prospective Christian authors out there, and for the sake of my narcissism, I thought I’d give you a look inside my editing process.

Once upon a time, Johnny Came Home went through what I thought was its last round of edits, yet because the Bible says that wisdom is found in the counsel of many, I asked a few friends and family to read that draft. I’d already meticulously spell-checked and grammar-checked it because I did not want to waste their time. One friend graciously directed me to Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Once I picked up a copy, I definitely saw the need for further edits.

Repeated Repeated Words & Phrases

Most of the Browne & King edits were a matter of formatting.

Since the things I missed were fairly easy to fix, but oh-so-crucial to making the book the best it could be, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on repeated words, unnecessary sentences, character development, flow, paradoxes, danglers and descriptive word choice.

The first thing you should look for is repeated words. My personal sins are too many to list in this category, although my over-use of the word “dude” comes to mind, dude. Here’s an example:

Johnny sighed, took note of the fact that his passenger was still asleep, and decided not to wake him just yet. Weasel would have a thousand questions that he wasn’t prepared to answer just yet. He headed toward town.

The simplest solution was to delete the repeated phrase. In other cases, where a word is repeated more than once, you have to get a little more creative.

Confusing Terms

I also used the word “merc” and “mercenary” quite a bit in the last draft to describe a type of zombie soldier utilized by Titan’s corporate rival. You won’t see either variant anywhere in the most recent draft, because the word simply didn’t fit. Mercenaries are guns-for-hire. Zombie soldiers  don’t really have a choice in the matter [and I’m pretty sure they don’t get pay and benefits!] Point is: don’t just go to Thesaurus.com and pick a synonym for the word “soldier,” for example. Make sure the word actually describes your character so readers don’t get the wrong impression. In my case, it would have been easy to assume that Titan’s rival was using both zombie troops and hired guns, when in fact they only brought along the former.

Dialogue Tags

I’m guilty of using words repetitively, but the majority of these edits had to do with dialogue.

In my original draft, I had lines like:

Says you,” Weasel snickered.
“You don’t understand,” Emily protested.
0r, “Not to my knowledge,” Johnny shrugged.

Unfortunately, while very descriptive, these dialogue tags draw attention to themselves – and away from the dialogue. They also force physical impossibilities. For example, did Johnny really shrug his line? Did Emily protest hers? It turns out that the old standards “said” and “asked” are a lot less distracting. In some cases, where it’s clear whose speaking, dialogue tags weren’t necessary at all. I ended up turning a lot of my dialogue tags into action beats.

For example, the line “Not to my knowledge,” Johnny shrugged becomes Johnny shrugged. “Not to my knowledge.”

Internal dialogue [a character’s thoughts] usually don’t require dialogue tags. In fact, I got rid of a lot of words, two words at a time, by simply deleting the words “he realized” or “he thought.”

Unfortunately, I’d also discovered that one’s first novel should be 100,000 words or less. That original draft was well over 132,000 words. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the Browne & King edits had trimmed off over 14,000 words, but it was obvious that I wasn’t going to come up anywhere near my goal. More drastic edits were called for.

Trimming Chapters

First, I tried the chapter synopsis method. Basically, you write a short synopsis of each chapter and then trim the fat when a chapter meanders too far off course. If you have a chapter synopsis that reads something like Johnny and Ed keep talking and you were trying to build up an action scene, you can be pretty certain your dialogue has gotten away from you. I got rid of three chapters that way. The point is to make sure your storyline flows.

Flow is that magical [and oftimes elusive] element that keeps your readers turning the pages at the right pace. Those last four words are really important. If you’re building up an action scene, you do not want your readers bogged down in a patch of dialogue.

Though less obvious, action scenes can also interrupt the flow. In my case, I had two epic super-powered fight scenes that did not advance the plot in any way. They were just there because I got these cool images in my head and they leaked out onto my storyline.

Let’s face it: I write the movie I see in my head. Sometimes I also write the video game tie-in. The problem with the video game tie-in [and the key difference between a video game and a movie, in my opinion] is that the game has mini-bosses, something neither movies nor novels have [generally speaking]. Mini-bosses were conceived of to give gamers more bang for their buck. They are not necessary to the game’s story arc. They’re extra. Superfluous [like that last word and this parenthetical remark]. As a novelist, you want your readers to keep turning pages at the right pace, so you don’t want to muddle the pace or cut off the flow completely. Action or dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot is like a big parenthetical in your book. Or as we say in my neck of the woods, a rabbit trail. Get rid of them. I ended up cutting out two chapters worth of material.

That’s not to say that your book should be a Spartan page-turner. One of the things I had to do was to go back and put two scenes back in! You see, character development is important. I mean, why should we care about a character? Why should we invest our time in them? What makes a particular character, major or minor, someone who isn’t interchangeable with any other character? For example, I had cut out a scene where a character remembers her life before the fire that took Johnny’s parents. In retrospect, this scene was important because it not only introduced and fleshed out a character important to my protagonist, it showed us the impact Johnny’s disappearance had on those he knew and gave us a better picture of Johnny’s father, someone who continues to influence him. I cut that scene to bring down my word count. It was the wrong scene to cut! Use discernment when editing your novel. Ask God for wisdom; He promises to give it to you in spades!

Trimming Characters

After trimming chapters, I committed to a more heartbreaking edit. I eliminated a character entirely, including all of her scenes.

Dr. Michelle Phineas was very interesting. She lived in Point Pleasant, WV during the Mothman scare and the Silver Bridge disaster. She developed a fear of bridges and a distrust of superstition as a result. She worked for Titan, but was selling out to the competition. But I was basically using her and another character’s dialogue/argument as a foil to present some apologetics. The problem was that she represented a bulk load of meanders that distracted from the plot.

Orphan Plot Holes

Eliminating Dr. Phineas left me with some orphan plot holes. If your character has any worth to the story you’re writing, you’re going to be left with a few plot holes when you cut them out. If you cut out a character and you don’t have any plot holes to fix, your character likely wasn’t at all integral to your plot anyway.

Your characters have relationships with your other characters. The void in the remaining characters’ lives will change them. Dr. Phineas had plot relationships with two minor characters (Ed and Gage)and my protagonist (Johnny). In Johnny’s case, she simply provided a specific face for Johnny’s childhood relationship with Titan; she was the “Needle Lady” who tested him throughout his development for reasons he did not then understand. The very concept of a “Needle Lady” turned out to be window dressing, so cutting Phineas didn’t really result in a plot hole. On the other hand, Ed no longer had anyone to argue with, leaving a bit of my apologetics dialogue and my character’s purpose to the story up in the air, and Gage…

Well, Gage was originally a minor character who was simply Dr. Phineas’ assistant. Later, I developed him further, deciding he was another character’s great-nephew and giving him a role in the battle royale at the book’s end. In other words, he went from disposable to I-really-reeeeally-want-to-keep-him-please-please-please. So I re-wrote him a bit, chunking him out of scenes where his presence only made sense in light of Dr. Phineas’ actions and him new scenes. Even with the new scenes, it still resulted in a substantial reduction.

As for Ed, I trimmed his dialogue to what was necessary to the plot. Since you can’t have a dialogue without someone else [and only evil villains go around monologuing], I paired him with Johnny himself, which actually made more sense for both characters, especially since it added depth to my protagonist’s character development. I had Ed fade from the story after his last crucial scene. As a minor character with no super powers and, more importantly, no reason to be in the book’s final battle royale, I pretty much cut him out of the rest of the book and gave him “something to do” that made more sense, given his character. This “something to do” took all of a paragraph to relate and a sentence at the end of the book to confirm, wrapping up his character satisfactorily.

Let me say the most helpful thing I can at this point:
Killing MurderingEliminating Dr. Phineas was really hard, really painful and really worth it. The story is much tighter and better for her exclusion. Sometimes, you have to make the really difficult decision to let go of dialogue tags, chapters, plot points and even characters in order to get more bang out of your story.

The Dreaded Dangler

The last problem I had was the dreaded dangler. The dangler occurs when you remove a character and like Jason Vorhees or Freddy Kreuger, they just keep popping up no matter how many times you kill them off. In my last post on self-editing, I mention that Dr. Phineas was removed from the book. Well, most of her. Not only did she show up by name at least five more times, she showed up by vague reference twice and by pronoun confusion once more! The pronoun confusion was the result of switching some of the plot elements and dialogue that I needed from Phineas to another character. That character was male… a male who thought to herself. The references were simply oversights, but I’m still not sure how I left her in by name five stinking times. After all, I hit CTRL + F and ferreted her out of the novel. But she’s gone now, for sure. [Cue chilling music]

Paradoxes

When I set up my book, I initially decided that Midwich isn’t really known to anyone outside and isn’t on any maps or internet databases. Johnny takes an unmarked interstate exit, drives down twisting country roads and drives through a mountain tunnel before he finally sees his hometown. He only knows how to get there from memory. Cool concept, but completely unrealistic. I mean, people have been living there for a while and presumably have family elsewhere and go on vacations. People are bound to have noticed that it wasn’t listed on Google maps or whatever. At some point in writing Johnny, I must have subconsciously recognized how ludicrous this was because I wrote in a tourist attraction. A tourist attraction. In a place no one knows about. Let that sink in. I solved my paradox by re-writing the opening chapter, having the town known, but geographically isolated, and having Titan hiding in plain sight as a benefactor and provider of jobs [so why would anyone suspect them of anything nefarious, right?]

You should look for paradoxes when you read your final draft. This includes paradoxes in your characters’ traits and actions. A lot of authors make the mistake of giving the reader and information dump when they first introduce their character. Too little information can make it difficult to form a clear picture of your character, but too much too soon can ensnare you in a trap of your own making. Characters tend to take on a life of their own as you write your book. If you describe a character as an incurable coward and then later show them being brave [with no apparent reason for this change], your readers will notice and it will pull them out of the story. It’s better to reveal your characters bit by bit.

Typos 

In general, you should have someone else read it too, because you will tend to gloss over things that they won’t miss precisely because they haven’t read it before and don’t know what you were supposed to write. This isn’t an idle piece of advice. You simply cannot trust yourself to completely self-edit your novel. Your mind is capable of deceiving you – and quite easily at that! For example, most of you can read the following sentence:

Aoccdrnig to a research taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arppoiatrely cllaed Typoglycemia.

Typoglycemia is yet another reason to take meticulous advantage of SpellCheck, but you’d be surprised what SpellCheck can miss! Words that aren’t misspelled per se will slip through, like typing the word red when you meant read, or affect when you mean effect. Since no SpellCheck or GrammarCheck program is perfect, having someone else proofread your book is crucial to a good edit.

Why Good Editing Is Critical

Our goal is to craft the best story we possibly can for the glory of God. If our story stinks, if it’s full of typos, paradoxes, plot holes, and unnecessary scenes and dialogue, that’s all they’ll remember. The last thing we want is for our audience to associate Christian fiction with preachy, ill-crafted schlock. If our story is well-crafted, they’ll remember the story and then remember the lessons it taught and the questions it explored. And that is the entire aim of apologetic fiction.

And in case you’re interested, Johnny Came Home managed to come in around 98.5 K words.

God bless you, and keep writing,
Tony Breeden

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Need your own copy of Browne & King? Find it on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Edition/dp/0060545690.


2 thoughts on “How to Cut 33,500 Words From Your Your Novel Without Checking Into An Asylum

  1. Tony,
    Thanks for posting this. Your comments about the editing process are right on. I hope that aspiring Christian authors will read this and follow your advice.
    Your conclusion nails it. If we truly want to write in a way that glorifies God with the gifts that He's given us, then we need to give Him our very best. That means that it will take some hard work in the writing and editing processes, and it will likely include making some difficult choices in the final edits.
    God bless!

    Like

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