Yeah, I thought so, because the truth is NOBODY likes to cut back on things they love, be it food, drink, or the words they bleed into a novel. Especially moi (CDQ Lessman, and no, those aren't my feet ...), whose first manuscript was … ahem … 162,519 words. Apparently my publisher didn’t catch on right away because my next three books ranged from 145,000 up to 167,000 words before the legal department lowered the boom on book 6 in my O’Connor family saga, A Love Surrendered.
“You want me to cut HOW many words from this book???”
“Fifty Thousand,” my editor said softly with a crimp of sympathy in her eyes, "and I’ve suggested a few ways to do it, Julie, with subplots you can cut.”
A brain freeze Anartica’d my body as my eyes glazed over with frost. “Cut 50,000 words and three subplots???” I rasped, lips turning blue. Might as well cut L-M-N-O-P through Z out of the phone book or dictionary. I mean, seriously???
Yes, seriously. So, yes, I did what any self-respecting author would do when an editor asks for a lb. of flesh—I broke down and cried—right before I went to the shed and sharpened the ax.
And you know what? It’s not really all that hard to trim fat from a novel, so I’m going to share with you today just a few of the tips I’ve learned along the way, starting with the easiest and most obvious ones.
1.) CUT UNNECESSARY SUBPLOTS. This is one of the easiest way to cut words from your novel, as I learned the hard way when I was asked to cut 50,000 words from A Love Surrendered, which okay, I’ll admit, was originally 170,906 words—ouch! But in my defense (I know, there is no defense for an author who writes 171,000-word books), it was the last book in the O’Connor saga with a massive epilogue, so there. AND … the silver lining in all of this was that I cut three subplots, two of which I’ve already used for two Seeker Christmas novellas. So … I’d like to take this moment to send a HUGE hug to my very wise editor and Revell’s excellent legal department!!
2.) CUT UNNECESSARY SUBORDINATE CHARACTER SCENES. Okay, this is a recent one I learned when I pitched my new contemporary, Isle of Hope, to my publisher who actually liked it, but wanted me to cut it in half (cutting a 156,146-word novel down to 78,000, imagine that!) plus wanted me to tone down the spirituality. Well, since the story is loosely biographical and pretty therapeutic for me, both my agent and I decided I should keep it as is and pub it myself, which I’ve done. So if you like deeply romantic stories with deeply spiritual content, this is the book for you. (WARNING: Shameless plug at the end of this blog with giveaway).
However, my agent and I both felt I needed to cut about 10,000 words to tighten it up, so my editor suggested eliminating “unnecessary scenes with subordinate characters,” namely children. You know, things like cute banter you love but doesn’t really add to the plot of a novel? So, take a good hard look at trimming all the extraneous banter with your subordinate characters because more than likely it won’t be missed.
3.) MAKE A GAME OUT OF CUTTING WIDOWS & ORPHANS. And, no, I’m not some sadistic person who hates little old ladies or ragamuffin kids. But when I’m serious about reducing word (and page) count, I literally go through an entire ms. and eliminate widows (single sentence or short paragraph on a page by itself at the end of a chapter) or orphans (single word or two on a line by itself at the end of a sentence). I tackle each one like a game—cutting words from sentences and paragraphs around or before the widows and orphans until those puppies are gone. And you know what? I actually have a blast doing this!
4.) CUT THE WORD “THAT.” Did you know that you can eliminate the word “that” most of the time?
Such as in “Did you know you can eliminate the word “that” like you did in this sentence? When I cut A Passion Most Pure down, one of the ways I did it was by going through the entire book and eliminating every “that” that I could … uh, I mean eliminating every “that” I could … :) Here’s a clearer example:
Clara shook her head as she watched the newlyweds duck into the taxi that was waiting at the curb.
Clara shook her head, watching the newlyweds duck into the taxi waiting at the curb.
5.) CUT DOWN SENTENCES LONGER THAN THREE LINES. When I’m editing to lower word count, this is a little rule of thumb that I use constantly, eyeballing sentences that take up more than three typed lines. When I see them, I immediately pare the sentence down. Following are some before-and-after examples of my copy as originally written, followed by the pared-down version.
Here’s a sentence in which I eliminated eight words by deleting unnecessary phrasing (in blue) for what I think is a cleaner, sharper sentence.
The door slammed behind them, and Katie found herself racing to catch up with Betty as she marched down the glossy wooden hall lined with closed doors, high heels clunking like a small army.
The door slammed behind them, and Katie raced to catch up as Betty marched down the glossy wooden hall, high heels clunking like a small army.
No amount of paring down is too small. Here’s an example of eliminating one unnecessary word because it’s already understood.
“You jump higher than Luke does when I sneak up on him.”
“You jump higher than Luke when I sneak up on him.”
Phrases of three words can often be pared down to one or two words as seen in these two examples where I cut the underlined words for the final copy:
Both words and air pasted to the roof of Sean’s mouth as his eyes flipped open, glazed in shock at the picture of Mr. Kelly looming in the door, slack-jawed at the sight of Sean holding Rose in his lap.
Words pasted to the roof of Sean’s mouth as his eyes flipped open, glazed in shock as Mr. Kelly loomed in the door, slack-jawed over Rose in Sean's lap.
Here’s a progression of edits where I’ve underlined phrases and words that I eliminated in the next version because they are already understood from the action in the scene. Note the deletion of the phrase “hustled at a brisk pace,” which is already understood by the phrase “hot on his heels.”
Bobby screeched to a stop, his spindly chest heaving from his sprint to catch up with Sean. Twenty feet behind him, his mother was walking at a brisk pace, obviously hot on his heels.
FIRST EDITED VERSION:
Bobby screeched to a stop, spindly chest heaving from his sprint to catch up. Twenty feet behind, his mother hustled at a brisk pace, obviously hot on his heels.
Bobby screeched to a stop, spindly chest heaving. His mother hustled twenty feet beyond, hot on his heels.
First drafts are the perfect place for purple prose—all those wonderful words that come to mind to describe something, but in the edit phase, take half of the words out, especially the ones that “tell” rather than “show” OR the extra adjectives that only muddle the water, as indicated in the before-and-after clips below where the underlined words were cut.
Whether entranced by the beauty of Savannah Bridge at twilight, its watercolor wash of purples or pinks spilling into the rippling waters, or whether his footsteps were muffled by the sounds of foghorns and traffic, she didn’t seem to hear his approach.
Whether entranced by Savannah Bridge at twilight, a watercolor wash of purples or pinks spilling into the water, or the sounds of foghorns muffling his footsteps, she didn’t hear his approach.
The gurgle of a fountain happily melded with Mrs. O’Bryen’s off-key humming to create a familiar ambiance that warmed Lacey as much as the summer sun peeking through leafy branches that swayed in the salty breeze.
The gurgle of a fountain happily melded with Mrs. O’Bryen’s off-key humming, warming Lacey as much as the sun peeking through leafy branches that swayed in the salty breeze.
A familiar calm suddenly buoyed her with hope like the colorful flags on the various sailboats, billowing in the breeze, their tall masts jutting in the air like arms lifted to heaven while they bobbed on the water.
A calm suddenly buoyed her with hope like the colorful flags billowing in the breeze, their tall masts like arms lifted to heaven while the sailboats bobbed on the water.
6.) FINALLY, CUT DOWN SPEAK ATTRIBUTIONS. Use speaker attributions (he said, she said) sparingly and mix in beats instead (actions to show whose speaking rather than a speaker attribution).
TOO MANY SPEAKER ATTRIBUTIONS:
“Patrick, you’re tired, and you’ve been drinking. Come to bed, and we’ll discuss it in the morning,” she whispered.
“Did you kiss him?” he said.
“No, of course not!” she responded.
“Did he kiss you?” he asked again.
She gasped for breath.
“Answer me!” he screamed.
“Yes!” she said.
“Well, Mrs. O’Connor, and how do I compare?” he asked.
LESS SPEAKER ATTRIBUTIONS:
“Patrick, you’re tired, and you’ve been drinking. Come to bed, and we’ll discuss it in the morning.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“No, of course not!”
“Did he kiss you?”
She gasped for breath.
He gripped her arm and shook her. “Answer me!”
His eyes glittered like ice. “Well, Mrs. O’Connor, and how do I compare?”
So there you have it—just a few of the ways I whittle my manuscripts down to size, so now it’s YOUR turn.
Post a before and after of ONE of your sentences that you’ve pared down or give me ONE or TWO of your lanky sentences, and let’s see what we can do with it, okay? Everybody who comments is eligible to win their choice of any of my signed books, INCLUDING the paperback or ebook version of my new contemporary, Isle of Hope.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT ISLE OF HOPE:
— “I don't think anyone can walk away after reading this book without being changed." — Kav, Best Reads Blog
— “Be prepared to question your beliefs about forgiveness.” — Beth K. Vogt, award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
— “Isle of Hope will tear out your heart and put it back together, a little sore for the process but sweetly soothed all the same. It’s emotional and raw and convicting … but healing.” — Carrie, Reading is My SuperPower Blog
— “Isle of Hope is “too important not to be read. There are so many life lessons in this book that I’ll be thinking about it for years to come. Run don’t walk to the nearest bookstore or online, and then take the journey to Isle of Hope.” — Virginia Rush, Amazon reviewer
— “I can count on one hand, in fact, the number of books that I have not merely enjoyed but ingested and absorbed into my soul. Isle of Hope will now forever (and ever, amen) be included in this list.” — Carrie, Reading is My SuperPower Blog
— Isle of Hope may in fact not only be Julie’s best novel so far, but also her most important. — Carrie, Reading is My SuperPower Blog
“I have read a lot of books this year (I would not be surprised if I have read an average of 10 books a week if not more) and this novel ranks close to the very top if not at the top as far as spiritual impact (along with being an over-all well-written and compelling story).” — Katy from The Engrafted Word Blog.
— “Julie’s book is as much as devotional as a novel.” — Virginia Rush
ISLE OF HOPE CONTEST: Be sure to check out the IOH Contest on the CONTEST tab of my website for a chance to have a character named after you in my next book and a signed copy. Good luck!!
Julie Lessman is an award-winning author whose tagline of “Passion With a Purpose” underscores her intense passion for both God and romance. A lover of all things Irish, she enjoys writing close-knit Irish family sagas that evolve into 3-D love stories: the hero, the heroine, and the God that brings them together.
Author of The Daughters of Boston, Winds of Change, and Heart of San Francisco series with Revell Publishing, Julie was named American Christian Fiction Writers 2009 Debut Author of the Year and has garnered 17 Romance Writers of America and other awards. Voted #1 Romance Author of the year in Family Fiction magazine’s 2012 and 2011 Readers Choice Awards, Julie was also named on Booklist’s 2010 Top 10 Inspirational Fiction and Borders Best Fiction list. Her latest novel, Surprised by Love, appeared on Family Fiction magazine’s list of Top Ten Novels of 2014, and her independent novel A Light in the Window is an International Digital Awards winner, a 2013 Readers' Crown Award winner, and a 2013 Book Buyers Best Award winner. Julie has also written a self-help workbook for writers entitled Romance-ology 101: Writing Romantic Tension for the Sweet and Inspirational Markets. You can contact Julie through her website and read excerpts from each of her books at www.julielessman.com.