Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Every Word Counts
Who knew there was a standard size as far as word count for trade paper back novels? I found out when my editor announced to the listserv of talent on the rooster after our inaugural year (2007) that our books are as a whole too wordy. Apparently a good size for a novel like mine was between 65,000-85,000 words. Wow, I thought, my first novel, Soon and Very Soon, was over that at 96,205. Some brought to question the contract that said up to 100,00. As it turns out that wasn't a suggested marker, but it would be mine.
I was writing The Manual, I mean - THE MANUAL, as the name suggests I was already at that point at 147,000 words and counting as I wasn't finished that draft. I must of thought I was Wally Lamb as the book neared 400 pages. A corporate manual was thick, right? I was in the thick of it, totally attached and in love with every character, every line, every word, and in its precise order. It was a blow. I was on point with my deadlines and I even considered sending it in and hoping my editor wouldn't notice the extra verbiage.
Alas, sensibility took over and I sent her a courtesy email. I told her my dilemma and asked very graciously did she want to read it and tell me what she thought could be cut or did she want to give me more time to bring it in under count. Guess which one she choose?
We all know it's the author's job to clean up their manuscript as much as possible. SO, here began the ardous task of cutting the fat of the book by 40,000 words. It wasn't like I could just whack off the last 4 chapters of the thing. The characters had revealed where they were going and the ending was set in stone. I just had to go through every line of dialogue, every event in the plot, every thought and piece of narration and relentlessly get to whacking. At first it felt as if I was losing an appendage, an appendix or something similarly vital. I literally made the decision, used the highlight feature with my mouse and closed my eyes as I pressed delete. I must have re-read the novel over 5 times with edits each time and it was still too lengthy.
I checked in with my editor and she told me to go through this time and think about the flow of the novel. Each chapter should advance the plot, not slow it down. There are only certain chapters that you camp, meaning where you take up residence and give the needed background information or research that either reveals motivation of characters or explains phenomenons occurring in the novel. The other chapters you march right through with fast pace, page turning narration. Her advice reminded me about the writing reference, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, with such pearls of wisdom such as, 'Readers don't require direction, but rather distraction,' and don't be afraid to cut anything that doesn't fit or make sense, even it is your favorite line, or as my editor Joy says, " even if it really happen to your best friend."
It all became clear to me, and easier. I became Edward Scissorhands with the copy and delete button. I stripped down minor characters who were morphing their way to major character status. I cut out a date scene set at a posh DC dessert bar that had decadent items to drizzle under a Godiva chocolate fountain. This wasn't your classic Ice cream and malt shoppe. I remember painstakingly describing the ambiance down to the track lighting and the delectables down to the buttery coating-all gone. The guys she was dating was gone so the spot had to go also. It was liberating, and I found a leaner, more concise story with only my basic plot structure and themes remaining.