Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.
I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!
Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.
Then I had to really get stuck in.
This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.
So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.
I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.
I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.
I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:
“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”
I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.
And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.
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