Chopping and Changing – Revisions, Cuts and Additions.
How long should your story or novel be?
A piece (story, novel or poem) should be as long as it needs to be – but that’s not always as long as you, the author, thinks it needs to be. I want to talk about cutting, pruning and restructuring, i.e. the drastic changes.
Let’s suppose you have a first draft. You’ve written the whole thing, typed The End, and put it away for at least a few weeks so that you can have a breather and then look at it again with fresh eyes. That’s the stage where most of us wonder why we wasted months (or years) of our lives on this steaming heap. Or perhaps we see some glimmer of hope for it, but we realise there’s still a lot of work to do—namely a major revision. You’re not simply tickling a few words with this revision pass, you’re probably doing the literary equivalent of slash and burn, or perhaps a surgical strike.
Let’s firstly differentiate between content editing (revision) and copy editing. Yes, I know a lot of you know this already, but I’ve come across some would-be authors who think that someone who spell-checks their magnum opus has edited it.
Content Editing / Revision.
In a content edit or revision you restructure what you’ve written (to varying degrees) maybe changing scenes around, adding in new scenes, deleting others. You might add new material all the way through the piece to strengthen a character, or lay the ground for a later reveal. Maybe you foreshadow something that happens later. Someone fires a gun in chapter three, so you have to go back to chapter one and put the gun on the mantlepiece in readiness. Maybe you decide one of your characters has acted out of character, so you go back and tweak events. This is the time to decide you’ve started in the wrong place, so chapter five becomes your new beginning and chapters one to four are set aside to be dismantled for parts (flashbacks). You might even decide to turn the whole thing on its head and start at the end and tell your story backwards.
I once cut a baby out of a book. You’d think that would be massive, wouldn’t you? Your main character has a baby and you cut out that whole plot strand. Actually it didn’t take much cutting at all to remove all mentions of said child, proving the arrival of it, had very little bearing on the plot.
You will probably want to do a self-edit before you hand it over for professional input.
If you have a hands-on agent they will probably want to see it before it goes to your publisher. If you are traditionally published, your editor will undoubtedly make further suggestions for alterations or additions (or cuts). S/he may tell you that one of your side characters is two-dimensional or that you need to evoke more sympathy for your antagonist (who is, after all, the hero of his/her own story) or for your main character’s mum. Maybe you’ve taken a side trip up a blind alley, story wise, or arrived at a conclusion without making your reasoning clear. Perhaps you have a deus ex machina ending and you need to backtrack and add in some earlier event that hints at the possibility of the solution to your problem. After you’ve made alterations, your editor might have further comments and might still ask for more changes. Rinse and repeat until your editor is satisfied that, between you, you have the best version of the book that is humanly possible to produce. At this stage it’s not too late to make major changes.
I once finished a novel at 240,000 words. I knew I’d never sell a first novel at that length, so I cut 50k words and emailed my (then) agent to say it was finished at 190,000 words. She said, ‘Make it 119,000 and then send it to me.’ After I’d finished swearing, I set my unedited book on one side (complete) and played with a cut down version. I didn’t just shave a paragraph here and trim a sentence there, I cut out a whole sub-plot and knocked back a secondary character who was making a takeover bid. I chopped out a whole incident which advanced character but not plot, and that saved me 6,000 words. In the end, I got it down to 115,000 words without losing the story. Soon afterwards I parted company with that agent, so I added back 8,000 words of character development that I’d lost.That brought me up to 123,000 words. That’s how long it was when DAW bought it. Luckily DAW likes long and complex novels (which suits me just fine). By the time my editor had suggested adding this and that (all of which had been in the book at its longer length) I ended up with 171,000 words, and that became Empire of Dust. It was strengthened by cutting the initial flab, and then strengthened again by adding back the important stuff.
That’s what a good editor is for. Thank you Sheila Gilbert. (She won the Hugo for long-form editing in 2017!)
I met Ann Leckie at the SFWA reception at the 2014 London Worldcon. Those of you who are familiar with her Hugo winning Ancillary Justice will know that it’s a story which starts in the middle and then zips forward and back as the mystery unfolds. What actually happened in the past to precipitate current events? Originally Ann wrote it as a linear story, starting at the beginning and going through to the end. It was only when she revised it and chopped it into a forward and a backward arc that it became so intriguing.
I’m not telling you what to do with your story (it’s YOUR story after all) but I am saying think outside of the box. Consider all possibilities and come up with something that makes your story zing.
When you’ve licked your story into shape and you have the structure arranged to your liking, you should still check it for flabby phrases, sentences that don’t move the story along and weak verbs. I’ve talked about using Wordle to highlight overused words. It’s surprising how many words you can lose by getting rid of surplus ones or using one strong word where before you had two. (Try ‘he trudged’ instead of ‘he plodded along slowly’. Half the number of words and probably better for your story.)
I have a poor habit of not only over-explaining, but doing it twice, so I have to be really careful. Sometimes my beta-readers make notes in the margin like, ‘Yes! We KNOW already!’ This is one of the things the beta-readers are really good at, so listen to advice and then pick which bits you want to follow.