Friday, June 26, 2009

Hack and Slash

No, its not a post about heroic fantasy. I'm in the middle of doing a yet another edit on my Science Fantasy manuscript, Warriors of the Blessed Realms. As is typical for me, the thing had bloated up 10,000 words from the earlier edits -- up to a shocking 160,000 words. That word total is like some sort of a magnet for me unfortunately.

So, my challenge has been to get this down to 120,000 words or less. Can I jump now?

I've managed to get the total down to 131,00o words so far, which seems to me something of a miracle. I have not been able to do this without removing a few incidental characters and some other scenes which I guess weren't that important to the story. It still hurt losing them!

Having said that, it is surprising how much I managed to remove by just trimming and condensing the text - at least a good 10,000 words - which is sort of embarrassing. Do I really write that sloppily? I guess its part of the process. Maybe the writing gods have seen fit to increase my skills since I did the last draft.

The thing that concerns me now is how I have started to really get into this. Chop. Chop. Slash. Slash. Everything must go. In my mania (and I do tend to extremes) a little voice in the back of my head is asking 'am I losing some essential essence from the story?'

What do people think? Can you chop too far? Make the story too spare? Too mechanical? Or is all-out war on the adjective and metaphor a Holy Cause? Clarity is King?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I don't know, Chris. Editors seem to be happy with 150K books.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I guess it says a lot about the field right now that I didn't bat a lash at the 160k words. There have been so many books in the field coming in at 200k words -- or more -- of late that 160k seems almost short.

As for your question -- rhetorical, I know -- I'm going to answer anyway. Instead of it indicating you "write that sloppily", I think it means you are paying more attention to detail, even minor detail that doesn't necessarily need to be in the final product. More importantly, it means you are maturing as a self-editor that you've been able to see which of those minor details and characters can be cut to improve your final product.

And, yes, you can chop too far and make the story too spare and mechanical. I know there are those out there who tell you to delete every adjective and adverb. I don't buy it -- I won't buy it. You need some of both to set the scene emotionally and to set your characterization. Of course, if you're deep into purple prose, prune away. It's a fine line and I wish you luck negotiating it.

Dave Freer said...

Why the length of it is itself sir, and the tears of it are wet. Look a book is as long as it is. But there are commercial constraints at exceeding 150-160K. Book length to me has distinct relationship with subplots - which can make slimming (something I have never had to do) tricky.

Anonymous said...

My stuff starts out too spare - and still needs trimming. Mine you, it needs descriptions added, I tend toward white space syndrome. But just being short on word count doesn't justify some of the clutter.

I wouldn't worry too much about the word count, if you've cut the irrelevant stuff out.

Amanda Green said...

Dave commented that there are commercial constraints at exceeding 150k - 160k words. I've seen some publishers lowering their preferred word count, especially for new authors. The current economic situation is one reason for this. My question for greater minds than mine is how the increasing popularity of ebooks will affect word count not only for established authors, but for new authors as well.

Jim McCoy said...

I think hacking too much can kill a good story. I'll use an example here of a series I once read. It was the Dirigent Military Corps series by Rick Shelley. The stories were great up until what should have been the last five or six chapters. Unfortunately, and to be honest I'll never know if this was because the author didn't write enough or because it got cut, it would end up being the last three or four pages. The action would build until the big battle at the end and it would be like. "Hey look, we won!" I kept buying the books hoping that in the next one the good stuff would be there but it never happened. Those books would have been much better if they had that extra 10-15k words I think. It's just too bad they never did.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, everyone. Thanks, Rowena.

Hey, Amanda. You meant I can write to 200,000 words! Dangerous stuff that - like giving urns of gunpowder to a pyromaniac.
I agree though, sometimes you need some space in a sentence to give a feel. Sometimes I think that the rhythm in a paragraph can dictate the need for a few extra words - not that it happens often, but I am an aural writer. Its very much about the rhythm of the spoken word.

I think what has also helped me make the deep cuts with this manuscript is the emotional distance I have with it now.

When an Australian editor suggested major changes in 2003 - right after I wrote it - I was horrified. If I could only wind back the clock! Now I would agree.

Interesting point about a lower word count for newer authors. Perhaps somewhere in the 120-140 is the new author sweet spot?

Dave, I see what you mean about sub-plots. I guess one of the downfalls of plotting excessively before you write is that your work of genius can end up with so many damn ideas in it! Hard to contain that.

Hi, matapam. You sound like a very different writer. I tend to be very descriptive and given to extended introversion on the parts of my charactes. I seems a bit unfair that you start out spare but still have to trim!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. I wonder if anyone gave that feedback to Rick Shelley. I'm sure any writer would weep to know that his readers wanted more and he did not deliver.

I must admit I am also regularly dissapointed by book endings. I think that are actually harder than beginnings in many ways, and yet far less attention is given to them because the beginning hook is usually what sells the book.

Amanda Green said...

Actually, Chris, depending on the house and imprint, it can be as low as 60 - 70k words. But the level I see more and more of in agent and editorial blogs is 90 - 100k words for a new author. I know part of the reason is because most people are reluctant to buy a 250k word book from a new author, especially since many books that size are HC. Another aspect I've seen reading slush is that most new authors who have a book that length are in serious need of a blue pencil, a sound internal editor and a clue or three.

As for you writing 200k words, go for it. Of course, remember Dave is sitting there ready to pelt any of us with coconuts if we get too wordy or go down too many tangental paths that aren't necessary to the plot. ;-p

Kate said...


Unfortunately, there's no easy answer on this. Irrespective of house guidelines and whatnot, each story has its own length. As Dave said, subplots make it bigger, tighter focus makes it shorter. More point of view characters mean more words to cover each character's development within the story - which is why those cast of thousand epics are such goat-gaggers.

You can indeed cut too far. The trimming you've done by condensing the text usually means cutting out extraneous "that"s and rephrasing to use fewer words, but carrying it too far runs the risk of killing your voice and homogenizing the different quirks of each character's voice so they all end up feeling like interchangeable cogs.

I think I said in another thread somewhere that the key is moderation in all things, including moderation. Learning to edit your work is easily as difficult as learning to write it in the first place.

One hint - keep your cut scenes. They make excellent teases for your readers, and you may find you need to put them back.

I'm usually a putter-inner rather than a taker-outer, but the principle is the same. You want clear, understandable prose, with enough adjectival, metaphorical and other figure of speech-ical color to give it a distinct flavor.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Well, Chris, I can only give you my own experience, such as it is. When I finished my... fourth? novel was right after I joined a writers' group where someone -- not published -- convinced me that ALL novels must be under 100k words to have a choice. Well... I had a 200k word novel. Which should have been a trilogy, but never mind. I cut and nipped it into 100 k words and totally killed the book. So you definitely can kill a book.

Also my first-sold short story, Thirst. I wrote it. Then spent two years rewriting it. I had the idea it was special and wanted to do my best for it. Sent it around. Standard rejections. Took it to a writers' meeting and read it aloud. It read like oatmeal. I had taken ALL flavor out of it with my revisions. Went back to the first version, revised for sense and typos ONLY. Sold next time out of the gate.