Thursday, April 26, 2012

When you need to trim that word count

photo by katerha via flickr
I'm working on the finished (pre revision letter) manuscript for my debut historical novel for WaterBrook. At my agent's advice, I've been busy the past few weeks trimming off another 10,000 words. I thought I'd share some tips for trimming back a long, sprawling first draft--or even a fairly tight sixth or seventh draft, which is what I've been doing with my novel before my deadline.

Assuming you've already looked at the macro issues, evaluating every scene to be sure it's needful to tell the story, and you've cut out every scene that isn't, but still need to bring that word count down... here's how I go about it:

To start with, there are ways to "see" your manuscript with fresh and objective eyes. The following are the best ways I've found to spot words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that aren't contributing enough to the story to justify their inclusion.
~ Take time away from the manuscript to let it cool off. Weeks. Months, if possible.
~ Convert the manuscript into a different font, so the paragraphs and lines are arranged differently than you're used to seeing.
~ If you use Word, try viewing the manuscript in Full Screen Reading mode. It allows you to view two pages on the screen at once. It also changes the length of lines and thus the page arrangement.
photo by abbybatchelder via flickr creative commons

Next, read the manuscript slowly, evaluating every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph.

Cut out needless adverbs, adjectives.

Trim back large chunks of description. I know a writer who never uses more than two consecutive sentences of pure description in a row. Not a bad rule of thumb.

Trim back long sequences of introspection wherever possible.

See if a scene can begin a few sentences later than it does. Or end a few sentences earlier. I'm always surprised, even after several edits of a story, that this is still the case in some of my scenes.

Cut out chit-chat from dialogue exchanges. And cut out any needless rambling. Let the characters get to the point as soon as possible.

Search and destroy clutter words.  Cut as many occurrences of that, but, and, just, very, quite, rather, had been, and any other unnecessary words you are prone to using as possible (those listed are mine). I also do a search for "of the" which is a highly overused phrase for me and can usually be replaced. Example: the cover of the book can be changed to the book's cover. There. Two words saved. It may not seem like much, but edit out "of the" often enough and it adds up. The only time I leave "of the" now is when changing it would ruin the rhythm of the sentence or obscure its meaning.

Which brings me to my second step after I've gone through the entire manuscript reading it silently, cutting out as many words and sentences as possible:

Read the manuscript again, this time aloud. This is a crucial, if tiring, step in my editing process. Not only will you catch misspellings your eyes have skimmed over, you'll catch bumps in rhythm, awkward phrasing, and more unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences that can go to the cuts file.

You do keep a cuts file? :) I never send anything into the ether that's longer than a phrase. You never know (she says optimistically) when that metaphor or poetic imagery or quippy bit of dialogue might be useful elsewhere.

photo by muffet via flickr
If you're at all mathematically inclined, divide the total number of words you want to cut from the manuscript by the number of chapters the manuscript includes. This will give you an approximate number that needs to be cut from each chapter. I find these smaller goals less overwhelming, and sometimes will camp out on a chapter until I've cut at least that number of words. But not always. Not every chapter needs as much cutting as the next might.

Hope these tools for trimming back prose prove helpful!

Do you have other tips for cinching up a story belt? Please share them in the comments section.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why I write (one of the reasons)

There's an author of historical fiction I admire. Most of his works are set during the 18th century, a time period in US history I find pivotal, alluring, and chock full of excellent story possibilities. The author is James Alexander Thom. 

I recently read his book Long Knife, which is the story of George Rogers Clark (brother to the more famous William Clark) and his truly outstanding exploits against the British during the Revolutionary War, on the western frontier.

Here's a passage from the book I read one day while I waited for my clothes to dry at the laundromat:
George stood in the starlight and looked at this little group of dark forms scattered about on the ocean of smooth pale plain. Six hours of squirming through the forests this morning, he thought; six more racing along in that blazing sun, and now six more marching through the night. Eighteen hours on foot at this pace, and not one solitary straggler! He tipped up his flask and took a long pull of brandy, his eyes on the stars, the cool wind drying the sweat on his neck. He lowered the flask, continued to look up at the sky, thought of the eclipse that had so frightened the men a week ago on the Falls--a week it's been! he thought--and yet they had come on with him, overcoming the many fears they must be having, and still, even as he drove them on and on into this strange unfriendly country, they kept up, and kept up in good spirits. He listened to their sleep-breathing now, sighed, and looked at the high constellations and the stardust of the Milky Way. I thank Thee for bringing me men like these....

He was awakened to the sound of his flask dropping to the ground, and realized that he had fallen asleep on his feet in the middle of a prayer. Shaking his head and smiling, he stretched out on the grass, put his hat over his face, and, with a sensation like lying on a raft in a whirlpool, spun slowly off to oblivion.
They had been on the trail for two hours the next morning when the sun rose behind them, lighting the high cumulus clouds piled above the horizon ahead. It was a glorious morning. Small birds flickered among the grasses and wildflowers, hunting, and as the sun climbed and burned off the dew that drenched the marchers' leggings, countless butterflies tumbled and drifted everywhere. Each step George took sent gray-green grasshoppers with black-banded legs scattering ahead through the grass, like the drops one splashes ahead when wading in shallow water. 

This passage sings for me. It fills me with a breathless joy and the immediacy of being there. It brought me to tears. In the laundromat. There are many reason why I write, but this passage (and hundreds like it from Thom and other writers) is one of those reason. It's the kind of writing I long to produce and what I'll keep striving for, God willing, for years to come.

Thom's website:
*For all that I love Thom's writing, his books are general market fiction. Some of them contain historical elements that some readers of Inspirational fiction would find too graphic, violent, or harsh. I'm just sayin.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Don't Panic in the Middle

Because I'm at this difficult stage with my novel in progress, the Dreaded Middle, I want to share this post I read this morning over at The Book Faery Reviews, from one of my favorite authors, Susanna Kearsley.

In it she gives Six Tips to Writing a Novel from Beginning to End. I needed to read her Tip # 5.
"The thing is, when I start a book I have a lovely, perfect vision of it, and by the time I reach the middle, what I’ve written doesn’t look at all like that first vision. As a teenager, I used to think this meant I’d done it wrong, but now I know it always works like that. "

Thanks Susanna! Your advice just soothed my ruffled soul.

~ excerpt taken from the post cited, a tiny wee bit of Tip 5, which doesn't in any way give you the scope of the good advice to be found in #5, not to mention the entire post, so if you write novels, or want to write novels, go read it!

Friday, April 13, 2012


Did you know that in treating fevers doctors used to recommend (or even insist) that the patient's head be shaved? I wasn't aware of this fact until relatively recently, when I encountered it portrayed in a novel set in the 18th century.

I've done a bit of reading on the subject since. Here's one physician's explanation of the practice:
I am always desirous that the patient's hair should be cut off. The mere removal of it is often attended with benefit; the headaches and confusion of thought are relieved, and the patient is calmed. We can then also, with much greater convenience and effect, apply cold washes to the head. Patients sometimes demur to this shaving of their heads: but they generally consent if you explain to them that their hair will at length fall off, in consequence of the fever; and that the head, if on that account only, had better be shaved at once.

~ Lectures on the Principles and Practices of Physic. Delivered at King's College, London, by Dr. Watson. The London Medical Gazette. Friday August 26, 1842
Apothecary workbench. Photo by Cybjorg, via Flickr
Having recently endured a fever that lasted nearly six days, I'm very glad this isn't still the common practice, and that no well-meaning person came along while I slept and snipped off all my hair. I most certainly would "demur" if given the option!

My hair didn't "at length fall off" after all, I'm relieved to say. Though a few extra pounds may have (I'm also relieved to say).

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Messenger by Siri Mitchell

I've been a fan of Siri Mitchell's writing since the first book of hers I read, The Cubicle Next Door. It's rare that a contemporary set story draws me in and makes me connect with the characters as deeply as Siri managed to with Cubicle. So when I learned she wrote historical fiction too, I was thrilled.

The Messenger, her latest historical for Bethany House, now ranks up there with my favorite of Siri's books. 

Hannah Sunderland felt content in her embrace of the Quaker faith... until her twin brother joined the Colonial cause and ended up in jail. She longs to bring some measure of comfort to him in the squalid prison, but her faith forbids it. The Friends believe that they are not to take sides, not to take up arms. She is not allowed to visit him, even if she were able to secure a pass.

Jeremiah Jones, a Colonial spy, needs access to the jail to help men important to the cause. Upon meeting Hannah, a plan begins to develop. Who would suspect a pious Quaker visiting a loved one?

But Jeremiah is unprepared for Hannah, for her determination to do right, to not lie. How can one be a spy and not lie? Hannah, in turn, is surprised by Jeremiah... for the way he forces her to confront her own beliefs, for the sensitivity and concern that he shows her despite the wounds he still carries.

In a time of war, can two unlikely heroes find the courage to act?

Two unlikely heroes--that phrase sums up these two perfectly. In very different ways Hannah and Jeremiah are handicapped for the roles circumstance and conviction have led them to play in aiding the rebel prisoners being held by the British in a Philadelphia jail. But it's in their weaknesses that God gradually, often despite their own resistance, shows Himself strong--both to see a worthy goal accomplished, and two hearts changed (broken, healed, and strengthened) as they come to trust each other and the God they each long to understand.

The tension Siri created by the overwhelming odds Hannah and Jeremiah face kept me turning those pages, especially in the second half of the book. The storyline and the stakes kept increasing, slowly at first, but toward the second half the stakes became so high I could not put the book down. Not just the physical peril, but the emotional and spiritual questions each struggles with grow deeper and more wrenching, and more costly, as the story unfolds and increasingly difficult choices are demanded.

As most of those who have visited this blog before know, the Revolutionary War is one of my favorite historical eras. The Messenger is set during a relatively brief period during the war (January 1778 thru the rest of the winter and into spring), during the British occupation of Philadelphia, and therefore has room to explore the tensions of that conflict, as well as its excesses and injustices, in fascinating detail.

Lastly, the unlikely romance between a bitter ex-soldier turned barkeep and a Quaker with a ferocious determination to tell the truth--even as she attempts to become a spy--is convincingly and skillfully woven into the narrative, growing out of the circumstances these two are facing, natural and unforced. That's not to say this thread of the story was any less of a struggle for these two vastly different souls than the threads of physical peril and the challenges to their faith. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12. Siri Mitchell has woven an enduring threefold cord with The Messenger. The spiritual, emotional, and physical journeys of the characters are equally absorbing and ring with truth.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Black Flies!

Black fly, by crabchick, via flickr
I've never been bitten by one. I grew up in Maryland. Now I live in Oregon. I guess those states aren't bothered too much by them, because to the best of my knowledge I've never even seen one (unless I blocked out the memory that summer in Minnesota.....).

If you've ever been bitten by a black fly and feel like sharing TMI, leave a comment and tell me the gory details. What sort of localized reaction to the bite did you have? How much did it hurt? Did it bleed?

Yes. This is for research. I've asked a few folk in the past but thought I'd cast a broader net.

PS: They look positively wicked, don't they?