Are you one of the many people who’ve profited from lockdown to write? Have you written so many words you’ve reached “The End”? Congratulations! Now there’s another task. Words are like belongings. One minute you’re setting up home with only a mattress on the floor; the next, it’s time for a clear-out!
This article from Writers & Artists gives a rough idea of word counts for publishable fiction in most genres. A rule of thumb is not to exceed 100,000 words (fantasy can go longer). One fellow student on a creative writing course told me his 250,000 word novel offered better value for money. But value lies in entertainment, moving and absorbing the reader, not in padding and clutter. Authors design with words: their product must be fit for purpose, attractive and practical. William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and 120 years later Marie Kondo agrees. Achieving the right 100,000 (or fewer) words is an opportunity for quality control.
We’ve all gazed at a cluttered room in despair, wishing for an elegant purposeful space where people linger. An overwritten book isn’t so different. But where do we begin, and can we make the task enjoyable?
You’d assess your furniture before a house move. It’s a good time to offload those uncomfortable armchairs, the toppling standard lamps and occasional tables everyone bumps into. You can take a similar overview of your plot. The minor characters and incidents you wrote way back, the time they break the hoover or have tea with his second cousin…is that still interesting or relevant? Envisage emptying a boot load of junk at the tip. My student friend’s story perked up no end when he threw 150,000 words in the skip.
(Some writers keep a folder for discarded episodes, on the grounds you never know when they might come in useful. Morris would allow this as he approved of re-purposing, but don’t tell Kondo.)
When you’ve sorted out the big items, consider what’s left, paragraph by paragraph. Look for:
• repetition eg: you’ve already said that was Madame’s favourite chair
• contradictions eg: the vegetarians who eat a turkey dinner at Christmas.
• overcrowding eg characters and incidents whose existence makes no difference to the plot. The great aunt we never meet again after Chapter 2, the Irish jaunt you wrote because you happened to be in Dublin.
Sentences must earn their place. Either:
• by enhancing the mood: the crimson sun pulsed on the horizon.
• by leading the plot forward: “The chemist’s had an accident!” the florist shrieked.
• or by doing both (but watch out for getting too elaborate): Crimson sun rays glittered on the water trickling from the upturned peony bucket towards the chemist’s inert body.
You can have a good laugh while learning a serious lesson from the BBC radio show Just a Minute. These examples show easy it is to commit their three key faults.
Hesitation: “Pedalling through sauerkraut” is a great image, one of my favourite French idioms. But would you know it means getting nowhere fast without another sentence to tell you? Metaphorical language can delay and confuse; direct description is quicker.
Repetition (again): I had no idea how often my characters had no idea until an editor pointed it out. Identify and ration your own go-to phrases.
Deviation: Afterthoughts and side issues (beating about the bush when you should be tidying up). Often they’re in brackets. Chuck the brackets and what’s in them, or if it’s useful flaunt it in the main text.
Certain pesky single words linger like bric-à-brac through every clear out. Be ruthless!
• Use the “Find” feature to locate quite, really, very, too, also, somewhat, rather, just, hardly, almost, certainly, definitely, nearly. They’re boring.
• Stylish authors show time passing with a change in the light, clothing or weather; leave first, then, next and finally to primary pupils’ exercise books.
• Everyone overuses suddenly, albeit, however, although, anyway, but. Gradually cut them out. Then cut out gradually.
• Adverbs are often redundant. She shouted loudly. Shouting IS loud – we don’t need telling.
• The mosquitoes feasted (active). She was bitten by mosquitoes (passive). I rest my case. My case is rested.
• The article (that) I’m reading is full of bullshit. You know (that) that’s unfair. Track that down and chase the unnecessary ones from your manuscript.
Finding both the will and the skill for a clear out can be hard. For some authors it works better to follow this process in reverse, warming up by hunting down single words and hoping they’ll shed some plot and a few characters along the way. The risk is rewriting page 1 a zillion times and small-scale daily fiddling with material that’s later thrown out; the advantage is minute, forensic knowledge of every page.
Whichever your approach, the time will come when you can stand in the doorway and feast your eyes. Is the main character identifiable? Does the plot progress without hitches? Do the settings support everything else? Then you’re ready to invite beta readers and agents to stay! Readers will feel like honoured guests in your refurbished room. I’ve worked the analogy to death, so with one last snip I too am at
©Jessica Norrie 2020