I’ve had both sorts in my other incarnation as a romance writer. Sometimes I felt I was a crap writer and had been doing it wrong, and it severely knocked my confidence for a while. But editing is all part of the process, and the thick skin I’d developed over the years during the submission phase grew by another inch.
One good thing that’s come out of my romance writing is that I’m now aware of the apparent harshness of the editing process and treat words as malleable, as pieces of clay in raw form that need to be moulded and tweaked into shape by the editor and publisher. This has come in very handy with the first edits required for Heartwood. I submitted the manuscript to Angry Robot through their Open Door policy—a two week period once a year where they accept unsolicited stories. At that point, the manuscript was 187,000 words or thereabout. I’d read that they accept stories up to 120,000 words, but I didn’t want to start hacking at the book only to find it wasn’t anything like what they were looking for. So I sent it anyway and said I was willing to cut it, should they deem it worth publishing.
To cut a long story short, well, I had to cut a long story short! They accepted the manuscript on the proviso that it would probably need to be cut by a good 20,000 words, and that will still make it the longest book they’ve published.
That gave me a near heart attack. 20,000 words! The book was written with a precise structure that took months to plot. Every chapter is (I felt) essential, and although I acknowledged that the first third of the book could do with some tightening, the thought of cutting out whole pages made my bottom lip tremble. I love every phrase in the book, every heartfelt sentence. How on earth was I going to cut 20,000 words?
Well, I received the first round of edits a few days ago. These have basically involved my editor highlighting odd paragraphs, one or two a chapter, where images or ideas have been repeated throughout the manuscript. Some of them contain internal thoughts by the characters who are reflecting on others’ actions, and as such don’t move the story forward. None of them contain important facts or plot points, and I was surprised how removing them makes no difference to the story.
Next the editor highlighted two chapters, one dealing with characters planning for journeys, another with two characters having a conversation, and stated that these could be trimmed if necessary. I read through them and realised the long, rambling thoughts and conversations didn’t move the story forward, and it was easy to chop whole paragraphs out of these.
To my amazement, when I’d done with his suggestions, the manuscript was 178,500 words. I’d lost nearly 8,500 words just through removing waffle! Jeez.
He has requested that I reduce the manuscript to between 170 and 175,000 words. So I need to chop at least another 3,500 words from it, and preferably more. He has suggested I start by removing extraneous words and just generally tightening the language. So I began to read it from the beginning – this time with an editor’s eye and not a writer’s, using tips I’ve learned along the way from my romance editors. Already I’ve cut 5,000 words and I’m only about halfway through. Want to know some tips for self-editing?
That. It’s a horrible, sneaky, subversive word that pops up in all the wrong places. I searched the whole manuscript and deleted every extraneous use, and managed to cut...well, I'm ashamed to say how many words. You may have already conquered this particular habit, but it’s worth checking to see if the little bastard has snuck in at all.
“We are taught that it is better to succumb to your desire than to burn with it.”
“We are taught it is better to succumb to your desire than to burn with it.”
The second line reads just fine without the word “that”. Chop it out. Dump in on the bonfire.
Make a note of your favourite words and do a search for them. Again, these creep in where you least expect them. Mine include just, really, down, still, suddenly, slowly, realised, and even. It’s like when you buy a particular brand of car—suddenly you see them all over the place. Add them to the bonfire.
Adverbs. Lose 90% of them. The appearance of an adverb usually indicates the verb isn't strong enough. Is your character walking quickly? Or is he jogging, running or sprinting, all of which portray a more vivid version of the character’s actions? Also is the adverb actually adding something to the action? For example:
He slowly got to his knees, then to his feet. His head spun.
He got to his knees, then to his feet. His head spun.
I don’t think we miss the word “slowly” from the second version. The fact that his head is spinning shows us his movements are slow and uneven.
Search for words ending in 'ly' and make sure they absolutely have to be there. (Sometimes they do. Trust your instincts.)
Try to cut down on dialogue tags. If it's clear who's talking, they're not always needed. Use 'he/she said' wherever you can and steer clear of flowery 'saidisms' (the oft mentioned 'he ejaculated' springs to mind, unless you're writing erotic romance :-) ). Also make sure, if the tag is an action one, it has its own sentence. So don't say, "Stop that," she glared. You can't glare speech. It should be "Stop that," she said, glaring, or, even better, "Stop that." She glared.
Try to cut down on filter words. Have you heard of Deep Point of View? This is where you allow the reader to sink into the character’s mind and look out through his/her eyes, rather than observing from a distance. There’s a good article on it at Scribophile.
These are some filter words:
to feel (or feel like)
to sound (or sound like)
And here’s an example Scribophile gives:
Let's take a look at some writing with filtering:
Mary felt a sinking feeling as she sped across the room to yank aside the curtains. She wondered if her husband would really leave. She saw him throw the suitcase into the car and slam the door. He seemed angry as his gaze met hers. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. Now she knew he would go and not return. She decided to beg and ran outside, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, and she felt the gravel spitting at her as she saw the vehicle careen onto the road.
The highlighted words come before the action and the reader is made to focus on the character rather than the event. An extra step is inserted between the reader and the story. Filters.
Now let's look at the same piece of writing after filtering is removed:
Mary's stomach sank as she sped across the room to yank aside the curtains. Would her husband truly go? Bill threw the suitcase into the car and slammed the door. He turned. Her gaze met his, and his eyes narrowed. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. A cold chill enveloped her; he would leave and not return. She ran outside, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, spitting gravel at her as the vehicle careened onto the road.
Cutting out those filtered words can immediately reduce your word count and tighten your writing.
The word “was”.
Gah. I struggled with this one in the early days. Part of this was due to one publisher who made her editors remove every use of the word “was” in my manuscripts. This is clearly ridiculous. The word “was” is in the dictionary for a reason.
There are lots of writing articles on when it’s right to use the word “was”. I’m not a grammar expert, and I don’t know the formal name of the tenses—you can find them out on the net if you so wish. But I know the difference between: “He was walking along the road,” and, “He walked along the road.” The first indicates the guy is in the process of walking. The second implies he’s done it already. The first isn’t wrong, and sometimes it’s necessary to use that particular tense.
But the word “was” does tend to creep in where it isn’t wanted. For example, “She was wearing a blue gown and a feather in her hair.” Is that better than “She wore a blue gown and a feather in her hair?” Although the first example implies immediacy—she’s wearing it now—the second doesn’t necessarily imply she wore it last week. Change the tense in this way can help reduce the word count.
While we’re on the subject, another problem with “was” is that it can indicate the passive voice. This is a big no-no in the publishing world, and it was the hardest thing for me to overcome. But I can see that “The car was hit by the ball” is better as “The ball hit the car.” The ball is doing the action, so it should come first. It gives an immediacy to the writing the first sentence doesn’t convey.
However, the aforementioned publisher made me rewrite “the rushlights were lit and the tables were laid” as “the servants lit the rushlights and laid the table” to remove the passive voice. I have two problems with this. It’s not as lyrical—it just doesn’t sound as nice. And it makes the servants the important things in the sentence, and they’re not, the tables and the rushlights are the important things - the servants are irrelevant. I understand the first sentence is passive. But I like it like that. She forced me to change it. It's annoyed me ever since.
The other problem with the word “was” is that it can indicate showing rather than telling. Again, this was difficult for me to get my head around. The aforementioned romance publisher wanted me to rewrite “He was tired.” “How was he tired? Show he was tired!” I was exasperated by that. (No! That exasperated me. See, I’m getting there.) The sentence wasn’t important. He was tired. I didn’t want to elaborate on it—I wanted to get on with the action. Sometimes, it’s necessary to be concise.
Elsewhere, though, I can see how “was” indicates telling. For example, don't say "She was upset." Say "She burst into tears". Don't say "He was angry.” Say “He threw the chair across the floor and smashed his fist into the wall.” Show the reader how the character is feeling. Don’t just tell them.
So there are a few self-editing tips. When you're a new writer, trying to get a full manuscript of 80,000+ words is like climbing a mountain, and the thought of having to lose words is laughable. But the time will come when you'll be published and you'll have to cut and tighten. And the best editor for your work is always you :-)
If you have any other self-editing tips, feel free to add them in the comments!