When I tell others in the writing business that the (adult epic fantasy) manuscript I’m currently querying is 180,000 words long, I get a lot of perturbed responses. As a debut author, I should be ashamed. 180,000 words? “It’s too long,” other writers have told me. But what most people don’t realize is that it used to be longer, much longer. And even still, I’m not perfect–maybe, someday, an editor can help me cut another 15,000. I’d love that. For now, I’ve done all that I can without hurting the integrity of the story.
I knew going into querying for literary representation would be difficult for me. Everyone knows the story of debut authors with big books that suffered rejection letters time and time again. To avoid complete failure, I took two years of time, studied everything I could, read a lot, and learned how to cut 120,000 words of fluff out of my book.
Looking back, I love every little thing I’ve done to the manuscript. My hard work, I think, has paid off. Instead of being ashamed of 180,000 words, I am quite proud.
Cut the characters/happenings that aren’t the part of the final braid.
A character doesn’t need to exist on every page, however, they should be impacting the story throughout, even when they aren’t ‘on screen’. If you have a draft that’s way too long, consider the characters you aren’t thinking of while reading or working on other chapters (especially if you aren’t always thinking of them by the middle of the book). Why aren’t you thinking about them? If it’s because they aren’t integral to the story, and they aren’t doing anything but sitting back at camp flipping slices of bacon, you may want to cut the character entirely.
And while we’re on the subject of braids–you can cut everything that doesn’t make a difference to the story. Name brands, exact directions, meaningless background noise, etc. If it doesn’t tell the reader about something that might be more important, don’t do it.
For example, there’s one area in my manuscript where I describe a crowd of people milling around at the bottom of a canyon. I describe the town, the toiling, everything. However, I do this to show the reader that the people are preparing for something big to happen–and that big thing just so happens to impact the rest of the book. Let your sentences have impact.
If your character must suffer a bee sting, have it mean something. Does it show a fear of bees? An allergy that might be important? Maybe he names his dog ‘bee’ because he hates the dog, and hated the bee too. Maybe the sting happens in the middle of an otherwise already tense scene, adding further tension. A bee sting can mean a lot, but if it means nothing, take it out.
Give more away up front.
One of the biggest problems I noticed with my old draft is how much information I keep from the reader. Holding back information can create THOUSANDS of words. If you don’t come forward and admit certain things to your reader, you’ll spend tons of words trying to beat around the bush, explaining extraneous things so the reader can understand what it is you’re trying to hide. STOP THAT! Just tell us. There should be one or two GOOD secrets you keep until the story’s end, but the rest give away, and give it away fast. If you explain it well one time in the beginning, you’ll never have to explain it again.
Don’t describe something using more than one sentence.
You don’t always have to stick to this–if an object or room is very important to the story, you may need to linger on it. But when it comes to sunsets, food, even whole towns, try to find a good way to do it in a single sentence. I LOVE description, but you’d never see me describing the sky for a whole paragraph. You can say a lot with “The sky bled at dusk.”
Or, one of my favorite first lines from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. “Ash fell from the sky.”
Learn what passive voice is, then avoid it.
This is a lot easier said than done–I’m still learning to do it myself. The thing is, sometimes you SHOULD use passive voice, because SOMETIMES it adds color. But 97% of the time, try not to.
I recommend getting a subscription to AutoCrit.com, or some other crit software, to learn how to spot passive voice. It takes work to train your eye how to notice it, but with time, you’ll improve.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many times I wrote sentences like:
Yoi turned her lips down into a frown. Looking sad, she turned to Hanzo and said, “I’m not feeling well. Maybe we should go back home.”
When it should have been this:
Yoi frowned and turned to Hanzo. “Maybe we should go back home.”
There’s no need to repeat yourself, or have characters repeat themselves, verbally or physically. It takes too many words and it makes for a slow, boring read.
Read Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English.
When I was putting the final touches on my novel, this guide to grammar helped me realize big mistakes and cut a lot more than pointless grammar issues.
That being said, most non-fiction texts on writing can help you learn to find and delete stuff that doesn’t matter. If you have a manuscript as long as mine, I highly recommend poking around Amazon to find some good non-fiction like this to help you train your eyes.