As you probably know, most years in November I participate in National Novel Writing Month, the online challenge to write a complete novel, or 50,000 words, in one month.
This month, I appear to be participating in National Novel UnWriting Month (NaNoUnMo?), by deleting 57,000 words from an existing novel. It’s an interesting dynamic.
By the Rivers of Brooklyn is a very long manuscript. Too long. The publisher and I agree it’s too long. They would like to see it at about 2/3 its present length, which would mean cutting the aforementioned 57,000 words. That’s an awful lot of lovingly crafted, treasured words to dump.
But it’s actually proving easier than I’d thought. Mainly this is because I wrote the current working draft of the thing four years ago. For the last four years, for reasons which I won’t get into here (if you want to hear sad stories about getting novels published, email me), I haven’t looked at the manuscript. So when I came back to it with fresh eyes and a lot more emotional distance, it was easy to see places where I could make fairly sweeping cuts. That doesn’t mean some of the losses aren’t painful, but on the whole I feel like the cuts are definitely making it a better book.
A fellow writer who critiqued another unpublished MS of mine (Prone to Wander) told me that I spend an awfully long time setting up scenes and include reams of detail, especially domestic detail (what people are eating, drinking, small talk, etc) before getting to the heart of a scene, and that a lot of my chapters could probably start 1/3 of the way in and be much stronger. I think this is true of By the Rivers of Brooklyn as well. I really believe specific detail and realistic dialogue are what brings stories alive, but I also know I spend too much time on these things when they’re not absolutely necessary to plot and character development. Sometimes I hit readers over the head repeating the same idea over and over — and I don’t always trust the reader to make the connections that need to be made. As I’m rereading this manuscript after such a long hiatus from it, there are parts where my eyes glaze over and I realize I’m boring even myself.
I love long, heavy blockbuster sagas — both reading them and writing them — but lately, when I’ve been reading books that are really short and spare, I find myself examining the scenes and thinking, “How does this writer do this? How do they cut right to the chase, find the heart of the scene without dithering around?” I’m trying to do that.
The last time I did cuts this major to a manuscript was nearly 20 years ago. It was my second novel, which the publisher titled Roommates (it had a different working title that I liked much better). Besides changing the title, the publisher needed that book to be much shorter than it was — I can’t remember the ratio but the cuts were really drastic, even moreso than these. And it was a shorter book so there was less fat to trim. One of the biggest changes I made involved taking a major character and paring back his role significantly, essentially making him a very minor character. His death was central to the story and it had a lot less emotional impact after I’d whittled him down to a couple of walk-on scenes. I’ve always felt sorry about those cuts. It’s true that in writing you have to be willing to “kill your darlings,” but it’s possible to take that too far.
These cuts, I feel good about. I think I am really going to be able to reduce this book by 1/3 without losing a storyline or a major character. Which means there is plenty of extraneous material there that probably needs to go. And I don’t think I’d have had the steely constitution necessary to cut that deeply if I weren’t being pressured to do it.
So I’m thinking of this as my NaNoUnMo, and just as I keep a running word count of how many words I’ve managed to add to my story during NaNoWriMo, this month I have a running tally on my MSN and Facebook status messages of how many words I’ve managed to cut so far — just to keep myself motivated.
When I’m done, we’ll have By the Rivers of Brooklyn — same great story, but 1/3 less padding! At least, that’s the goal.