4 Tips for Decluttering Your Manuscript

This week was my Spring Break, and I spent the time getting my affairs in order. Spring is most definitely in the air (at least it is where I live), and decluttering is something I’ve been putting off, but this week I threw open my windows, rolled up my sleeves, and dove in(to my closet).

I also took the opportunity to declutter my WIP, a process that I dreaded but wound up enjoying. (What?)

When revising, you should go through your manuscript and declutter by cutting unnecessary words.  Yes, sometimes those words amount to an entire line. Or a scene. Or a character. Or an entire subplot. Yes, most writers find it painful to cut thousands of words *cries* when we invested so much to get to that high word count. However, a meandering story or pointless dialogue will not engage your readers, and if any of your words do not serve your plot or your characters, they need to go. (For super useful information about when and why you should be ruthless at cutting words, I highly recommend Elaine Vickers’ post on The Reductive Revision.)

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If either your house or your manuscript is beginning to feel like fodder for the producers of  Hoarders, here are four tips on how to declutter your life…I mean, manuscript:

  1. Put things in their place. I always feel better when everything is stored away in its place. There’s no reason to keep all of those hair scrunchies in my writing desk drawer, after all. Laundry, while functional in its basket, could be hung, folded, and put away, I suppose. As applied to writing, I like to organize the work that I have left so I can systematically put everything in its place. Scrivener has a handy feature where you can mark your chapters/scenes as “To Do,” “First Draft,” “Revised Draft,” and so on. I love this feature because I can tell at a glance where I need to be when I’m revising. Just like making a chore list at home (my kids do this, and yes, I also do this for myself), I also leave myself document notes for what I need to change in my drafts. As I complete those tasks, I cross these off one by one, and it’s even more satisfying than putting all of my winter clothes away for the season.
  2. Put things in storage. Not sure if you’ll wear that trendy jacket next year but not ready to get rid of it because you bought it this season? Put it into storage. Likewise, if you’re not sure if you need that scene or dialogue that you cut from chapter three, put it into storage. I save all of my extraneous scenes in a separate section in Scrivener called “Saved for Later” (you could do the same with a separate word processing file). If I do need those words, I know exactly where to find them. Sometimes I resurrect these words, but more often than not, I *gasp* don’t, which brings me to #3.
  3. Throw things away. My storage room in my basement has bins for toys that my kids don’t play with anymore. Occasionally they dig around in them and play with an old favorite, but the ones that are not touched within six months wind up being donated to charity. I also have items stuck away in that storage room that makes it to charity on a semi-regular basis, but a few pieces of this “favorite” junk have made the move with us to multiple houses. Similarly, I admit to carting around those deleted scenes and lines for multiple manuscripts. But here’s the thing: I’ve never used these words. When I’ve tried to insert something that I cut from one manuscript into another or even to a different version of a manuscript, it feels like trying to shove a puzzle piece into a space that doesn’t fit. I have to restructure these words so much that it would have saved me time and emotional energy if I’d just written them from scratch. Holding onto cut words and characters is primarily an emotional decision (in my opinion). If you’re holding onto them from project to project, evaluate whether it’s time to let them go. *clings* *says goodbye*
  4. Take a moment to admire all the things. The best thing about this week is that I’ve rediscovered the floor of my closet. Just kidding. I mean, I did rediscover the floor of my closet, and yes, the carpet is still the same color. But I’ve also rediscovered the joy in my story. It feels strange for me to say this, but I think I have been so focused on fixing my manuscript that I had fallen slightly out of love with my overall writing. Matt Williams posted earlier this week some great ideas on how to add voice to stories, and it inspired me to convert the chapter I’d been working into a .mobi file and drop it onto my Kindle app. As I read it, I was happy with how my changes translated to the page, and I was able to quickly bookmark one or two things that made it onto my to-do list. By decluttering, organizing, and shining up my characters and their scenes, I also have a better view of where they need to go from here. And I have a better appreciation of my writing, too.
  5. Have some chocolate. Technically, I said I would share four tips, but I find that a reward is always appropriate for good work. If you’re not a chocolate fan, choose your reward accordingly. ❤

Do you have any spring cleaning tips for your manuscript (or life)? I’d love it if you could share them in the comments!

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

Condensing Your Cast

In my most recent manuscript, I hit the end of draft one and knew I was going to have to do some trimming. It was over 100k words and had a lot of scenes, some of which I didn’t really need.

As I worked my way through the revision, though, I realized I also had a lot of characters, some of whom I didn’t really need. I decided this was probably a good time to use the “kill your darlings” advice. Two best friends–why not just one? Chef in only one scene? Scene gone. Society figures mentioned but never seen? Names swapped with characters who got screen time.

In spite of that, when I got my revision notes from my agent, she said, “You have a LOT of characters. See if you can cut or combine some.”

Well. I had already gotten rid of all the easy characters. Now how would I decide who had to go?

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The key for me turned out to be this idea of combining characters–I had already combined two very similar characters into one during my early revisions, but now I found myself combining very different characters–people with opposite personalities even–and not only did it give me a tighter cast, it provided more depth to my main characters and their relationships, and gave more screen time to characters who mattered.

During all these rewrites, I realized my problem started during my drafting process. Any time I saw a need in a scene, I would just add a new character who could fill that role perfectly. Unfortunately, this led to more breadth than depth in my cast.

For the future, I’ve set some rules for myself for cast creation and evaluation:

  1. Audition: Before creating a new character, audition current characters to see if any could fill that role. They might not fit into it comfortably, but that in itself can create some great conflicts and relationship dynamics.
  2. Number: On the first round of revision, write a list of all the characters, major or minor, and how many times they appear. If they only appear once or twice, or even–as with a couple of my “society” figures–their name is just mentioned a couple times and they are never actually seen, chances are good they can be cut or combined with another character.
  3. Develop: If a character feels like they need to be there to fill a role (ex: a needed ensemble position) but not because they’re a memorable character, either find a way to get rid of the role or develop the character until they are an integral part of the story.

These rules can give our characters greater connections and development, and perhaps they can spare us some of those long hours writing too many characters out. Though if you’re cutting scenes and characters, hang on to them in another folder–remember that chef? He came back in the most recent draft, this time with a new reason for existing (tied to a main character who was not previously in that scene). Sometimes the story changes enough that the darlings we’ve killed have to be resurrected, and it’s easier if they’re still on hand.

What is the greatest number of characters you’ve ever cut from a single manuscript?______________________________
profile-smallerShannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency

The Reductive Revision

So far this summer, I’ve been drafting a new project, rejoicing as my word count goes up and not worrying in the slightest about messes and holes I’m leaving along the way. But soon, I’ll receive a new round of edits and it will be time to revise. Again.

Revision is the time to clean up the messes you’ve made, and for many of us, it’s a time to rejoice when the word count goes down. Often this involves axing entire characters and scenes, killing subplots, or any other variety of painful, violent things. If this is what the story calls for, you absolutely have to do it. But there’s another method that often gets overlooked, and, when combined with the bigger cuts, can help tighten your writing and decrease your word count.

The term I use for this is the reductive revision, and I first read about it here. Since then, I’ve recommended a reductive revision to almost all my critique partners and beta readees. I’ve also used it on every single one of my own manuscripts.

A reductive revision is a careful pass through your entire manuscript, looking for every extra word and superfluous sentence. It’s ruthlessly and repeatedly asking yourself, “Is this word/phrase/sentence/paragraph absolutely necessary? Is it moving the story forward in any way?” If the answer is “no,” cut it. (If you’re doing it right, the answer will be “no” hundreds of times.)

There are small things to look for, including:

  • Dialogue tags that are immediately preceded or followed by the character’s name, or an action by that character. By all means, combine these!
  • Redundancy. This is a huge one. Readers generally understand things more quickly and need far fewer reminders than we think they do.
  • Showing, then telling. (Or vice versa.)
  • Shrugging one’s shoulders (Just shrug! We know it’s the character’s shoulders)
  • Kneeling down (We know they’re not kneeling up!)

So what does a reductive revision look like? With my critique partners’ permission, here are a couple of passages from the pages we sent for our last meeting, both before and after a reductive revision. Keep in mind that these are brilliant, advanced writers (as you’ll see), and they still have words that can be cut!

Here’s the first one:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s not too far off the mark. (54 words)

There are a few things here that could be considered redundant. The “blatant suspicion” and “looking down his nose” cover mostly the same territory. The head filling with self-loathing can be stated more succinctly (and maybe more closely to this character’s voice as well), and modifying this part just a little will also remove a reference to the characters head, which is always a good thing. (Heads, hearts, chests, stomachs…) Note: There are times to use repetition for emphasis or voice, but use it sparingly! <– Says the girl who has a tendency to use it too much.

So if we make these changes:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s hating that he’s not too far off the mark.

We end up cutting roughly a third of the words without losing any of the meaning, characterization, or story:

He’s looking down at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare, hating that he’s not too far off the mark. (37 words)

Okay, here’s another, from a different author and story:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction. (33 words)

There’s not much here that’s redundant, but it can definitely be trimmed. In this case, there are excess  words describing things readers will be familiar with, and shorter, more abrupt sentences might serve even better to underscore the main character’s actions of cutting her sister off.

So if we make these changes:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Emma. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction.

Her phone rang. Emma. Sophia hit Ignore. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. (21 words)

Again, the passage is roughly a third shorter, and nothing has been lost. There’s even a little repetition in there, but I’d argue that it works in this case, and the passage is better for it.

The cuts won’t be this severe everywhere, but I’ve never read a manuscript that didn’t have fat to be trimmed. Making a pass through your whole manuscript with this specific purpose in mind will make for a tighter story that’s easier to read and harder to put down.

What do you think? Have I cut too much? What other cuts would you suggest? Do you have other suggestions for trimming these passages, or for reductive revisions in general?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂