When you’re in the revision stage of a writing project, sometimes you’ll need to make significant cuts.
I’m not talking a page here and there, or a line of dialogue in chapter six, or a paragraph in chapter fifteen.
I’m talking pages and pages of work. Sometimes even really good work!
I have had to edit out lots of really good pages from my novels over the years, sometimes even whole chapters and entire characters.
But nothing has come close to what I’ve done in my recent two novels. I have been brutal to my two latest works, but I do think the major cutting I’ve done has made both of the novels infinitely better.
The first of the two books I’ve cut deeply is my MFA thesis novel, a young adult thriller. I spent the summer of 2017 writing it, and when I emerged from the cave in early August, I had a first draft of 110,000 words, by far my longest word count of a novel ever. My goal for the book I’d be submitting to my thesis committee the following March was 80,000 words, so I was thrilled I had some wiggle room when it came to the second and third drafts I would attempt before the book was due.
One person read my first draft: my thesis advisor. We had a lovely chat in her office. She told me what was working in the book and what wasn’t working. I was totally prepared to remove 10,000 words or more. I was prepared to do what needed to be done.
But then she said something that almost knocked me right out of my chair. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “I think most of the middle should be cut.”
You see, in the first draft of my thesis novel, there was a long sequence of pages where the protagonists take the antagonist to a house and torture him. A lot happened in this section. A police officer shows up at the house. The antagonist’s sister arrives at the house and investigates. Lots and lots of plot twists and surprises happen in this section.
My thesis advisor liked some of the writing here, but felt ultimately the book would be better served if I cut straight from the party, where they first kidnapped the antagonist, and go straight to the third act in the snowy woods, where the final confrontation takes place.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it at first. How could the book possibly work if I removed that torture sequence at the house? First off, it was nine chapters. Not just a few scenes. Not just a chapter or two.
NINE CHAPTERS of what I thought was really harrowing writing.
I told her I’d think about it. And I did think about it for a week or longer before I came to the conclusion… that she was absolutely right.
The section at the house had its moments, but it slowed the narrative down. And it was ultimately too unbelievable. There were too many questions the reader would ask. Enough coincidences to possibly make the reader put the book down.
And so I cut those nine chapters. I gutted the middle of that novel. And I started to put the pieces back together.
That was the hardest revision of my life. It took me almost three months, longer than it took me to write the first draft!
But by December I had a solid second draft that my thesis advisor loved, and that I agreed worked way, way better. I’ve since done four more drafts of this novel, and while it’s still not there yet, even after eighteen months of hard work, I can’t imagine it now with that sequence from the first draft.
The way I like to think about is that it was better to cut those chapters after the first draft than, say, the fifth draft. Better to get away with the stuff that needs to go early, so that you’re not wasting your time editing the scenes later.
It was painful that day I cut the middle of my thesis novel. It was 26,000 words. More than 70 pages of writing. All gone in a matter of seconds. It hurt. It was awful.
But now the book is better for it.
I’m currently in the third draft of my newest novel, a middle grade ghost story, and I’ve had to cut chapters from this one, too. The first draft was 60,000 words. It’s now down to 41,000 words. That’s 19,000 words gone! Almost a third of the book!
But the cuts I’ve made have been necessary, and now I’m going to slowly build the book back up to 45,000 words or longer.
The bottom line is this: you’re going to have to make cuts in your novel. Don’t treat every scene, every chapter, every character, as precious. You’ll never make it if you refuse to do any cutting of your manuscript. If people tell you Chapter 15 isn’t working, then you might have to fix the hell out of it, or you might have to cut it completely! Don’t hold on to things in your novel that don’t work.
Do what’s necessary to tell the best story you can. And the rewards will follow.