Posted in Writing

Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Your Story to the Bone


So I did a thing yesterday.

A thing that kind of astonished me. I cut 1,000 words from my new middle grade horror novel, but not just any 1,000 words.

I cut 1,000 words from the very first chapter.

I took a seven-page chapter that had a lot of thinking, a lot of pondering, and just cut it it to the bone. I cut out 90% or more of all that interiority. I just got to what actually happens at the beginning of the story.

This wasn’t exactly easy to do. I’ve spent eight months and five drafts on this particular project. In July I spent four weeks working really hard to build the novel up from 38,000 words to 45,000 words.

Now I’m down to 44,000 words. And there are still 21 chapters to go.

Part of me feels like I should be adding another 5,000 words or more to this novel in the sixth draft. I shouldn’t be cutting the story down again.

But this morning I re-read the new and improved chapter one, and a big smile flashed across my face. Oh my God, it read so much better, so much smoother.

And the lack of words actually in a weird way makes the beginning even creepier than it was before.

At some point in your revising process, you’ll want to trim your story or novel down considerably.

I know it can be hard. Really, really hard.

You’ve spent three months or six months or nine months or a year revising your latest manuscript. You’ve spent lots of time writing amazing sentences and paragraphs you don’t want to ever part with.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding the confidence and willingness inside yourself to cut the parts that need to be cut. No matter if the language is beautiful, no matter if you particularly love the writing of a particular sentence or paragraph.

I just had to do this yesterday. There was a paragraph in chapter one that had some dazzling description. I loved everything about it. Did it ultimately forward the story in a way I wanted it to? No. So what did I do?

I cut it down to a single sentence. Because it was time to get to the matter of the scene, not just on what a particular room looked like.

I don’t believe in cutting your story to the bone right away. Write your first draft as long as you need it to be. Tell your story the best you can.

In the second and third drafts, concentrate on the beats of your story, the development of your main characters, the pacing, the themes. Do your best to make the narrative sing.

But at some point in the revising process, I believe you should take two to three weeks, go chapter by chapter, and cut each chapter down as much as you can. Only keep what’s absolutely necessary.

If you’re unsure about a paragraph or sentence, keep it, maybe. Or cut it for now, it’s entirely up to you.

Whenever the process becomes painful, remember that the words are still saved in a previous draft!

This is the main thing that helps me when I cut a fantastic paragraph from the latest draft.

That paragraph isn’t gone forever. It’s still there saved in the previous draft. It’s still always going to be around if I ever want to stick it back in later.

I’ve done ten drafts on my MFA thesis novel. There have been entire scenes that have been cut in draft four or draft seven that I’ve re-instated later. There are paragraphs and sentences I cut at some point that I eventually put back in. And then of course there are elements that stay out of the manuscript for good.

After awhile, once you’ve done a lot of drafts and then put the manuscript in a drawer for a significant period of time, your instincts will tell you what should stay and what should go. That’s definitely been the case for me in the later revisions of my last few manuscripts.

So write the best story or novel you can. Give it everything you’ve got. Build it up for a revision or two if you need to add more words.

But at some point do at least one draft where you cut the manuscript down to the bone. Find what needs to be there. Find what can go.

Doing so will in the long run make you a better, smarter, and more successful writer!

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