Monday, December 20, 2010

Working Around the Wordcount Ultimatum

*In honor of nearing my last final and the end of a semester, I thought I'd take a break and post something I wrote recently. I'm hoping that during this break I can put up a lot more stuff over the semester, including Part 3 of "So You're a Writer, Do You Need a Website?"

Of late, I've been staring at my novel MIRRORPASS with a rather critical eye. (Summary at the bottom of this post.) If you've ever seen the animated movie CHICKEN RUN then think of that scene near the beginning, where all the chickens line up for role call, and the evil lady goes down the line checking to see who's laid any eggs. And she sees that this one hen hasn't laid any eggs for a while. And the other hens are like, "oh no!" Because the evil lady takes the hen...and, thing you know, she's having chicken pie.

This is me. I have become the evil chicken lady.

If you've been following my editing progress, then you know I've had one main goal for the past six or so months: to cut. My lovely, lovely baby finished herself off at a plump 97k, which I did not expect and now have to deal with. So I came up with a plan.

Most of the beginning of the novel I wrote by the seat of my pants, and I struggled getting many elements of the story pulled together. I figured it would be easy enough to rewrite the first nine chapters or so, streamlining that whole messy process, and eliminate anywhere between 4k and 7k words.

After that, I would be within the healthy range of mid 80k to breaking-90k, perfect for a Young Adult with large SciFi elements. The other 2-3k could come from regular line edits.

I've run into one small problem. My plan? It's not working.

I always have been, and always will be, a rewriter: I perfect as I go along, and my writing quality can jump two or three notches in a single rewrite. Plus, I flesh things out in these drafts. I find new ways to weave in backstory or emotion or character growth.

It works great--except when I'm cutting. For every bad, unpolished word I have cut, I have replaced it with a solid, shining one. After all my work, I've eliminated a mere 2k from the first eight chapters.

Don't get me wrong. I've gotten great beta responses on those edits. But this was my big chance to slim things down. I don't have too many more large problem areas in the novel that I can hope to cut large chunks out of during rewrites. And you don't just eliminate 9-5k.

My friends, we have resorted to Plan B.

Plan B means keeping a sharpshooter's eye out for small characters, small subplots, scenes with too much exposition, or scenes that derailed us from the main plot for a beat too long. It means marking such scenes with a big mental flag.

In particular, I've been looking at my many of the subplots for my minor characters. One character we see just twice in the entire novel. He doesn't even have a name. But what I like about him is that he gives us a hint at the overreaching implications of the inciting incident. The things that happen in the story will happen whether or not we hear it from his viewpoint. At the same time, small pieces of the climax will make more sense, and will have a lot more emotional depth, if his scenes remain in the story. And all my readers really love him.

Cut, don't cut? He definitely gets the red flag.

I've had similar problems with other minor characters. Many of the minor-role antagonists in my novel get short clips of face time. A few of them end up helping my MC (Aria) In small ways, others remain antagonists to the end, but we get a much more human picture of their struggle to remain antagonists--or not. Some of their actions that are necessary for the plot just wouldn't make sense unless you have those scenes. And again, readers have loved these guys.

On the other hand, I have secondary characters who readers haven't responded to at all, but cutting them would leave huge gaps in the story. Their presence allowed me to make the story rise above small themes and take them cosmic, going beyond Aria and her personal goals. I love this aspect of the story. My execution is the problem.

As I go along and keep revising, I'm going to continue evaluating these scenes, characters, and subplots to see if they make sense anymore. If they make sense, if they feel necessary, I'll keep them. If they've become a nice idea that isn't as essential as they once were, well...maybe I'll have some chicken pie.

What all this has got me thinking about, is discerning the value of your words. There are wordcount standards in the literary world. YA fiction has it's own subcategories; summer romances and quick action reads can be around the 45-65k mark, while YA fantasies can be as high as 90k. I've always shot for the standard 70-80k wordmark. It's the wordcount ultimatum: be this length, or else.

However, in the YA world, I have noticed these standards growing more flexible. I'm not just talking about the Twilight's and Harry Potter's among us. I'm talking about Graceling, *Before I Fall, and Beautiful Creatures. I'm sure I'm missing tons of others. These books stretch the standards, but the words feel valuable. I can just imagine if someone told Kristin Cashore that she needed to loose 15k and cut the forest sequence in Graceling, or Katsa's trip across the mountains. No way. They weren't just words, they were an essential part of the story.

In the fitness world they are coming to the realization that you don't always need to loose weight--it's far better to tone. Building muscles burn fat, but muscles weigh more than fat does. So two people can have the same weight in pounds, where one is fit and the other isn't.

The thing that I'm trying to get at, here, this overarching realization that I've come to, is even though I need to be critical and put my novel to the test, I'm going to keep the parts that need keeping, wordcount regardless. Wouldn't a fit, toned 90k novel be a whole lot better than a skinny 80k one with the ribs showing?

How have you guys handled the wordcount ultimatum? What books do you feel did--or didn't--handle the length thing? I'd love to see some more examples of this.

From the editing trenches,

-Creative A

*One teeny tiny caveat here. I read Before I Fall, and I didn't personally enjoy it as much as most of my friends did. Lauren Oliver is a great writer and it showed in Before I Fall--her characterization and description is amazing--but the thing exhausted me. I would have personally enjoyed it more if it had been a little more concise. But even if it had been shorter, it would still be a great example of a long wordcount with essential plot, so I kept it in the list.


Elizabeth McKenzie said...

I took out 10,000 words from Bum's Rush. In the back of my mind every time I went through to edit, I stumbled over several large parts that I loved just because they showcased my writing. But they added nothing to the plot and bogged the book down. So I bit the bullet and cut, cut, cut. No one has missed them. I think in your heart there are those kinds of scenes. They will talk to you and remind you each time you run across them. Trust your instinct. You'll get it figured out.

Creative A said...

Ouch. Bravo for actually cutting! I think I do know what you mean, and that's some great advice...I definitely know there are some scenes from the first draft that I clung to for a while, because they had been so hard to write, and I'd been so proud of how I pulled them off. But when I streamlined the beginning they had to go. It's much easier to acknowledge now than it was then.


Z.M. Shah said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, Mandy. When I completed the first draft of my WIP, it stood at 121k words. I actually had to fill more in during the second draft, so it ballooned to 125k words. Since my work is fantasy, that's not an unreasonable length, but I know from experience that trimming is essential to polishing a work. So right now, during the fourth draft, my plan is to get it from 123k to 118k words.

Aside from cutting scenes or parts of scenes, I also focus on making phrasing as lean as possible. Removing unnecessary words really adds up, as does removing unnecessary or weak description. Sometimes, we tend to over-describe a person, place, or thing. In the book Stein on Writing, there's a great piece of advice that says, "1+1=0.5". If I see that I've described one thing in more than one way, such as with more than one metaphor, I'll cut the weaker one. You don't need two chickens to do one job.

Then again, I wouldn't kill my hard-working chickens just for the sake of word count. Best wishes on your project!

Creative A said...

Thank you Shah! I had the ballooning issue too; I finished at 95k and added another 2k later. My problem is that there's no way 97k will fly!

I've never read Stein on Writing; thanks for sharing the quote. I really like that.

Just the other day I got frustrated with this scene where a few important things happen via discovery, which requires a lot of description. I went through and rewrite entire descriptive sections, finding places where like you said, I'd repeated myself. It was like loosing five pounds. I feel so much better.

Best of luck to you, too!

Guinevere said...

Ha, I also thought Before I Fall was just too long. Too repetitious. It's definitely well-written and I enjoyed it much, but I thought it could have been a little stronger if a little shorter.

And, I've been there too with the crazy cuts. My first novel was a bloated 127k - I had to cut an entire character, a massive subplot, etc. And I cut 30k words... but first I printed out my first draft and put it into a binder so I wouldn't feel like I was "losing" all that beautiful work!

Stopped by your blog for the first time today, looking forward to reading more from you. :)

Creative A said...

Hey Guinevere, glad you stopped by! I printed mine out too, just for the satisfaction of being able to heft it into people's laps when they asked me if I'd written anything substantial. The reaction is golden. So worth having written those extra words :)


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