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  • Jan Flynn

Killing Your Darlings, Softly

When your book has to cut weight or die

Writing a novel has a lot in common with gardening

You prepare the soil, removing rocks and dead roots (limiting beliefs, self-defeating assumptions) and adding amendments (reading, daydreaming). You select seeds (story ideas), plant them carefully, water them judiciously as they sprout (rough drafting). You guard the tender seedlings from rough weather (premature feedback) until they’ve hardened off. You care for your crop as it grows and blossoms (a story!). You pick off pests (clichés, misplaced modifiers), pluck out weeds (stray characters, rogue sentences), until eventually — after months, sometimes years — you harvest the fruit.

Look at you, you’ve raised a book. And now that you’ve cleaned and polished it, you send it out into the world. This is where we (thankfully) let go of the gardening analogy. For now.

Now you send your novel off into the world

After months, possibly years of querying — during which time you’ve polished your submission materials to a high sheen, revised your manuscript again and again, and learned far more than you ever wanted to about handling rejections — the proud day comes. Your work finds a champion. An industry professional who not only loves your book, they believe in it enough to invest their time, energy, and reputation in bringing it to market. You have an agent!

Time to break out the good stuff. You’ve reached a big ol’ milestone, and you deserve to celebrate. For a day or two.

Any agent worth their salt will see what needs to be done to bring your manuscript up to market-ready level. They have editorial suggestions for you, which is a polite term for the changes you’d better make if you want your book to have a decent chance. Because your agent is going to have to query your book much like you did, only at a higher level. Their job is to convince a acquiring editors at publishing houses that your book is not only worthy of time and resources, it’ll make money.

While writing may be an art, publishing is a business. Time to learn how to swim with the big fish.

In my case, that meant cutting my word count

My agent had additional suggestions, but that was the main one. Each genre has a generally expected word count range, although like everything else in publishing, it’s a matter of debate. My novel is historical fiction, which tends to be a bit heftier than, say, romance or mystery, though not as voluminous as epic sci-fi or fantasy. I figured I was fairly safe, coming in at somewhat under 105,000 words.

But my agent (forgive me, but I do love saying that: my agent) pointed out that I’m a new author. And any debut novel over 100K words is going to make an editor hesitate. It’s more expensive to produce and harder to sell. As a newbie, why create any more obstacles?

So, could I get my book down to 98,000 words? Sure, said I, as my heartbeat did a clumsy little tango. I was going to have to excise nearly seven thousand words — all of them chosen with as much care as tessarae in a mosaic. Yikes. We’re talking about a novel whose early drafts were over 120,000 words. I thought I’d already trimmed the fat.

But, what the hell. I want my manuscript to become a book in readers’ hands, not a doorstop.

Back to the gardening analogy

It helped that I hadn’t read through my entire novel in a couple of months. That allowed me to take a fresh, more objective look at it. Rather than hack out entire chapters or eliminate characters — since the basic structure of the book seems strong as it is — I started at the beginning and worked my way through, pruning the way you would your prize roses.

Just as in gardening, the task that at first glance had seemed daunting became absorbing and even pleasurable. I whittled away at extra adjectives, unnecessary phrases, places where I realized I could trust the reader to draw inferences. “She found herself staring” became “She stared.” A raft of adverbs got kicked to the curb. Dependent clauses that couldn’t carry their own weight? Out.

When I excised whole passages, consisting of one paragraph or several, I copied them into a “cutting room” document, noting which chapter they came from, just in case they turned out to be vital organs after all. Surprisingly, at the end, the cutting room doc only amounted to less than 1700 words. The rest was bit-by-bit pruning.

Even more surprising: the whole revision took me six days. And that’s with a full-time day job and a house half-packed for moving. I now have a manuscript with a word count of 97,000 and change — far more palatable to a potential acquiring editor. And I don’t think the story has lost anything important. If anything, I like it better with the excess foliage removed.

The point? If you’re asked to squeeze your work down to fit a magazine’s space or a publisher’s parameters, don’t despair and don’t take umbrage. Just get out your pruning shears and get to work.

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