Cutting Word Count … For Pantsers

Pantsers rejoice! There is a way to trim word count for us!

It’s so simple I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but I’m ecstatic to have finally found a method for word cutting that works for me. So, I’m sharing. First, it’s important to note I am a “pantser” — someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”.  I start writing without any idea where or how my story ends. I use a loose timeline once I’m about 1/3 into it, so that I can direct it toward a conclusion, but most of the time I follow the story’s lead, rather than the other way around. I don’t sit down and plot: act 1, scene 1 … all the way through to the end of the story and then go back and write it. That is a “plotter” writing style. It uses outlines and is pre-planned.

Most writing advice out there is for plotters. Since plotters start off with a definite goal in mind, their words flow from one plot point right into another without too much expansion on detail until later. Sometimes they have trouble coming up with enough words to fill out those scenes, so they set targets: 500 words a day, 1K words a day, etc. For plotters, advice for cutting words is based on structure: cut scenes, follow a formula, use percentages on to break the story into sections, etc. So, all my life when I’ve been challenged to cut words, I’ve been trying to apply “plotter” editing. I’ve sacrificed entire scenes or book endings to knock the word count down, or tried to rewrite or reorganize the structure or plot elements. But that ends up making me feel like I’ve crippled the whole thing.

My latest failure in my attempt to cut words, involved slicing off the end of The Atheling and saving it for the next volume — which is what I’ve done for the past two books. But I couldn’t do it this time. This plot is so tightly woven at the end that I couldn’t think of any way to cut scenes or elements without it feeling incomplete. I was getting extremely discouraged because not only could I not trim the end like I hoped, I ended up adding more words while preparing for the changed ending! Ack!

I started looking up editing advice, but “plotter” advice wasn’t working. Just when I was about to give up, I found a blog that suggested something different. Just like plotters set targets for achieving word count, pantsers can set targets for destroying word count! 

I’ve been testing this for the past three days, and so far it’s a miracle cure. I took my total word count, divided it by chapters, then took the chapter totals and divided them by scenes. Breaking the task down into smaller bites, rather thinking of it as entire stages of plot development, allows me to focus on word craft without being distracted by plot elements.

So, if I have a scene with 1000 words and target 200 cuts, I can get it down to 800 without losing the entire scene. And if I can cut every scene down by 200, I can cut thousands of words without sacrificing a single plot element. You have no idea how happy this makes me! ^_^

So far, I’ve cut over 2,000 words from three chapters, but the core material in each scene remains in-tact. To my surprise, I’ve been able to cut more than the target amount in most scenes. There have been a couple of small scenes where I could not meet my target by dividing the numbers equally, but so far my extra cuts in larger scenes have made up for that.

For example, in a 4000 word chapter, I might have one scene that is 3800 words, and another that is 200. Yet my target portion to trim from each is 200. Obviously, that would utterly destroy the tiny scene. But if I trim 50 from the small scene, and 350 from the big one, the chapter target of 400 cuts can still be met. So far, I’ve trimmed more words than required for every chapter target I’ve set.

So, what’s being cut if not entire scenes or plot elements?

1. Where it’s not necessary for clarity, words like articles, “that”, pronouns, indirect objects, modifiers, emotional and speech tags, possessives, character musings. (“He realized that monsters lurk beneath everyone in some form or other.” … “He realized monsters lurk beneath everyone in some form.”)

2. Anything that feels like something I can explain later.

3. Character monologues are cut by at least one sentence, if not cut in half.

4. Verbs and prepositional phrases are reworded with as few words as possible, meaning sometimes I have to change tense, drop compounds, or drop minor details. (“He had been having nightmares since childhood, so he wasn’t sleeping well.” … “He had nightmares and wasn’t sleeping well.”)

5. Casual narrative expressions like: at least, maybe, probably, either, sort of, meanwhile, though, etc. I keep them in dialog so that the speech feels more natural. And I might keep them where a bridge is necessary to soften the flow between paragraphs. It removes some of the “storytelling” feel, but many of these words can be removed without sounding like a robot.

6. Information that repeats, or that can be reworded with tighter sentence structure. (“The amulet that was lost fell under the table.” … “The lost amulet fell under the table.”)

7. Things that can be told rather than shown.

8. Cutting sentences with dependent clauses down to independent clauses with perhaps one additional word that sums up what’s cut. (“Though he didn’t want to, he did it anyway.” … “Reluctantly, he did it.” … “He did it,” is fine, too, but without the adverb, the unwilling mood of his action is lost.)

Many of these things I automatically do during every revision anyway. But blocking the creative flow of the entire story to focus on numbers, individual words, and grammar is what helped my concentration immensely.

For The Atheling, this means a fifth revision from beginning to end is already underway, which means it might delay publication by about a month. To those of you waiting for the release, I’m truly sorry. But I’d rather be late to publish and be pleased with the product, than to meet the deadline, but produce a product that is anything less than my best.

Though I’m beyond burnt out on this book’s production, I’m determined to get the word count down without sacrificing the ending now. Wish me luck!

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