Writing Thursday: My “Eureka!” Moment; or, To Make A Long Story Short

I posted a couple of weeks ago that I had finished editing the first book of my “Daughters of August Winterbourne” series.

Turns out I was wrong about that.

See, something was still bothering me about the book, and that was…the length.  Granted, I’d done heroic work getting it down from the original 185,000 word count (yes, I know) to a mere 145,000.  But I’d really like to get it down to around 125,000, if I can.  (I’m not sure it’s entirely possible without excising a sub-plot, and I don’t really have any more that I consider expendable.)

Then I decided to look at it from a purely mathematical point of view: If I want my book to be around 125K, and it’s around 150K (rounding up to make the math easier), then essentially, what I need to do is to get rid of one word out of every six.

So I copied the first scene from the story into a blank document and started playing with it.  First, I took a stab at it at the sentence level.  If a sentence had six or more words, eliminate one.

Yeah.  That didn’t really work.  Too many sentences with fewer than six words.

Next, I attacked it at the paragraph level, starting with the first paragraph, which, at that point, looked like this:

The airship Sophie’s Lightning gleamed golden in the late afternoon sun as it hung over a grassy meadow just outside Windmill Hill.  The errant ocean breezes would have made landing the craft a challenge for a lesser pilot, but Celia Winterbourne had flown this particular ship since its maiden voyage five years earlier and knew its every nuance.  Her fingers danced over the control panel, making minute adjustments to the rudder and the steering propellers.

Not the worst first paragraph ever written, by any means.  But, I’ll also admit, not the best, either.

Okay, doing the math, it’s 75 words.  1/6th of that is 13 words (rounding up).  Subtract that from the starting total means that our target for this paragraph is 62 words.

So, which words can go?  I copied the paragraph and had at it with the delete key, and ended up with this:

The airship Sophie’s Lightning gleamed in the afternoon sun as it hung low over a grassy meadow near Windmill Hill.  Errant breezes buffeted the ship, complicating the landing, but Celia Winterbourne had piloted the Lightning since its maiden voyage five years earlier and knew its every nuance.  Her fingers danced over the control panel, adjusting the rudder and steering propellers.

Hey, that’s actually not too bad.  And it’s exactly 62 words.  Bingo! Though…wait.  Something’s not quite right….

I stared at it for a few minutes, and then I realized:  The rest of the first chapter is from the point of view of my main character, Celia Winterbourne.  And while she’s mentioned in the paragraph, she doesn’t really own the first paragraph the way she should if this is going to be her story.  (Which it is.)

I’ll be the first to admit that the first draft of this story struggled with POV in a few places.  So I decided to employ a trick a member of my critique group shared with me:  If you’re having trouble getting a scene or paragraph into a tight third POV, re-write it as a first-person POV.  When you do that, the snags will pop right out at you.

Ah-hah.  Yes.  Because Celia’s in the airship, she can’t actually tell us what it looks like in the light of the setting sun.  So what can she see?  What’s important to her at this moment?  Landing the airship.  So now the paragraph focuses more directly on that.  And with the focus, it becomes a better, tighter paragraph, thus:

I checked the landing markers chalked on the grassy meadow below as I prepared to set down my father’s airship.  Errant breezes buffeted the ship, but I’d flown Sophie’s Lightning since her maiden voyage five years earlier, and I knew her every nuance.  I touched the controls for the rudder and steering propellers, making minute adjustments to both.

Yes.  I think that’s got it.

So the next thing to do would be to convert it back into a third-person POV.  That’s pretty easily done:

Celia Winterbourne checked the landing markers in the grassy meadow below as she prepared to set down her father’s airship.  Errant breezes buffeted the ship, but Celia’d flown Sophie’s Lightning since the ship’s maiden voyage five years earlier and knew her every nuance.  She touched the controls for the rudder and the steering propellers, making minute adjustments to both.

YES!  That’s much better, AND, at 58 words, it not only makes but beats my word count target.  Yay!

Okay, next task:  Do this for the rest of the scene.  Only, some paragraphs, it turns out, were short dialogue pieces that really can’t be trimmed.  All right.  I’ll settle for trimming this at the scene level, rather than at the paragraph level.

And I did.  I pared, and pared, and snipped and trimmed and cut, until I had turned the 1,690 word scene into a 1,399 word scene.  Success!

Or so it seemed, until…

I went back and read it.

And wanted to throw up.

All of the flow was gone.  The scene was choppy, uneven.  It lurched badly from one sentence to the next.  There was no joy, no grace, no life left in it.  I’d killed it.  It was, in a word, horrible.

Okay, self.  Don’t panic.  Deep breath.  Let’s go back and put in some of those apparently-not-so-extra words.

I eked them back in, a few at a time, keeping a nervous eye on the word count.  After several passes, I finally breathed life back into the scene.  1,477 words.  69 more than it was supposed to be, but still better than the original 1,690 words.

I took a short break, came back, and read the scene one last time from the start.

Holy crap.  It wasn’t just passable, it was stronger, better than it had ever been.  When I read my own stories, to me, they often seem…I don’t know, not quite “finished”, if that makes any sense.  But when I re-read this scene, it suddenly seemed to me that this bit, at least, had been transformed.  It was now Finished.

Yes, I actually got goosebumps.

Which is not to say that I won’t still go back and tweak a word here or there after I’ve had a chance to let it sit for a little while.  But dang.  This is actually starting to feel “good” instead of just “good enough.”

In the week and a half since that “eureka!” moment, I’ve gone through about 30% of the book, and eliminated about 5000 words.  Which means that I’m on track to get it down to about 130,000 words, give or take.  (Some bits compress better than others; there are a few key scenes that had already been edited several times, and it’s hard to take many more words out of those.  Other scenes really haven’t changed that much since the first draft, and I seem to be able to pull excess words out of those more easily.)

Oh, and an aside for people who’ve read the earlier drafts:  I’ve finally bitten the bullet and cut the cricket-playing scene (which was amusing, but once I’d eliminated the excess verbiage around it, it suddenly became clear that it didn’t fit the tone of that section of the story at all).  It was a darling that had to die. {Sniff.}  I’ll save it to post on the website once the book gets published (she said, optimistically).

130K isn’t quite 125K.  But it’s in the ball park and it may be close enough to get me in the door with an agent.  Here’s hoping, anyway.

What editing tricks have other people used?


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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6 Responses to Writing Thursday: My “Eureka!” Moment; or, To Make A Long Story Short

  1. wxmouse says:

    I really love this peek into the creative editing process! I love seeing how other folks “do it” because I always learn something invaluable! Thanks for leaving a link on G+ for folks to find you! Great blog!

  2. Victoria says:

    I’ve got one that I’m working on cutting about the same percentage from … except it’s from about 1200 words to under 1000. Unfortunately, editing it means I’ve had to look at the plot and it’s just … it hinges on a thing that’s just not working quite right.

  3. Erick Melton says:

    My own recently discovered editing method is to rewrite the section backward. Once I have a draft of the act (or chapter, scene, etc.) I go back and rewrite the end of it, making what I want to make it. I then rewrite the section that lead into that, making sure it feeds into that section correctly, then the one before that, and so on to the beginning.
    What I like is that it underscores what I need to be in the story versus what I like. This sometimes results in things getting added, but most often in things getting taken out.

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