On the Deaths of Over 10,000 Darlings

Ah, the irony!

Having last month complained about wordcount conventions for aspiring authors, particularly the idea that their books should be as short as possible, I’m now devoting even more words to this topic.

But—

This time I’m writing about my own novel that I’m querying; specifically, how I shortened it in an effort to better fit these very wordcount conventions, as requested in an R&R (revise and resubmit) for an agent.

Because for the record, I was never opposed to making my book shorter—to “murdering my darlings”, as the unnecessarily violent expression goes. I just didn’t know, after 11 drafts, how to do so on my own.

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In my professional life, I often work as a program evaluator. I’m thus adamant about the importance of data in making decisions and changes to a program or process.

When it comes to writing, the best data sources one can utilize are beta readers. I’d had betas before. But in looking to lower my wordcount, I now sought a very special type of beta:

A writer of literary fiction.

Say what you will about literary fiction, rarely is it long and sprawling. Its writers are skilled at cutting to the heart of a matter.

I was lucky to have befriended a literary writer at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2019. More than once during our conversations afterward he expressed interest in reading my novel.

I was also lucky to know that while my wordcount was too high, the problem wasn’t the plot itself. The agent who requested the R&R indicated, at least in her opinion, that the plot and pacing were solid, but overwritten.

After receiving my friend’s notes on the entire first act (I asked him to stop after that because I could see he would just be pointing out the same problems over and over again), I identified my most egregious overwriting habits:

1) Too much history/backstory

This was one of the first flaws my friend pointed out, and the one that got me most deeply into my sulky feels.

It can’t be said that I didn’t do the work in this new draft

As a writer of historical fiction, I do realize that not all of my research will make it into the story. But my friend’s frequent insistence that “this background doesn’t matter; keep the story moving” had me melodramatically asking why write histfic at all if readers care so little for the history that informs it.

But ultimately my friend was right. I really had included too much for modern storytelling conventions and it was weighing down the narrative. I cut a lot and moved other parts to much later where the reader would be more curious about these past events that came before the story at hand.

2) Over-explanation of events

I had an unfortunate habit of over-explaining (and also just plain explaining) both the significance and the outcome of events in the story where all of this was already obvious to the reader.

I did this, I came to realize, not so much because I didn’t trust the reader to “get it”; rather, I worried the reader wouldn’t trust me, thinking I didn’t know what I was talking about if I didn’t “show my work”. Leaving things to be implied instead of outright stated allowed me to cut a lot of words, and is just more artful as well.

3) Overly long emotional reactions/inner monologues

This relates back to point #2. My writing used to contain next to no emotional reactions. It was all intellectualized by the characters rather than felt. An early CP helped me learn how to write emotions, but then I went too far in the other direction, going on and on with it to prove to readers that I knew how to make my characters feel.

4) Too much description

Many writers can see the events of their story playing out in their mind, like a movie, which they then write down to produce a manuscript.

I, however, struggle quite a bit at visualizing my work, to the point that I’ll over-correct and describe the scene in detail to make sure it doesn’t read as blankly as it appears in my head. But what I’ve learned is that since most people are so much more visual than me, one or two key details is all they need to fill out the entire scene for themselves.

5) Repetition of known information

This played out a couple of ways on the page. Often I would unnecessarily both show and tell (i.e. summarize) the events of a scene, with this summary coming either directly before or directly after the events themselves played out.

But then there was also my attempts to remind the reader at key points in the story of things that had previously occurred. There’s definitely value in this, especially for situations that have a long lead time before the payoff. But I was overdoing it a bit.

I was also repeating a lot of general facts and descriptors at the sentence level with a goal of helping maintain the integrity of the reader’s mental image of the story. In reality, though, I was just being repetitive to the point that a reader would be well justified in shouting, “yes, I get it!”

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All told, I cut more than 10,000 words from my manuscript and have since sent the new version to the agent.

I’ll have to wait and see what the end result is.  But even if it doesn’t translate into an offer of representation, this process of lowering my wordcount has taught me valuable lessons on revision that I’ll be able to apply to future writing projects.

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(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)

11 thoughts on “On the Deaths of Over 10,000 Darlings

  1. It’s painful to have two lovely descriptions of something, and to be skilled enough to combine them BOTH into a description that has so much power and beauty that you want to overlook that you’ve said it twice.

    Welcome.

    You were lucky to learn that early and from a helpful beta.

    And to be able to directly use a tiny part of your research is also painful – but eventually you get to the point where it becomes truly background so that the rest of what you write is right.

    At this point you may be wondering why the first book in my trilogy is 167K. You should see the cemeteries!

    I don’t so much overwrite as over-gather. Sometimes I’ll find many equivalent versions of something – but what ends up in the scene is the minimalist version of the gathering. One of my reviewers said it felt like I weighed every word. Yup. It’s my job.

    Think of what you cull as millstones – I rarely wish I had left them in. Good luck.

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    • As far as revisions go, this one was pretty painless. For the amount of words I cut there were only two longer descriptions that I truly mourned, and a couple shorter ones that I’ve since imported into my new WIP (although who’s to say they won’t get cut from there too someday!) The whole process was a great learning experience despite my initial sulking. My beta was excellent – meticulous, firm, but overall very kind in his feedback. I’m proud of the work I did!

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      • You should be proud of your attitude, too.

        I often write initial dialogue the same way it would be spoken – and then have to clean up the horrible long erm-laden circuitous pseudo-dialogue that creates – into dialogue.

        I forget where I first heard that ‘dialogue is not how people speak,’ but it is SO true. We’d drive readers up banana trees if we used transcribed speech.

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  2. I thought I was reading about myself as a writer. In my first draft, I also add too much history, backstory, and event details. And that is why I belong to four critique groups that hear every page, every chapter. From the group’s feedback and comments, I cut down the history, backstory, and details. Since I’ve been doing this for decades with critique groups after I finish the first rough draft, I go through it at least one more time if not more to cut back as much as possible.

    But, every time I share a new chapter with one of my critique gours, even after several revisions, I learn that more must be cut so the story flies.

    In fact, I rewrote my longest historical fiction novel so many times, I lost track, before indie publishing it.
    I know that novel is still long with more than 200,000 words and 641 pages. When traditional publishers and agents told me the novel was still too long, I decided to go indie.

    That was more than a decade ago and over that timespan, that indie-published novel has sold more than 25,000 copies through Draft2Digital (when the novel was wide) and on Amazon. On Amazon, it currently has 430 reader reviews/ratings with a 4.4 average star rating.

    As an indie author, that taught me that readers count a lot more than agents and publishers. Have you considered going indie?

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    • I’m too write long to begin with and then have to cut back. I just find it easier to get everything I could possibly say on the page upfront then to write a sparse first draft and later have to go search for more info to fill it out. It works for me.

      I’ve definitely thought about indie publishing and do want to try it someday. For now, though, I’ve barely dipped my toe into this attempt at trad publishing so it’s too soon to jump ship just yet!

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  3. Greetings. Good essay. I don’t write books, but I can relate to what you say. I started my blog in 2015, my stories averaging about 1100 words. Two or three years ago I decided that they were, for the most part, too long. My pieces now average about 800 words, and I think are better for it.

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    • Hello, thanks for the comment! It may not have been so much that your old posts were “too long” in and of themselves, but just “too long” for modern attention spans, which is a valid consideration. I’m glad you’re pleased with your changes!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant beta reader with great ideas. 10,000 words seems like a lot, but given I’m wading through SO MUCH INTERNAL MONOLOGUE in the Dune series right now, I’m glad you’ve cut back. Really, I just don’t need to know so often how frickin prescient and wise Paul Atreides is!! Good luck.

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    • That is fair. Dune was written in a different era with different writing conventions. I feel good about the cuts I made and was never opposed to doing it in principle. I just needed the benefit of someone else’s eyes!

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  5. This was my favorite bit “I worried the reader wouldn’t trust me, thinking I didn’t know what I was talking about if I didn’t “show my work”.”
    I feel this with my whole chest.
    Finding that sweet spot of what to include and what to cut is so hard. I’m super excited for you though! *fingers crossed*

    Like

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