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Friday, February 1, 2013

Trimming the Fat (OR: How to Streamline a Manuscript)

A manuscript is never so flawless you can't do something to make it better.  Sometimes that means adding more to the story, but, just as often, it's about removing unnecessary material.  I've already done it five times with the previous sentence -- trimmed away unneeded words like greasy blobs of fat.

"But I like fat!" I hear someone protesting.  "It makes stuff taste better!"

It also clogs arteries and sends stories into cardiac arrest.

I recently read a post on a message board where an author complained her story didn't meet a publisher's word count limits.  There was NO POSSIBLE WAY she could make the novel any shorter.  To trim the story would be to compromise plot and weaken characterization.  In her mind, the novel was perfect as is.

Authors get attached to their own stories like mothers to newborn babies.  It's hard not to form an attachment when you've put so much blood, sweat, and emotion into your creation.  I have children.  I somewhat understand this.  They were once babies, and I thought they were perfect, too.  Then they turned into teenagers, and the possibilities for improvement became obvious and abundant.

I'll say it again.  Any manuscript can be improved.  Plots can be streamlined to help their flow. Here are a few "flow-stoppers" several observant writers and two skilled editors have pointed out to me:

ADVERBS

These insidious little words are like viruses intent on multiplying until they've taken over a story.  They particularly like to attach themselves to unsuspecting speaker tags.

Do you feel an urge to inform your readers a character said something happily?  Did he shout angrily at his wife?  Is she running swiftly away from the snarling German shepherd?  Keep an eye out for these sneaky little -ly words and eliminate them when you can.

REDUNDANCY

Remember the "running swiftly" example above?  Doesn't the fact that she's running away from a "snarling German shepherd" already imply swiftness?  (Actually, I did run slowly to escape a German shepherd once, but that's another story.)

My beta reader/personal writing trainer/awesome editor, Lynne, frequently catches my characters blinking their eyes or nodding their heads when they can simply nod or blink.  Don't add extra words where the meaning is already clear or let yourself say the same thing again in a different way.  Your readers are smarter than you think.

THAT and OF

Maybe I'm the only author in the world with this problem, but these two words like to make guest appearances all over my manuscript.  My agent, Marlene, gently pointed this out to me, and I've been constantly battling these words ever since.  At my worst, I use them in conversations -- like the time I unthinkingly referred to my sister-in-law as the "daughter of my wife's mother."  (Don't mock me.  I lead a stressful life and brain fatigue often sets in.)

Compare the following:
  • She examined the injured eye of the patient.
  • She examined the patient's injured eye.
Voila!  I just trimmed two words off the first sentence and even managed to make it sound better!

"That" is another problem.  Sometimes it makes a sentence feel awkward.
  • Bad example:  He decided that he would approach the stranger.
  • Good example:  He decided to approach the stranger.  
Other times it can be left completely out without compromising meaning.
  • I'm glad that I went.
  • I'm glad I went.
If you need practice streamlining a manuscript, try entering it in a contest with a 5000 word excerpt limit.  My excerpt was a few hundred words too long and ended awkwardly if I chopped those words off the end.  Because of this, I was compelled to ax a long but completely useless paragraph.  Next I went on a search and destroy mission to eliminate twenty-six more words.  (Remarkably, I was able to find more than the few hundred words needed to shorten my perfect story.)

I think I'm having déjà vu.  This is all starting to sound very much like something called "trusting your reader."