Something's Gotta Give: How to Decide what to Cut from your Novel

Oct 5, 2011

I'm in the cut-obscene-amounts-of-unnecessary-crap stage of my rewrites. In the last two days, I've cut around 2,000 words from the first 100 pages of TUGL (and added just a tad too, so it flows cleanly). You'd think it'd feel horrible to cut out so many of my hard-earned words, but it actually feels really refreshing to cut out the dross and find the story underneath.

Cutting is a necessary part of rewrites, but the real question is, how do you know what to cut? I sometimes agonize for days/weeks about whether a certain scene or paragraph or line needs to go. Here are a few tips on deciding whether or not to chop.

Read the section you're concerned about and ask yourself, does it do more than one thing?
Every single line-- possibly ever single word-- in your book needs to have more than one purpose. So does every scene and chapter. Does it add characterization and move the plot forward? Does it set up the setting while building tension? Does it give us voice in the midst of action? Great! But if you've got sections that do only one thing, it needs to go. Or maybe it can stay, but it needs another element added to it. That's up to you.

Take it out. Literally cut it out of the document and paste it in another one.
I do this one quite frequently. When the section is actually GONE from the book, it's a lot easier to look at what's left and ask yourself  if anything is really missing. If the story can go on without that section-- keep it out. If you think you do need it, look hard at WHAT you need. What particular element is essential to the plot? To understanding the character? To being grounded in the world? Then ask yourself if you can lift that element and put it somewhere else. You'll find your pacing can improve quite dramatically if you do that.

"But I love this part!" is never, ever, ever, ever a reason to keep it.
That doesn't mean you have to cut out everything you love. But if the scene is only there because you think it's hilarious or dramatic or amazing, and it doesn't really add to the story as a whole, it needs to go. This is "killing your darlings." It's possible, as just mentioned, that you can take some of the elements you love and put them elsewhere. But you might just have to chop the whole thing. Take comfort in the idea you can always add a "deleted scenes" section to your website for future readers someday. :)

When I have to cut, I always ask myself one thing: is this serving the bigger purpose of the story, or holding me back from what I really want to say? When all else fails, this question can solve the problem.

So, my friends, how do you decide what to cut from your WIPs? Do you like cutting, or do you find it emotionally wrenching?

20 comments:

Meredith said...

Ugh, I hate killing the darlings! But you're right, it's so necessary. Great tips!

Jenilyn Tolley said...

Usually I'm okay with killing darlings and I try not to get too attached. But in my latest WIP, I decided to cut one of the POVs and am still a bit heartbroken about it. It was one of those things where half of the readers said, "I LOVE this POV," and the others said, "I HATE this POV." (And, yeah, they were that passionate about it.) I had to decide what to do. Ultimately, I cut it, but it's still a sore point for me.

Good luck with the trimming!

MKHutchins said...

Cutting is easy when I know it needs to go. If I'm not sure, I take it to my writing group. They let me know if I'm being paranoid or if there's a problem.

Nicole Zoltack said...

I always cut and paste what I end up deleting from a story and save the file. That way, if I decide that I do need some of it back, I still have it. Haven't had to take out of a delete file yet though.

It's funny you should blog about this. In a month, I took my story from 80K down to 65.5K. Take about cutting!

Stacy Henrie said...

I think cutting words is painful, but I usually have the opposite problem - needing more words! :) Trying to figure out how to increase the word count while not creating scenes that don't move the plot forward is tough for me.

Shiraz Akhtar said...

Cutting something you have created with fondness is never easy, but it needs to be done looking at the larger picture. I try to keep the edited parts with me, as they can be used in the next project with some changes. Great post! It should remind me to be merciless during the rewriting process.

Iain said...

Wow! Great tips. I find it hard, but have managed to do it. Like you said, it's knowing how much to cut that's the problem.

Jaime Theler said...

Cutting is sometimes painful, but the book almost always goes better once I do. After the major cutting during revision, I also do a final polish cut, where I try to go by the advice I got from Brandon Sanderson to finish the manuscript, then cut 10%.

Angie said...

That's good advice. I quite like cutting myself. It always makes me feel good to get rid of stuff that isn't helping the story. Getting some distance helps with that.

Abby said...

You always have the best tips on your website Shallee. I bookmark some of them but mostly I just know that if I come to your website and search it I will find something. I am not looking forward to the cutting out part, but I agree that it is crucial. Great stuff today!

E. Arroyo said...

Some great suggestions here. It's hard for me to cut stuff I think is written well. But, I chop up everything that is not the story. I don't delete it, which helps me deal with the trauma, but I save it in the original document. It helps me sleep at night. =)

Rachel Frost said...

I honestly love editing. Molding words into something greater is a beautiful process. The only real sadness I've had came from cutting a character who I pictured perfectly. When I realized her role was easily filled by another existing character, she was chopped.

Brent Wescott said...

I never cut anything, because everything I write is pure gold!

(Wait, should I cut out that last part?)

Caitlin said...

I don't know why, but this bit ""But I love this part!" is never, ever, ever, ever a reason to keep it." made me laugh! Probably because I've said it far too many times.

Lynda R Young said...

Great advice.
If my words look at me funny, then I cut them ;)

i'm erin. said...

Ugh, I hate cutting. I'm horrid at it. I need to do it more, and I'm actually doing it right now.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Good post. Cutting IS hard to do, but I always save a file called "take-outs" so that I know if it's something I like, it isn't lost forever and I can always put it back in if the absence didn't improve the work. (That's the beauty of "cut and paste". Remember the days of retyping?)

Angie Cothran said...

There is something so liberating about cutting things you think you can't live without. I've noticed that once it is gone I can see my story better.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Great tips.

I love cutting things out. Why? Because I HATE reading unnecessarily long books. My biggest fear is that my book will be longer than it is good. People have to invest time into each page that I write and I think I could be 300 pages good but I'd hate to have written a 500 page book that was 300 pages good.

Kari Marie said...

Really excellent points Shallee. Great post!

 
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