Friday, July 31, 2009

The Gift of The Axe

I want to talk about the little blessing in disguise known as word count guidelines.

When I finished TM and fixed it (or so I thought), it was complete at 112,000 words. The average YA book is 80,000 to 90,000 words for a new author (or somewhere around there). For those of you who want to object with "But Harry Potter books were NEVER that short!" I am sorry, but you are wrong. The first Harry Potter book was around 80,000 words long. The second one was also not very long. It wasn't until the third HP that you could start measuring the thickness with a ruler, and that was after JK Rowling was established, had a fan base, and could do pretty much whatever the heck she wanted.

I don't know why I got it in my head that cutting 20,000 words wouldn't be that big a deal, but as it turns out, I'm kind of dumb. Here's why: 20,000 words equates to about 80 pages. What? Yes. 80 pages. I was at the writer's conference when I discovered that horrifying fact. How am I supposed to cut EIGHTY pages, I wondered to myself. Can I seriously lose that many? Won't caving to these word deadlines ruin my masterpiece?

The answers are: Yes, you can lose that many. And no, losing them will not damage what you've written, in all likelihood. It was only when I thought about condensing TM that I realized how much extra STUFF was in there, just floating around doing absolutely nothing but slowing the plot down. It took me eighty pages to get to the first real incident. Eighty pages of setup is TOO MUCH SETUP.

When I revised, I was able to shorten those eighty pages of setup to something like 25 pages of setup. For those of you who aren't so good at The Math, 80-25 is 55 pages. Of extra crap that no one needs to read.

The thing is, it's good to write everything down. Writing those first 80 pages helped me figure out what was going on and where everything was headed. My mistake was not writing them; it was refusing to acknowledge that after the whole thing was finished, I didn't need them to be there. I don't care what epic creation you have spent a year constructing. If it's YA and it's over 90,000 words...get out the scalpel, because it's time to trim the fat. And there is fat. There is always a shorter way for your plot to get where it's going, and if you feel like you're losing valuable information or character development, you should probably learn this lesson that I'm still having trouble grasping:

Trust. The. Reader.

They will put the pieces together far better than you think they will. I know this because I've had people read it. And they get it. And they sometimes feel like I'm repeating myself. Because I am.

This whole process has forced me to be far more economical. I think that's the right word. Never use a paragraph when a sentence will do. And never tell when showing will do. I didn't need to tell the reader that my main character was lonely. The fact that no one sits next to her in class and she's always dodging other people's elbows in the hallway is enough. Why did I not realize this the first time around? I have no idea.

Also: I didn't figure out what the book was really about until the last twenty pages. Which is a problem. Now that I'm revising and condensing, I'm weaving that information I crammed into the last twenty pages into the rest of the draft. Honestly, if this partial manuscript gets rejected, I will be sad, but I won't be heartbroken. Because this process has made TM ten times better than it was before, and it will finally be in good form to send to other agents.

As I reread what I've done in the last few days, I actually find myself thinking that the writing is good. It took me like ten tries, but finally I found this balance between short and long sentences, between high and low language, between seriousness and humor. Let's hope I can keep it up, because I really believe in this draft and that's important. If I don't like it, how will anyone else like it?

So if you're like me, and you always write more than you should: embrace the word count guidelines. Even if you don't have them...tell yourself to cut 20,000 words, and if you can find a way to do it. If you can find a way, even if it means dramatic restructuring, that means there were too many words to begin with.

I forgot who it was that said it, but: "There are always too many words at first."


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