The clichés about cutting your manuscript are violent. “Murder your darlings.” “Shoot your pets.” But they convey the agony of this part of the editing process.
I’ve done this with both The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. After polishing and polishing and polishing again, I had drafts that were 125,000 to 150,000 words. They needed to be closer to 100,000.
Every writer has their own process. What I am about to share is what worked for me. First, I used “Save As” to preserve the lengthy version. It’s an emotional crutch, a way to calm the voice whimpering, “What if I don’t like it post-surgery?”
And then I told myself the following:
Can this conversation be shorter? Skipping everyday pleasantries and eliminating echoes in conversation makes the section tighter and can add tension to dialogue.
This looks familiar. I found quite a few places where I was repeating information I said a few chapters ago. One passage got cut, and it was not always the later one.
Only one POV, please. I’ll admit I’m a reformed head-hopper and now feel more strongly than someone who’s never sinned. In addition to shortening a passage, one point of view per scene helps the reader stay within the dream. If the thoughts inside the other person’s head are that important, they can be conveyed through dialogue or body language or appear when it’s their turn to speak.
Do we need all these characters? I found out that some could be disappeared without harming the story. Hruodland, the hero of Cross and Dragon, originally had two brothers. In the final version, he has one. In Ashes, one of Leova’s masters had a wife; in the final version, he is widowed. I’ve had extremely near-sighted characters in drafts of both books because I wanted to portray people like me who didn’t have access to glasses or contacts, but I let them go because they were not needed.
In my two published novels, most of my characters are fictitious. I am facing more difficulty with historic people. So far, all 10 of Charlemagne’s children (at that time) will appear in Lady Queen Fastrada. But I can understand a writer deciding to consolidate characters for the sake of the story, as long as they confess to their liberties in an author’s note.
Does this scene, even though it was built on careful research, advance the story? If the answer is no, put it under the knife, no matter how pretty it is or how hard you worked on it. Don’t think your research will go to waste. I used my research for a deleted falconing scene in Cross and Dragon—one that got good responses from critique partners—for one in Ashes.
Am I just showing off my research? The reviewers of my books say they enjoy the details I include in my novels. Details help transport readers back in time and make the story seem real. But I have cut some out if they are more for decoration than storytelling. My biggest mistake in the early drafts of Cross and Dragon is that I wanted to prove my intelligence and hard work. I had a family of slaves captured during a war in Aquitaine in one of those drafts, but to include them would have made the story bloated and distracted too much from the hero and heroine. Instead, they became Saxons in Ashes.
Cutting the manuscript was painful both times, but I am happy with the results. The pacing improved and the stories became more focused, moving on a steady path rather than meandering.