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Desperately Seeking Darlings

Flickr Creative Commons: Jay Walt
Flickr Creative Commons: Jay Walt

Back in late October, Liz Michalski wrote a post [1] about how her portly manuscript lost an impressive 52,000 words. As someone who writes long and cuts later, I related well to her obsession with chopping adverbs, unnecessary adjectives, and dialogue tags.  I ran that gauntlet myself when the last draft of my manuscript clocked in at 115,000 words.

The length wasn’t terrible, but I feared it might be beyond the comfort zone for many agents seeking debut historical fiction. I hoped to avoid unnecessary auto-rejects. This meant not only eliminating extra words but murdering entire scenes; a quick read-through failed to yield obvious victims.

Sure, there were a few tangents that didn’t propel the plot forward much, but those were the family stories that had so enthralled me as a child, the ones that inspired me to write the novel in the first place. I couldn’t possibly remove those! Besides, what reader wouldn’t laugh at the image of my male protagonist, as a teenager in the 1870s, streaking through a sea of picnicking Mennonites in an attempt to escape the town constable? The reason he was being chased, and in the nude no less, is a damn funny story. So is his failed attempt to fly, but I digress…

A few months prior to completing my manuscript, I attended Donald Maass’ 21st Century Fiction workshop. Throughout the talk, he peppered his audience with questions they might ask themselves while composing. The goal was to ensure that each scene both moved the story forward and contained enough tension to keep readers engaged. I wrote many questions down, intending to compile them for use in pre-plotting my next novel.

Faced with a fat manuscript and out of ideas, I revisited my workshop notes and had an epiphany. The questions, though originally posed to help writers craft compelling scenes, could be adapted to gauge if existing scenes worked in the context of the whole novel or should be banished to the morgue file. If the experiment proved all scenes to be essential, the book would have to remain longish. If not, I’d know where to cut.

I pared the (many) questions down to the most essential and dug in.

I won’t lie. The exercise was torture and took weeks, but it shined an incriminating spotlight on most of my ‘darlings’ as well as a few unexpected scenes. With proof that what I’d once considered essential served no literary purpose, I could hack away without remorse.

For those whose manuscripts must lose significant word count, here’s the process that saved my sanity:

Write a scene by scene synopsis

If you only write one scene per chapter, do it by chapter. If not, do this for every scene, no matter how short.

Answer the following questions for each scene

What’s in it for you?

If you know deep down what the exercise will reveal, expect this process to be especially hard. I spent the better part of a day trying to cheat the system in order to keep one particularly precious darling alive. It’s hard to argue with blank spaces and question marks. Eventually, I moved it to a separate “halfway-house” file instead of the morgue. Do whatever helps you sleep at night. The choice is always up to you.

Have you ever trimmed sizable chunks from a manuscript? How did you determine what needed to go?

About Kim Bullock [2]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [3], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.