Stephen King shares in On Writing that a submitted story of his got this scribbled rejection from an editor: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. King said that single comment changed the way he revised his fiction.
The question many writers reasonably have in response to this advice are: What, how much, and where do I cut?
Of course, one should start by cutting all unneeded scenes, characters, actions, and dialogue. But if you’ve done that and your fiction still feels flabby? What then?
Re-examining the following four aspects of your manuscript will yield ways to slim down your story and likely make it more reader-friendly, too.
Consider this passage from a recent student story.
When the doorbell suddenly rang, Deonna ran swiftly to the door. She opened it and smiled confidently. “Hello, Mark.”
Here’s a version of that same passage where every -ly word (the most overused type of adverb) got the grammatical boot.
When the doorbell rang, Deonna ran to the door. She opened it and smiled. “Hello, Mark.”
Better than the first draft, no? Here’s why.
“Suddenly rang” isn’t that different than just “rang.” “Ran swiftly” is plain redundant. The only adverb potentially worth keeping? “Confidently.” But I prefer writing that shows more than tells, and there are so many ways to communicate (show!) that confidence while advancing the next part of this scene. The firmness of her handshake. The strength of her gaze meeting his. Perhaps her denying Mark entry – either playfully or spy-serious – without a password?
Remember, too, that King claims the road to hell is paved with adverbs, so use them sparingly at best.
Over by the tall fence stood this little kid with a balloon high up on a string. He watched a pair of big elephants lumber about in their pen, trumpeting loudly in the hot morning sun.
As seen in this student example, many writers use adjectives like they were in a helicopter unloading water onto a forest fire. While carefully chosen adjectives can be impactful, many prove unnecessary, as we can see here. Aren’t ALL kids little? So, unless this kid’s Tom Thumb or a Smurf or perhaps suffering from a growth disorder, the idea of kidness = little. It’s a similar situation with the elephant reference. Unless those elephants are 50% bigger than average, they’re normal enough just to be “elephants.” Other possible cuts include “tall,” “high,” “loudly” (an adverb versus an adjective), and “hot.”
Here’s the same scene with a few of those modifiers absent. What do you think?
Over by the fence stood this kid with a balloon high up on a string. He watched a pair of elephants lumber about in their pen, trumpeting in the morning sun.
Note: I kept “high up on the string” since that image is kind of lovely and poetic, though “high” is frequently a dead-weight adjective, along with the common culprits “big,” “little,” “many,” and “pretty.”
This one comes courtesy of a recent lunch I had with a pair of NY editors. After a round of jumbo raspberry acai smoothies, they confided a growing displeasure in writers using filters for what a character sees, hears, and feels, which makes readers feel distant. Here’s an example of what they mean.
Filtered: As soon as Iris charged through the spacecraft hatch, she saw a cow’s ravaged body swinging from a ceiling hook. She heard a low moaning that she hoped wasn’t the poor cow. Propped up against a wall, she noticed…a ray gun?
Nonfiltered: Iris charged through the spacecraft hatch. A bloody cow moaned as it swung from a ceiling hook. Against the wall lay a ray gun – a freaking’ RAY GUN!
See the difference? The added benefit is that the nonfiltered is often shorter, even if you kick up the language/voice as I did here (I used 28 words versus the original 42). Let things unfold on their own. Let readers experience it for themselves versus add in an extra layer of involvement that, ironically, decreases the impact of the scene as it adds bulk to your writing.
These editors – and others, I’m certain – will appreciate it.
Examining the goal of your sentence
Here’s one final tip for getting your fiction to be leaner in the right ways. Ghostwriter and dramaturg Glenn Schudel explains that creating good fiction is more than simply keeping sentences short. “I love a long sentence, as long as it’s elegant and deliberate,” he admits. “Yet it’s easy to spot writers who have thought a lot about their ideas but not put the same care into expressing those ideas. The #1 tell? Baggy prose.”
To figure out where your prose is baggy/flabby, he recommends two strategies. First, read it out loud to a friend and pay attention to where they get bored or confused. Adjust accordingly (cut the flab!) in your editing process. The other thing he suggests is to print out the story and examine it sentence by sentence. “Each sentence should have a goal,” he insists, “and any word that isn’t helpful in getting you to that goal should be changed or cut.”
I know that some writers understand this but struggle with the changing and cutting part in a kind of “I can’t kill my darlings!” moment. To help, I tell them to imagine having to pay me $5 for every word they leave on the page. Given that, do they TRULY want to use “I really, really liked that old maroon jacket!” without any changes? Is it a $40-worthy sentence? Or maybe – just maybe – there’s a way to save themselves some cash, strengthen their story, and please readers all at the same time.
Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & OnlyPictureBooks.com.