How I Cut Almost Two Gatsbies from My Bloated Novel by J. Hamlet
“I'm here tonight working on, well, cutting 70,000 words from my novel.” The only logical response to such a statement is laughter. I made the statement at a regular meetup I attend of other writers and creative types who get together once a week to work on our various projects. Near the beginning we usually go around the room and talk about our projects. When I told them my dilemma, most of them gave me a skeptical “good luck.” Some were trying to be helpful and said “why don't you split it into two books? Or three?” As tempting as that was, I knew it wasn't the right way forward. I knew I had to put my novel on a diet. And I knew it wouldn't be easy.
It all started years before then. When I finished the first draft of my debut novel, Hand of Chaos, it weighed in at a longish 135K words. I knew it needed editing, so I enlisted some beta readers to help. A good number of them gave me the feedback that the story needed more description, maybe more exposition. That didn't surprise me. I had written a dark fantasy novel set in contemporary times that had mythological creatures, a complex magic system, and a tangle of secret government agencies.
I took that feedback as only a misguided and inexperienced writer would. I did a second draft, then a third draft. When I finished, I checked my word count. Along the way I had added plenty of material to be sure, but I had also made cuts. I thought the word count couldn't have gone up too much. I was wrong. After all my toil, my novel stood at 195K.
195,000 words is practically a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. For a debut novel from an author no one has ever heard of, that's a recipe for disaster. The thought of doing a fourth draft of my novel was hard, especially knowing how much I would need to axe. My initial target was 125K, as even most small-press publishers won't touch a novel longer than that.
Obviously, cutting 70K words would require a strategy. As a writer, I believe in learning by reading. I thought about novels I'd read recently that I enjoyed and how they worked. I had just finished Jay Lake's Green, a novel that throws the reader into a puzzling and unfamiliar world, leaving the reader to slowly piece together the contexts, culture, and significance of the characters. I had also read Meagan Spooner's Skylark, a superb YA novel that took much the same tack. Presenting an intricate world-building scenario without forcing the reader to drink from the wrong end of the exposition firehose. Both counted on the reader to follow the trail, to put it together themselves.
First, My novel had too much exposition. I had committed the cardinal sin of genre writers: letting the world-building get in the way of telling a story. Over the weeks of building my fourth draft, I cut every piece of exposition I could. For those that survived, I sprinkled it in the dialogue. If I could show, I showed. If I could tell, I at least did it in my characters' conversations instead of blocky, obtuse paragraphs about magic systems and mythology. I began to learn very quickly how much my attempts to show off all of my ideas caused my narrative to suffer. Painful as seeing neat moments of world-building and ideas was, it had to happen. I was surprised by how streamlined and efficient my chapters became.
Killing the exposition would never be enough. What I called the “flavor” moments died next. Backstories of secondary characters. Particularly cerebral and psychological moments with the villain, fun dialogue not crucial to the story, and, most painful of all, my main character lost a pet. That's right, the poor animal had to be erased. A lot of it hurt, a lot of it was difficult, but I did it and kept pushing forward.
As I closed in on the last few chapters, I had exceeded my 70K target. My novel already down to 125K, I could've left the last few chapters alone. I wasn't blind, though. I knew these brutal cuts had improved the work. I knew they made me a better writer. When the the dust settled, Hand of Chaos had fallen from 195K to 115K. I thought about how the Great Gatsby was a mere 47K words. Sure, 115K was long by that yardstick, but thinking that I'd nearly purged two complete Great Gatsby's from my text blew my mind.
Looking back, wanting to stuff every idea, character, and moment I could into my debut novel felt like the right choice. Now, I know better. I know I have more novels and stories to write, and all of those ideas, flavor moments, and backstories can find a home in them somewhere. At least the good ones can.
J. Hamlet is an indie author who has far too many hobbies. His debut novel is Hand of Chaos and he also publishes a weekly serialized tumblr novel called Scarred Earth.
Synopsis: Exhausted, cynical, and confused, Anna is always there to report for duty. She's part of a clandestine government team that defends the nation against supernatural terrorism—a job that understandably leaves her life in shambles and drives her to drink a little more than she should. Toss in a fear of intimacy with a desire to have friends and lovers like a normal person and, well, Anna is a troubled soul wrapped in a special agent with arcane, magical powers. Waking up hungover at five-thirty in the morning with a zombie-infested apartment building in the heart of DC to deal with, she's knows she's got the makings of the worst morning possible.
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J. Hamlet: Everyone needs a hobby. I chose writing. Not one of the easier ones. I chose it at the tender age of 14, churning out terrible science fiction novels that heaped on the cliches and barely hidden tropes of all space operas. Thankfully, those creations reside in the prison of an old Commodore 64 hard drive and several 3.5" disks (kids, ask your parents) in a landfill somewhere. And, let me be clear, the world is better for it. Along the way, I kept writing. Through college. Through grad school. Through the beginning of my career, such as it is. I like to believe I picked up skills. I write genre novels that have characters brimming with personal problems, professional problems, and sexuality. Sure, novels that do this exist. I'm not trying to say they don't, I just think too few of them are out there and I intend to do my personal best to increase their numbers.
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