"Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short." - Henry David Thoreau
Last month during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I edited out 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript. It wasn't easy. Partly because I am a writer and partly because of mental heath issues, I fall in love with my words. They seem hard won. Perhaps I just like to hear myself talk. But this document grew beyond anything I had intended or from my worst nightmares. I worked on it for a year and wound up with a monster.
I used the structure of NaNoWriMo to ease the editing process. I gave myself a goal of removing 1925 words each day since we were traveling at the end of the month and I would get no work done while we were gone. I started at the beginning of the book and read chapter by chapter asking myself difficult questions.
Does this scene belong? Does it move the story forward? Does it belong here? Could it be said in a better way? What is the point I am trying to make? Why should the reader care? Can I make it more interesting? Can I cut the scene altogether?
I was as honest with myself as I could be. Some days I removed only a few hundred words, but most days it was closer to several thousand. I found whole sections I could easily delete. I had repeated myself, drifted off-topic, or not made sense. These had to go. I found other places where the work held its own and those sections I kept. I wound up with a book of 140,000 words and a story that made sense to me.
There is more work ahead. Ideally I will remove another 50,000 words. I have stepped away from the book for now to let it breathe. The next edit will require even more self-honesty and brutal cuts. Some of my favorite parts will have to go. That is the work of writing. The first draft I wrote for me. These later drafts, and there will be many, are for the reader.
I'm reminded of the motto, "To thine own self be true." This doesn't mean I get to spoil myself or be sloppy. It means I must be honest with myself. Tell myself the truth. In editing, this is the only way.