Bloodbath at the Keyboard

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Bonnie Schroeder has been a storyteller since the fifth grade, when her teacher suggested she put her vivid imagination to work as a writer.  She took the advice to heart and has pursued the craft of fiction ever since. In addition to her women’s fiction novel Mending Dreams, she is the author of numerous short stories, screenplays, and nonfiction articles. She lives in Glendale, California.

 

 

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about editing, full of measured and objective advice about reducing one’s word count. I boasted that I had trimmed 5,000 words from my Work in Progress and had “only about 10,000 words” more to cut. I achieved that goal almost painlessly.

Proof that the Universe has a sense of humor: I was offered a publishing contract, but only if I could remove another 3,000 to 5,000 words from the manuscript.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I muttered as I started reading, convinced I had already pared the word count to the bare bone. At this point the manuscript consisted of about 109,000 words.stack-of-papers

This last read-through, performed after the manuscript had “cooled” for a couple of months, was a humbling experience.

There was still plenty of fat left in those pages.

I had apparently developed a fondness for the word “so,”—to the extent that it had become invisible to me on past readings. As in “So,” she said, “what have you been up to?” Or, “So, are you going to tell me what happened?”red-pen

Removing all those “so’s” made a tiny dent in the word count, but I had to get more aggressive.

You know the edict, “Kill your darlings”?

I’d done that, sliced them out with a push of the “Delete” button, and I was convinced I’d purged them all. But oh, no.

The number of darlings I found on this last go-round astonished me.

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Out went some of my favorite paragraphs, ones that looked lovely but added nothing to the storyline.

The bloodbath continued unabated, and this time there was pain. I loved some of those passages—I loved them too much. I’d labored over every sentence, every phrase, every word, and removing them from the manuscript was like ripping off pieces of my skin.

What made it worse, as I highlighted passages and pressed “Delete,” was the realization that no one but me would ever see these words arranged just so, words I’d sometimes had to wrestle onto the page to convey a certain image, a certain feeling. I hated myself for condemning them to obscurity.

“But wait,” cried a tiny voice at the moment of my deepest despair. These precious prose snippets weren’t really gone; they were safely housed in a prior version of the manuscript, safe within a digital file on my computer, backed up to the cloud and three separate flash drives. They could live on, forever if need be, waiting for me to resurrect them in another book, another time.

Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, but I sleep better knowing they’re there, waiting patiently, and if they never get their moment in the sun, they won’t know.

After all, they’re only words.

Aren’t they?

I did meet my publisher’s requirement, so the agony was worth it. I trimmed another 3,998 words from the manuscript, and it is now a relatively svelte 105,000 words. But I still miss some of those paragraphs. . .

14 thoughts on “Bloodbath at the Keyboard”

  1. I can commiserate on so many points, from the word fondness (mine is ‘just’) to the pain of a thousand cuts. Those wonderful passages you labored over aren’t truly gone, though. You’ll remember them and work them into another story.

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    1. Thanks, Miko. Sometimes technology really can be our friend–as in those excised paragraphs now squirreled away. And “word search” to hunt down those words we overuse (I had already removed about 100 “justs” from my work, too!)

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  2. I empathize, Bonnie, since I’ve sometimes had to cut words from a manuscript. But I also recently had the opposite problem and had to add a significant amount of words. I think the latter is even harder! But glad you succeeded, as difficult as it was.

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    1. Too bad we can’t trade words, Linda! I agree that adding words is harder than subtracting. But since I tend to over-write, adding is seldom a problem for me.

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  3. I’m in the same boat as Linda, adding words! Never thought I’d see the day. But for the first time after I got to a certain point, the story was written. So what more was there to say? Don’t know which is harder, trying to bring depth and richness with additional (perfectly chosen of course!) words, or banishing my little “darlings” to the unnecessary pile… Hmmm. And I started out thinking writing a book would be easy! Ha!

    Yeah on your new book–short or long, I’m looking forward.

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  4. Bonnie,
    Other than my fondness for certain words: just, so, etc., which I definitely need to cut, my problem is the opposite of yours. Like Linda and Madeline, I often find myself needing to add words. I tend to write sparsely and then I have to go back and “flesh out” the scenes.

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  5. Well, Patricia — I do wish that you, Linda and Madeline could “recycle” all my extra verbiage, but it probably wouldn’t fit since I don’t write mysteries. Your way is probably better, and more time-saving.

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  6. Bonnie, those ‘so’s and ‘that’s add up, don’t they? But at least you have your word-cuttings saved so that you can dig them out should you ever be lost for words….

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