Writer's Digest

The author of an outsized manuscript-let's say more than 100,000 words-is under extraordinary pressure to make certain the project is well organized and fast paced with no extraneous material. Why "extraordinary"? Because big books are risky business, more expensive to produce than short books in terms of personnel hours, materials costs, shipping fees, etc., and they take up more room on the bookstore shelf-perhaps the dearest real estate in the country. Acquisitions editors will take a chance on a fat manuscript only if it has a good probability of succeeding in the marketplace.

In my first 13 years as a book editor, I worked on manuscripts already contracted by major publishing houses. Never did I see a project over 98,000 words. In my next 14 years, huge manuscripts-150,000 to 235,000 words-frequently thudded onto my desk. Not coincidentally, at that halfway point in my career I opened my editorial services to new authors.

Why do novices produce paper Everests? Because they're following instructions. "Just write down all your thoughts and ideas and worry about self-editing later," the experts advise. Judgment Day arrives when the final page slides into the printer tray. Suddenly the inexperienced author faces the overwhelming task of revising a manuscript so unwieldy, so complicated, so formless, he doesn't know where to begin or what to do. I would like to help. I'd like you to end up with a marketable manuscript, whatever its length.

Before we begin: First, you are not alone. Many, many new authors find themselves in this situation. Second, not all short books are good, and not all long books are bad. You might have written a wonderful manuscript that needs to be hefty. Third, I think decreasing the size of a long manuscript is easier than dreaming up and writing inserts to add depth to a too-short, too-thin project. Finally, don't even think about undertaking a detail-oriented revision yet. These big boomers sometimes require a bulldozer before a blue pencil. Once you have swept away unnecessary content in these seven steps, self-editing will be more manageable and productive.

Step One: Reread your manuscript to familiarize yourself with its content. Make certain it is only one dramatic unit with a beginning, middle, and end. For example, I'm critiquing a 235,000-word wartime novel that follows the lieutenant-protagonist through his promotion to captain, when he leaves his platoon. Later in the story he returns to the States and makes peace with his family. This project contains frequent flashbacks to childhood interactions with his father. This manuscript divides neatly into four books. The author could remove all the flashbacks without impacting the main story and, if he wishes, add new material to create a Young Adult chapter book. The hero's time as a lieutenant has a fine beginning, middle, and end, concluding when he says goodbye to his platoon. Another cohesive unit commences with his stint as a captain and ends with his boarding the plane for home. The last potential novel focuses on a returning soldier making peace with his family.

If you disengage discrete dramatic units from each other, you will need to compose a new opening chapter and a new final chapter for each newly formed manuscript. Decide which section you like the best and focus your attention on it, setting the others aside.

Step Two: If your gigantic manuscript is a single dramatic entity, then write a two- or three-sentence synopsis to serve as a statement of intention against which you will measure all your material. What is this story about? What happens and to whom, with what resolution? How does the protagonist find meaning in his trials? For example, "Pretending to be a pious man, Tartuffe nearly destroys his host's household until the hostess sees through his wickedness."

Write the statement in bold letters on a piece of paper and tape it where you can see it from your desk chair. Now ask yourself: (a) Is this concept worth the time and energy I'll need to devote to the revisions? (b) Do I love the characters enough to spend significant time working on them? (c) Have I said something new and important? If you answer yes, yes, and yes, then your passion will carry you forward. Proceed to Step Three.

If you have doubts, all is not lost. Ernest Hemingway called his first drafts "junk piles," and he sifted through the literary wreckage to find anything worth saving. The bits and pieces that survived his scrutiny sometimes evolved into classics. I encourage you to prospect for nuggets-a descriptive phrase, a situation, a character, a few lines of dialogue-and save them for inspiration.

Step Three: Inventory your material. On a legal pad or on your computer, state briefly (one to two sentences) what transpires in each scene of every chapter, plus the page number on which that scene begins. Leave room in the left margin for notations.

Once you've inventoried the whole manuscript, locate the scenes where nothing happens to support your synopsis or advance the plot. Write � ("zero") in the left margin of your inventory list. Next, find scenes on the list that significantly advance your plot statement. Mark these with a K ("keepers") in the left margin. If you have adhered to the boundaries set by the statement of plot, then you know what's expendable and what's crucial. The scenes you have yet to classify fall into a gray area, and we'll examine them in Step Five.

Step Four: Leave your original manuscript intact and perform surgery on a working copy. Whenever you cut material, paste it to file dedicated to deletions and mark each one with the chapter whence it came, so if you want to reinstate it or anything from it, you will have it available.

Guided by your inventory list, remove the scenes marked � from the manuscript. As you delete each section, use a yellow highlighter to cross it off your inventory list. Because the keepers won't require any attention during this prerevision stage, cross them off the inventory list, also. This will help you keep track of your work.

Step Five: Your job now is to combine, compress, or chuck. Pinpoint from the inventory list all scenes that contain only one or two bits of new information. Mark these sections with a W ("weak") in the margin. Are you able to combine the revelations from two, three, or more lackluster scenes into one powerful, crucial scene? If so, you will eliminate unnecessary verbiage and improve your project's pacing.

Let's analyze the W scenes that can't be combined. Is the information they reveal important enough to warrant the total number of words in the scene? For example, do you need 300 words to describe what a minor character looks like, or can you do a good job with 30? Can the verbiage be compressed?

Next mark all flashbacks and back story with an H ("history"). If the flashback or back story is not essential to the reader's understanding the plot or a character's motivation, then chuck it. If it is necessary, then make sure it doesn't exceed 500 words or, better for our purposes, reframe the insight as a more economical bit of narrative or dialogue. As you compress, combine, or chuck, use a highlighter to keep track of your work.

Let's deal with the remaining scenes on your inventory list by assigning them a content value of 1, 2, 3, or 4, with 4 being the most important to your manuscript. You cannot be indecisive here; there is no "average." Consider deleting all 1s and 2s and compressing or combining 3s and 4s. Step Six: Assess your starting points for the book and for each scene. You've heard it before: begin your manuscript in media res, "in the middle of things." Commence just before or just as the protagonist's life destabilizes. Open each scene shortly before its primary action takes place. These two tasks alone can save you thousands of words.

My experience with new authors shows that nearly every prologue is unnecessary or even detrimental to the project's success. If you have a prologue, try conceptualizing your work without it.

Step Seven: I suggest you take a short vacation from your manuscript before you perform this step. You need to be clear about what's included in this version and what's not. Go through your manuscript and watch for (a) any references to eliminated material, which must also be cut, (b) sections requiring a bridge to span gaps created by deletions, and (c) places where, on second thought, you absolutely must reinstate text you had cut.

You are now ready to begin detail-oriented revisions and self-editing. Whatever your word count, your dramatic content is cohesive, with greater focus, better structure, and a quicker pace than at the onset of this work. Good job!


Laurie Rosin The Book Editor Book Editing Services Book Publishing Consultant
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