When you first put those words on the page, they look just right. That scene feels epic. The dialogue seems to flow. There is no way you’re not keeping this passage! Fast forward far enough ahead to gain some distance and objectivity, and you see clearly that you have a mess on your hands. You wonder what you were thinking. Don’t beat yourself up. Every writer has been there. I am elbows-deep in developmental edits of the first draft of my novel. I wrote the first act in a burst of energy in the spring of 2018, before I spent any time studying the craft of writing. Those pages need some work. I hope to encourage you this week with example cuts from my first line through the inciting incident, before and after. Most of the improvement I’ve wrought so far comes from little more than remove wasteful scenes.
A couple of things to keep in mind – 1) even at the time of this writing, this is very much a work in progress, and 2) genre is dark fantasy.
Before: 5,745 words
- Protagonist hunts in the woods – lots of scenery, clumsily world-building
- Argument with a rival about matters unrelated to the plot
- Breakfast with family
- Try to invent assembly line manufacturing in a pseudo-industrial-revolution setting
- Walk younger brother home from work
- Eat supper with family
- Play a sport (rules of fake sport explained…)
- Jumped by rival
- Call to action
After: 4,901 words
- Publicly discovered murder victim
- Discuss murder at work (greatly shortened)
- Walk younger brother home
- Ague with rival, subject changed to directly relate to plot
- Supper with family (shortened)
- Montage over sport
- Jumped by rival
- Call to action
I made each change below with an eye towards reducing word count, increasing focus, and cutting boring bits.
Overhauled Opening Scene
Originally, I spent time sitting with the protagonist on a hill, admiring the scenery as his inner monologue set the scene and sprinkled in backstory. It was dull. It meandered and lacked a strong hook. This is a world of monsters and magic! I changed it to jump right into the return of monsters to a sleepy backwater town. Even now, I am considering backing up a step and showing the attack itself. Briefly. Very briefly.
Streamlined Setting Tour
Like many quest-centered fantasy tales, I want to show the simple, pre-adventure state of my protagonist’s life. There is value in that – it creates a starting point for future growth, and establishes what the hero has to lose. The downside of my original opening is that it was a boring step-by-step chronological walk through a patented day-in-the-life. We don’t need two meals with the family. We don’t need three interactions with the local bully. We still meet the important players, but in half the time.
I cringed over the wasted digital ink showing the protagonist basically do his Henry Ford impression. I intended to show that he is a clever hero, one that gets by on wits rather than brawn, but a neat idea at his day job was not an organic way to present that in the flow of the story. I also spent half a page explaining the rules of a fictional sport. Yawn! That became two decent sentences on gameplay feel.
There is Work to Do Yet…
I am figuratively biting my tongue, holding back my desire to start polishing sentences. That would only slow me down at this stage. I recently took a short story from 2600 words to 2000 to get it under the submission bar for a particular market. I was surprised to find that I lost no actual scenes, but the writing was much crisper, tighter. When it comes time to edit, polish, and shine, I am sure the novel’s clunky 4900 can becomes a trim 4000 and still convey the same message.
Wherever you are in your journey, know that you’re not alone, that it’s ok if you’re not proud of your first effort. You have the power to make it better. It may be that all you need to do is cut.