Monday 9 March 2020

Culling Those Much-Loved Words

By Marilyn Forsyth

I recently faced the massive problem of having to cull my medieval/contemporary timeslip manuscript by 45K words. 😟 I’d spent over a year writing 140K words, only to be told by the two editors and an agent I pitched to at the RWA conference that it had to be cut to 90-95K words before sending it to them.

That was, like, one-third of my story!!!

The good news is, I did it. (Yay me!)

Image courtesy of giphy

Here’s how:

1. First, I looked at choices for removing huge chunks of the story. Could I take out whole chapters, whole subplots, whole point-of-view characters?

I found I was able to remove two chapters that, though fascinating from a historical point of view, were not strictly needed to move the plot forward.

Image courtesy of giphy

Did it hurt? 

Like a punch to the heart! 

I loved writing those chapters.

2. Next, I went scene by scene to decide if each one was really necessary. Did it up the stakes, or show character development, or move the story forward?

This was tough, but also enlightening. I changed a heap of scene beginnings to start at a later point (while still managing to keep the hooks 😇).

Did it hurt? Hell, yeah! I loved those scenes.

3. My next task was to examine the dialogue and introspection. Had I repeated conversations, thoughts and actions?

Image courtesy of giphy

Why, yes, I had...and way too many times. 

I ended up cutting and/or combining a ton of each of these. And while I was at it, I noticed some descriptions of characters and settings were worded very similarly, so I did a search for keywords and either deleted or changed the descriptions (shortening them at the same time).

Did it hurt? Did it what! That dialogue was sparkling, those descriptions were captivating.😉

4. By this time, I was down to reduced to removing individual words. Yes, folks, that’s what it came down to.

Image Author's own

I’ve been writing long enough to know that really, very, just, that, and so are my favourite filler words, but a run through of each chapter on Autocrit brought up some other interesting overused words (eyes, hands, now - needless to say, more editing was required).

Did it hurt? Nope. Those fillers have no place in my writing.

I finally reached my goal of 95K words (after several months’ working on it) but, with all the deletions, I had to check that my plot points still occurred in the right place (to my delight - and amazement - they did), and then reread to make sure my story made sense. (I'm happy with it, but if there are any beta readers out there who’d like to offer their services, I'm up for honest feedback.😜)

This image (courtesy of giphy) has nothing to do with the post and is unashamedly gratuitous.

But let's get back to this post...

Wouldn’t it be great if culling was as simple as deleting words and leaving it at that? Unfortunately, it’s not. But what I’ve learned is that, after so many changes have been made, the most important thing is to ensure your story still hangs together. That there are no loose ends. That your story is still worth telling.

That the threads of your story weave a tale that is worthy of the reader, because that is what we all strive for.

Have you ever had to cull a story you loved writing? How did you go about it?

Love to Love the DIY writing retreat my crit partners and I undertook in February. The weather was pretty conducive to writing.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Love to Laugh when reminiscing about the past. Had so much fun catching up with old school buddies last week!

Love to Learn the inspiration behind Beth O’Leary’s The Flat Share. You can watch her interview at (click Watch Now when you get there). Myvlf is a fabulous website for authors and readers alike.

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  1. 45,000 words, Marilyn? OH YIKES!!!!!
    I am seriously impressed that you managed to cull that many. That must have hurt. I've been through some pretty major rewrites and they're horrible so you have my sympathy. But at the end of the day, it's all about making a better book and reader experience. Sounds like you've managed it.
    For what it's worth - because we all have our own process - my method is to print the story out and cut it into scenes, then lay them out on my dining room table, then start removing weak scenes. If the story still works without them, I know they weren't needed. Another way that isn't mine but I plan to use one day, is to look at every sentence and see if I can't remove a word from it.

  2. Hi Cathryn! Hurt? Bet your bootees! But I do think the story benefited from it in the end. At first I laughed out loud at the idea of removing one word from each sentence but, you know what, that probably isn't a bad idea. Next time! Btw, looks like you had a lovely time at the ARRA Author Signing over the weekend. Hope it went well for you.

  3. Wow, Marilyn, that was a mammoth cull on your part. But knowing you, the result will be leaner and meaner. (Er...that was a compliment, BTW.) Can't wait to read it, cull and all!

    1. Thanks Miranda! The book is with a beta reader as we speak who will hopefully let me know if it hangs together. Fingers crossed.

  4. I remember attending a talk by Melanie Milburne once and she said "The Delete Key can be your friend." It's sometimes the hardest button the keyboard to press, but can be the most effective!!!

    1. Such good advice, Alyssa! And I'm hoping there'll be a culled scene or two that I can use in my current wip.

  5. Hi Marilyn,
    That is amazing! Well done you :) I hope you didn't delete those culled scenes completely - they would make great content for newsletters for your avid fans who want a bit more of the historical content :D
    I've never undertaken culling words to this magnitude. I have deleted and completely re written parts of my books though - never a fun process but it does end with a better book. xx

    1. Thanks Jayne! Don't worry, I'm keeping those culled words for some future use. :)

  6. Marilyn that was no mean feat you accomplished and you didn't let it stop you. That is something to be very proud of. When I had to severely edit my last book it was not easy but I believe it made it a better book.

    1. Thanks so much Cassandra! I know you understand how hard it was for me, having gone through it yourself, and you're right, the book can be much better with a bit of judicious pruning.

  7. Yes, culling is brutal - all those beautiful words and scenes we sweat over gone - but, wow, culling sure tightens the writing and makes a story so very much better. I've seen this in my own writing, so, yes, culling is a writer's friend. Well done, Marilyn.

    1. Thanks Enisa! I know you know a lot about culling, too, and how hard it is. :)


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