Ouch! Editing is hard!

I am a murderer.  I am killing words.  I am killing scenes.  I have even killed two characters and pushed another off the page, only to be talked about as if they are not there.

Now, however, I am having trouble figuring out how much backstory to keep in my novel.

My first novel, you see, is Book I in a fantasy book series.  I conceived of this world 25 years ago, and the original story that I began writing at that time is now the backstory for my current series.  The new heroine, Lex, really doesn’t know anything about the world.  I have to decide what she needs to know, and what it would be better to leave unsaid.

On draft 1, I put it all in.  The wise old advisor character spilled all the backstory and told Lex and Ash exactly what they needed to do.  Now I’m having second thoughts on how much he should tell them, and how much they should figure out for themselves.

I think this will improve the momentum, the pacing of the novel, and will also reduce the word count.  (I hesitate to tell you how long the book is right now, but suffice it to say it needs to lose a significant number of words.) 

But I’m having trouble deciding.  When I read this chapter, I still like it just as is. 

Can anybody help me with this dilemma?  How much to cut? So hard!

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5 Responses to “Ouch! Editing is hard!”

  1. Carolina Valdez Miller Says:

    This is a tough question! My last ms was massive & I cut 65k words from it. It could use at least 30K more. So for now, I’ve shelved it. My suggestion to you is to remove any bits of the back story that doesn’t actively progress the plot. Have just enough to whet the appetites of the reader, but if it the characters in book 1 don’t need to know it to advance (either through characterization or plot arc) than it likely doesn’t need to be there. Keep in mind, too, that the reader doesn’t need to know everything. I have entire histories for some of my minor characters that serve more of a purpose for me to find their voice, but it doesn’t serve much purpose in the plot, so I don’t include it.

    As for word count, best of luck! It’ a tedious process to reduce it. Eliminating subplots that don’t actively revolve around the main character can help, too. I found that I had put in certain things, like say a dream sequence, that really had a better place in the second book of the series because it didn’t impact book 1. Also eliminate any minor characters that aren’t really adding anything–if they don’t serve a purpose in illustrating the characterization or plot of the main characters, they likely don’t need to be there, at least not highlighted. Consider Tom Bombadil from LOTR. Never made it to the movies because he was actually an unessential character. Had Tolkien tried to publish today, he likely would have been told to chop up his manuscript as well.

    Good luck and happy chopping!

  2. allyriabookauthor Says:

    Thanks. Great suggestions. So true about good old Tom Bombadil! (Wish PJ had cut Treebeard also, but he advanced the plot so he had to stay!)

    Hmm, some of my characters had better watch their heads!

  3. skyejules Says:

    This was my problem with chapter thirteen in Witch Tourniquet. My MC goes into a cathedral and meets a mysterious stranger who shows some of her past through a stained-glass window. But the backstory for the window, he tells her. My beta reader thought it was an infodump (I had an inkling it was), and I do agree. Using a character to tell backstory is just as bad as telling the backstory itself.

    For my novel, I had to think of what my MC was most concerned with knowing. I had to crunch it down to one thing: she just wants to know her past. She doesn’t care about anyone else’s pasts or really their reasons for doing what they did. I dropped in things about that in previous chapters. So, how did I presume to show the rest of her backstory? I took her back to the stained glass window and pulled some scenes that I had written in later chapters and decided to use those in this chapter. I’m not sure how my beta reader is going to respond to it, it might still need revisions, but I can tell you that no longer is it an info dump!

    As for word count, that can be crazy. Witch Tourniquet started out at a monstrous 180k back in the days when I was very young, naive, and not that great of a writer. But I was so in love with the concept, and even now I still think it’s great. I’ve pounded it down to 94k. It was 92k, but in order to slow down the pacing and make things make sense I had to add words. Doing a proofread, however, might take down the word count, plus, I’m re-writing the rest of the half of the novel to make it match with revisions, so that might help as well. Don’t concern yourself too much with word count, unless it’s like Witch Tourniquet’s old monstrous 180k. If it’s YA, and it sounds like it is, concern yourself if it’s about 100k. It seems like you’re writing fantasy, and that is allowed to be a little bit longer because of world building.

    But in order for me to pound down Witch Tourniquet, I had to seriously consider which subplots did not help with the novel. Some were extremely obvious, others took another year for me to find. Now I’m to the point where I know which ones push it and which ones don’t, because I’ve been able to crunch down the novel into what it’s really all about–that, and beta readers are incredible.

  4. Paul Greci Says:

    One way to reduce word count is to combine characters. Do you have several characters playing minor roles? Can you eliminate one or more and give that role to another character. This would eliminate backstory and make the other characters more dimensional.

    With every scene, ask youself, how is this scene advancing the plot? Developing character? What is its purpose? You may be able to eliminate a scene and work the information in somewhere else.

    With backstory, a general rule is not to put it in until the reader needs to know.

    Are there places where you are explaining dialogue instead of letting it stand on its own? Reisist the urge to explain.

    Are there places where you both show and tell the reader the same thing?

    These are a few of the revision methods I employ whether I am looking to reduce wordcount or not.

    Good luck with your writing!

  5. Cassandra Jade Says:

    Very tough question and ultimately you will need to make the tought call. I would suggest getting a friend to read it for you and just to tick the margin everytime they feel they are getting bored or wanting the story to move quicker. That would give you some guage of how the story reads to somebody else and where you need to focus on trimming the back story.

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