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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 11: Trimming

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 11: Trimming


Key points: Trimming takes fat out so that you say what you need to say in the best possible way. Trimming improves the pace, makes writing snappy, and helps with clarity. Killing your darlings is not trimming. Trim repetition. Trim false starts. One strategy is section by section trimming -- 10% off each page or chapter, aka Jerry Pournelle's cut. Another approach is spot trimming, focusing on scenes, aka Dan and the Writing Group take a slice. Poetry teaches word usage. Trim adjectives, very, dialogue tags, navelgazing. Fix passive voice.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry...
[Dan] And it used to be 20.

[Brandon] This is a revision podcast where we are going to talk about perhaps the most important part of revision which is learning to trim. Learning to cut down your stories. Let's just start with the blanket question of why? Why do we want to cut down our stories? Do we need to cut down our stories? Dan?
[Dan] As a rule of thumb, you can look at any given manuscript and assume it probably is longer than it needs to be. It usually is true.
[Brandon] Is it ever not true? You say usually...
[Dan] I'm sure that it is occasionally...
[Brandon] That's a loaded question because I have met the very occasional author who is too sparse in their writing.
[Howard] If you're William Faulkner or James Joyce and you're writing literary fiction that you don't really want to be read during your lifetime, but you are just so in love with your prose that you are going to use these words and you are going to use them in abundance, then trimming is anathema. But even then there's going to be wordsmithing and finding better ways to say it.
[Dan] Trimming forces you to cut down, to take out the fat so that what's left is lean and mean and effective. That you say what you need to say in the best possible way. Without any bloat. That usually has the effect of making the pace go a little bit better, of making the writing snappier...
[Brandon] Clarity. It helps with clarity a lot.

[Howard] When you say trimming the fat... we had a podcast where we talked about killing your darlings. Trimming fat and killing your darlings are two different things. Killing your darlings is when there is something that you loved that's in that book that's hurting the book or it belongs in another book, it needs its own story, and it has to go. Trimming the fat is when you have a whole bunch of 20 word sentences that should be seven word sentences.
[Brandon] Hopefully not all of them are going to be cut that much.
[Howard] But that's the point.

[Dan] I was talking to F. Paul Wilson at the Stoker awards. He said that when he sent his first manuscript to an editor or agent, I can't remember which, he sent it back just bleeding red. One of the things he noticed on looking at that guy's edit of it was that he had a strong tendency to say things twice. A lot of authors do that without even knowing that we do it.
[Brandon] I do it a lot. A lot of writers do it. One of the things that we tend to do, and I've mentioned this before, is often as you are learning and getting better as a writer out you will start showing instead of telling. But you will then still tell because your old instincts say, "Oh, maybe they didn't get it." You'll do this wonderfully showy paragraph where you're showing a lot about this character and then tell us the same thing in the next sentence.

[Howard] I find myself all the time... when I start scripting comics... I have four panels laid out, framed in Microsoft Word, and I start dropping text boxes into them. This is a horrible way to try and write because every time I want to type a piece of dialogue, I have to go grab a new text box and start throwing text into it. But it forces me to be brief. What I find is that by the time I get to panel four, I'm usually looking at this and saying, "Oh, man, I need to lose 50 words." I look back at panel one and realize that panel one was tell. Panel one was establishing the shot. I can establish the shot just fine by removing that first line of dialogue and having the new first line of dialogue be a response. Suddenly all the rest of the dialogue starts flowing faster. Now the problem for me is that I can't get to that new first line of dialogue without writing the crappy old one. Don't plan on writing and not having to trim.

[Dan] That's why we're calling this the revision podcast. This is what you do after you have written the first draft.
[Brandon] It would be great if we could all learn to write just perfectly concise right as we're going along. But that doesn't happen for a lot of us. If it does, it happens late in our careers. Because... I am... there's so many things to juggle when you're writing. Keeping track of plot, setting, and character. Giving clues for your mysteries and foreshadowing and character depth and all of this. Generally, my strategy is to put too much in and then read through it again completely and see what can come out. Oftentimes I will restate the same thing chapter by chapter... not even in the same chapter, but it has been three weeks since I've written a scene from this character's viewpoint. I'd write myself back into the character's viewpoint. Yet the reader... there's only one chapter in between. They don't need that all restated for them. It's me trying to feel the character...
[Howard] It's that first panel of mine that doesn't need to be there.

[Brandon] We do that a lot. What different strategies do you guys have for trimming? When we were talking about this ahead of time, Dan, didn't you mention something about Mote In God's Eye?
[Dan] I did not.
[Howard] I mentioned Mote In God's Eye. I was on a panel with Jerry Pournelle, my very first Life, the Universe, and Everything. I remember as we were introducing ourselves I said, "My qualifications for this panel are I write a comic strip and everything has to fit in four panels." Jerry Pournelle pounded his fist on the table and said, "Son, you're the only one qualified to talk about this. I get paid by the word." I laughed and laughed and felt good about that. I've got it on video, me being praised by Jerry Pournelle.
[Dan] Now we have it on tape.
[Howard] Now we do.
[Brandon] That was actually Jerry [inaudible] the studio.
[Dan] We brought him in.
[Howard] I also got to LARP with Jerry Pournelle. But I digress. Jerry was talking about Mote In God's Eye. He said we needed to shorten the book by 10%. Each page was about 500 words long. He and Larry Niven sat down and said, "Well, we need to remove 50 words per page." They kept a little chart. They go through the page and remove words, shorten sentences, tighten up paragraphs, and keep a log of how much shorter it got. If one page was 53 words shorter, that was great because the next page might be hard to trim and they would only get 47 words out. They went through the whole book that way. He said it was very tedious but it also tightened up the writing enormously. The point that he made during that panel repeatedly when we talked about crispy crunchy writing was that book continues to earn him and Larry very respectable royalties every year because it's an easy read, it doesn't take itself, and...
[Brandon] The writing is snappy. I love that book. It's a great book. I like that story because this is the strategy that I use. When my editor came to me on Elantris and said, "You really need to trim this, Brandon. I want it shorter by 10%." My logical mind said, "Okay, I'll trim every page by 10% that way I'll know." I did the same thing. I said this chapter is this many words long... I did it by chapter, not by page. Said I have to read through and trim this chapter until I've got it down by 20% [inaudible -- of the words?]
[Howard] So each chapter is a file in Word, right? Or in your word processor? So you look at the word count on that file and say... this is...
[Brandon] I make a log of it.
[Howard] 10,000 words long and I need to lose a 1000 of them?
[Brandon] That's what I did. I did it on each of the Mistborn books too, because it worked so well on Elantris. Bye, Jerry.
[Dan] He had to leave early. He had some stuff to do.

[Brandon] Dan, how do you do it?
[Silence, followed by laughter]
[Brandon] Jerry smacked him around a little bit during the break.
[Dan] I got on the wrong side of Jerry Pournelle about five minutes ago. First of all, writing group is extraordinarily helpful for me in this. Because I can give it to them, to people who have never read it before, and they can point out things that are too big, unnecessarily big. This is a place where the plot is slow -- it usually a big key for me. The tension here is slowing down, the plot is slowing down here, and it doesn't feel like it should. There are places where you want it to slow down and be a breath. But if it's not one of those places where I want it to be slow, I go, "Oh, okay. Obviously it's too long or this scene shouldn't be there at all. I need to trim this down."
[Brandon] So you're spot trimming. You're looking at specific scenes?
[Dan] U-huh. I have never gone through percentage wise and tried to cut out words like that. It's mostly just a scene by scene... does this need to be here, is this saying what it needs to say, is it saying too much?

[Dan] Another piece of advice. This sounds kind of artsy fartsy, but I've talked about poetry before. I think studying poetry and writing poetry really teaches you how to use words better.
[Howard] Absolutely.
[Dan] Not necessarily because you want your prose to be more poetic, but because it's going to give you more facility with words themselves, and saying things in a different way.
[Howard] A couple of weeks back, when I mentioned that prose trick of word matching between the end of a chapter and the beginning of a chapter... that's the sort of thing that poetry does all the time. Those sorts of tricks will serve you well in tightening up your prose. You communicate more effectively. It's not just using the words to describe things. The words have... words have more attached to them than just meaning. They have shape, they have texture, they have sound. You need to explore that in order for your prose to really snap.
[Brandon] How do you...
[Howard] Sorry, that sounded deep. I didn't mean to go so deep.
[Dan] Yeah, well. Don't let it happen again.

[Brandon] How do you specifically... In your bubbles... when you have to cram and get... you have 20 words. You've typed out a 40 word sentence, and you've only got room for 20 words...
[Howard] First of all, I know it's too long when the pacing says this is one character in one panel and there is only room -- after all the words are in there -- for me to draw that character's head all the way at the bottom of the panel. I know I've done it wrong. Sometimes when there is a long exposition sort of thing like that, I will... like on a Sunday comic, I'll stretch the panel wide and run more words. But usually when I'm trimming things, the first thing I look for is do I need the adjectives? Are the adjectives there to convey emotions or are the adjectives there because that's the way I said it the first time I said it? So I'll go after the adjectives first. Mark Twain said never use the word very. Go through your manuscript and replace the word very with the word damn. Then your editor will edit your document and remove all the obscenity. Your document will have improved both times.
[Dan] That's a damn good idea, Howard.
[Brandon] Wait a minute, we have a clean rating. They're talking about rivers and streams.
[Howard] But yeah remove the adjectives. Get rid of very. Get rid of... yes, absolutely rivers and str... the Greater Marinaris Dam, which is what my current story is set on. Good save, Brandon. Thank you. Moving right along...

[Dan] A great trick for prose is dialogue tags. Look for dialogue tags. See if you've got the little Tom Swifties in there. See if you even need them. On a second read through, it might be obvious who's talking. You don't need to say he said after every single line.

[Brandon] Another one, good places usually to trim, and I say this because it's very close to my heart and it's something I do a lot, is navelgazing. Navelgazing is the phrase they use in editing circles of the character sitting around and thinking about important stuff. Stuff that's important to them. You can get a lot of character depth and a lot of character conflict through a very personal scene with the character doing introspection. But the longer you do that, the more bloated it's going to become and feel.
[Howard] It's far more interesting to deal with the issues in the navelgazing if there is dialogue happening and that issue is under the surface influencing one of the characters...
[Brandon] You can't always do that.
[Howard] You can't always do that, but...
[Brandon] I'm a big proponent of the character taking a moment to consider their problems. These are the scenes I'm talking about. Now maybe you want to approach that scene as a dialogue scene instead. It's one of the basic ways to show versus tell.
[Howard] I can't get away with that. I say I can't get away with that. I just did six panels... eight panels of Schlock with nothing but thought bubbles. Because there are no other characters. He's in a pursuit scene. But it is not him navelgazing. It is him saying, "Oh, I smell this" "Oh, I need to do that" "Oh, no, this isn't working right." But very rarely do I let a character deal with his or her emotions by sitting and thinking about it with thought bubbles.
[Brandon] But you do do a web comic.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] I do navelgazing. I like navelgazing. But usually it can be trimmed by about 50% as opposed to 10%.
[Dan] When people talk about how a story is too angsty, that's because the navelgazing hasn't been properly trimmed.

[Brandon] Let's see. We've talked about repetition in paragraphs. Keep an eye out for that, repeating yourself in or across chapters. The passive voice. If you don't know what the passive voice is, we probably don't have time to explain it and we would probably sound like dufuses trying to do so. But it is a really big problem. One of the really big reasons why we say don't use the passive voice is because the passive voice generally takes extra words. That you don't need.
[Howard] It takes extra words and it sucks up the energy from the story and makes it go slowly.
[Dan] It doesn't read as quick and snappy.
[Howard] One of the tricks that I find, and it really only works for me because of my very small margins, is that any time I am seeing a word... be it a conjunction or preposition or something... that is being repeated at the end of the same line... where I see and-and or to-to or there-where close to each other, I will look closely at that sentence and say, "Oh, boy, that needs to be rewritten. I can't have those two words that close." That's not something that you're going to see in typical paragraph prose, but if you do as Dan says and study some poetry, you will see it because poetry works in those smaller margins.

[Brandon] I think I'm going to give our writing prompt this week.
[Howard] Awesome. I'm tired of being picked on.

[Brandon] The writing prompt is you are going LARPing with Jerry Pournelle. If you have to look up LARP, go ahead. If you have to find out what Jerry Pournelle is like, go ahead and Google that. Write a story that involves you LARPing with Jerry Pournelle. Not Howard LARPing with Jerry Pournelle, because he has already appeared in too many of our writing prompts.
[Dan] Then cut it down to half size.
[Brandon] Jerry Pournelle or the story?
[Dan] Something in the story has to be cut in half.
[Howard] Do you have any idea how big a light year is?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: adjectives, dialogue tags, false starts, jerry pournelle, killing your darlings, navelgazing, passive voice, poetry, repetition, revision, trimming, very, writing excuses
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