Today we're welcoming John Davidson to the blog. John is the author of the recently released YA contemporary novel, Bricks. Take it away John...
Thanks so much for having me on the blog. I love this blog and the service it provides to aspiring authors. I thought I’d write about something that has really helped my writing. My debut BRICKS is a YA contemporary, but the genre I most enjoy reading and writing is speculative fiction. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a great tale set in the here and now, but there’s just something about a world that acts as a character on its own that really draws me in.
When you study the target word counts for YA fiction, the sweet spot for contemp. seems to be between 65K and 80K. BRICKS comes in at around 68K, and surprisingly I had no trouble hitting within the target. I say surprisingly because the three WIP’s prior to BRICKS were all spec. fic. And they all came in so bloated that you’d have thought they’d eaten a dictionary and a thesaurus with a few research articles as a snack in between. Target count for YA spec. fiction is higher due to the necessary world-building elements—80K to 100K is often regarded as acceptable. My latest came in at 110K. At first I tried to justify the count. I mean Veronica Roth went from an initial Divergent word count of 55K to a finished count of 105K . 105, come on. That’s only 5K from 110. But 5K is a ton; my book was not Divergent, and I’m not Veronica Roth. Unagented/unpublished writers need to have as few strikes against them as possible. Too high of a word count is potential project suicide. So what do you do when you feel like your story is solid, not a lot of fat to be trimmed, and you’re still overweight/over words?
First, I would say there’s still story to be cut even if you think there isn’t. You may feel as if every story step matters, but the truth is if you judiciously cut a scene out, no one will ever know you did it. Here’s a tip: concentrate on scenes that don’t foreshadow or tie into a future reveal. Scenes that are developmental scenes—that deepen a character, for instance, are often too wordy. You may find entire paragraphs that you think deepen, when in fact they merely repeat a trait already revealed. Again, nothing wrong with reinforcing a character’s tendencies, but you don’t need to overdo it—especially when you need to trim. Often you can find whole paragraphs to cut. And that’s critical when every word counts.
After cutting scenes, I was at 100K. That’s roughly 30 manuscript pages shaved. Great, but still too unwieldy. I’d hit a wall. But here’s what finally helped. I needed to cut another 10K. That would get me to 90K, which is the maximum of where I felt I could be as a debut spec-fic writer. My degrees are in English, but while words mattered, this was about math. To cut another 10K I needed to go micro. I needed to lose words from every page. 10K sounds like a lot. But 20 words a page? Not so much. That’s a sentence or two or just 20 scattered words—a “that” here an adjective there. I started with a journal of a word count from each page before I started editing and then dove in. What I discovered was obvious to most advanced writers. It was revolutionary to me. By being forced to cut 20 words a page, I had to examine the placement and necessity of every word. Sometimes words could be cut by adjusting sentences to remove a prepositional phrase. Sometimes a modifier could be rearranged. I recorded my post-edit per page word count. If I didn’t meet the goal on a page, I had to make it up on the next, but in the end I’d shaved the necessary 10K, and more beneficially, I’d examined every word in every sentence and weighed its merit and value.
Now I don’t advocate doing this for every project as it forces constraints on your personal space-time continuum that just shouldn’t exist. I do, however, think that every beginning writer should do this at least once. By doing so, a writer’s work can be distilled into the most effective format possible. And you’ll find that over time, your writing will improve to the point where this type of editing is less necessary as your sentences are stronger and word choice more intelligent from the get go.
Cheers and happy writing!