Book doctors don't want you to read this advice! They don't want you to know about this foolproof advice for reducing the excess verbiage in your novel (or short story). But I'm going to share it with you, for free.
Revising a work of fiction can be a nightmare, especially if your story has a lot of sprawl and a lot of passages that just go on a little too long. You've already cut the extra scenes. You've already "killed your darlings" (more on that in a moment). You've eliminated the obvious extra baggage. But you're still running too long, and too draggy.
In a minute, I'll tell you the sure-fire trick for cutting the extra stuff out of your story or novel. But first I want to talk to you about writing.
Most writers are part hack, part dreamer.
Structure often comes from the "hack" part of your brain, leaps and surprises and vividness come from the "dreamer" part of your brain. (This is something that's been occurring to me a lot lately, but it's also similar to stuff Michael Piller says in Fade In, his book on the writing of Star Trek: Insurrection.)
You can't make a story work without some hackwork along the way: This didn't work, so what if we bridge these two sections with a section where this happens instead? What if instead of this scene that doesn't work, we add a scene that sets up an important development later on? It's not the pure "flow" of invention, it's the part where you're trying to patch together stuff that doesn't quite fit on its own.
And often, the clutter and extra baggage in your story comes from these workarounds. (Sometimes, it comes from things that made sense to the "dreamer" part of your brain, too. But that's often easier to spot, and cut.) Sometimes if your text becomes just a mass of connective tissue and kludged-together solutions to problems, your only choice is to go back and dream up a whole new section, scrapping everything you cobbled together.
Otherwise, your story will just start to feel like a mass of workarounds.
Should you kill your darlings or marry them?
We can't really talk about cutting excess prose without mentioning the maxim "Kill your darlings." This is probably the second most oft-quoted piece of writing advice, after "Write what you know."
And most of the time, killing your darlings is easy but painful. This adage refers to the stuff that you love because it makes you feel clever or brilliant, or witty, but it doesn't actually move the story forward. And maybe it actually doesn't make sense at all, but you wanted to keep it in because you love it so much.
This stuff tends to stick out like a lemon tree in an apple orchard, so it's easy to cut. And chances are, you've already cut this stuff before you've reached the "there are too many words and things are draggy" problem — because if you've shown your work to anybody, they probably let you know the sections that were obviously wrong.
But I want to offer one idea about killing your darlings: sometimes you should marry them instead. That is, if the part of the story that you love the most, or that is the most fascinating or wonderful in your mind, doesn't fit the story, maybe it's the story that is wrong. Maybe the "darling" is actually what the story should be about, instead of this less-interesting thing you've inserted as the centerpiece. Just a thought.
OK, so here's that weird tip for cutting things
Are you ready? Here's the surefire advice for cutting without hitting muscle or bone: outlining. Specifically, keep outlining until it hurts. Outline things you've already rewritten a ton. Outline backwards. Do micro-outlines of every scene that's not working.
The magic of outlining something you've already written and rewritten is, you can see where the actual beats are, and get a rough sense of just how much space each of the beats needs to have. (Not that pacing is an exact science, of course. Quite the reverse.) Outlining and re-outlining lets you see where you might have jumped a groove or had someone behave illogically, and also where you're repeating steps.
And outlining backwards is magic. Start with the end, and then put "because" after that, and keep going back. This happens because this happens, because that other thing happens, and so on, back to the beginning. If you can't stick a "because" between two things that are supposedly causally linked, that's a bad sign.
But micro-outlining is really a great tool as well, and one I've gotten kind of addicted to. You can outline a chapter, breaking it down into scenes that absolutely need to happen, and that might let you see where you can combine two scenes that overlap a lot. You can also outline a scene, listing every single thing that has to happen, big or small, in that scene.
Outlining can be a big help while you're writing your first draft and trying to see the road ahead — but sometimes it can be just as useful for things that you've gotten sick of rewriting and need to see afresh.
The Talking Heads had it right
The best writing advice in the world comes from the Talking Heads: "Say something once, why say it again?"
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