Deleting Words

I’ve been cutting whole scenes from my manuscript lately. 500 words. 1,000 words. 2,000 words. Dragging my cursor across several pages and deleting them with a single click.

In planning out our edits for the second draft, we made some significant changes to the setup of the story. We moved some major reveals. Changed some character motivation. Foreshadowed some plot points more clearly and removed others.

So now that I’m a good 140 pages into the edits and past the inciting incident, I’m running up against scenes and conversations that are outdated. Characters are reacting to and processing events that no longer take place. They’re skirting around difficult questions that have been thoroughly answered. They’re arguing over issues that haven’t been broached yet.

Deleting material can be bittersweet. I worked hard for every one of those words, carefully kept track of them during the initial drafting to meet my daily and monthly goals. But with all the extra scenes we’ve added in the first act, the draft has ballooned well past 450 manuscript pages. We always intended an epic story line, but we also want the thing to be publishable. So deleting thousands of words at a time is reassuring, must surely help with the pacing and the shape of the manuscript as a whole.

Of course there are the details, the sentences and paragraphs, that I want to keep. This description of Father Arias’s magical insight into the well-being of a family house. That telling exchange of dialogue between a young adventurer and his mother before he left home. For the most part I’ve tried to keep these, copying and pasting them to other places in the manuscript where they might also work, where I could transplant them without noticeable disruption.

Still, cutting scenes often comes with a little sinking feeling. It’s the rare scene that I can remove without having to replace it with something else. And drafting new material is always slower than editing something that already exists. The new words inevitably sound less formed, less supposed to be there to my ears, because I just made them up, and they weren’t already on the page. And even though I remind myself that readers won’t know where all the stitches are—where I added words, cut them, smoothed out the transitions—I know where they are, and I’ll still see them when I work through the manuscript next time for copyediting.

I’m still learning that it doesn’t pay to get caught up in the feelings of cutting scenes, whether I’m congratulating myself for being a tough editor on my own work or feeling sorry for myself that I’m going to have to write something new and make less progress today than I wanted to. Neither helps me make the manuscript better. And at the end of the day, I’m still a little further than I was yesterday. Slowly, I’m still getting closer to having an edited manuscript on my hands.

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