Tuesday, August 12, 2008

12 Points on the 12th with Kate Walker

Category romances have very specific word limits. Many other types of fiction too specify or suggest a word limit and even if they don't, it's often a good idea to watch your word count carefully. Too long a story can ramble, have a sagging middle, and end seeming far too heavy with more details than are really needed. It does all of us no harm at all to check that we are not being self-indulgent and writing far more than we need to.

Here's a question that I'm often asked - either exactly in this way or somehting very like it:

QUESTION: I've finished my novel and done a total word count - to find that I'm way over the limit. How does one cut 28 pages from a WIP?

Some years ago, I had an editor who was affectionately known as Ms C4P and the C4P stood for Cut-for-Pace. This is because when I - or any of her other authors - sent in a manuscript for her to read, inevitably, even if she passed it without any other revisions, it would come back with lines, paragraphs, sometimes even whole pages where she had put a pencil line down the side and the instruction 'Cut for pace'. After a while working with her, I very soon started to hear her voice in my head when I was writing, and I would soon start cutting for pace even before I'd sent the manuscript off - sometimes even as I was writing the words - I would be erasing them as fast as I wrote them.

Cutting your work to meet the strict word count of a Harlequin novel can be one of the hardest things for an author to do. We put a part of ourselves into these stories, we love every word we've written - we believe every word we've put into it is vital, essential to the story - and oh, so eloquently written. How could anyone ever ask us to cut it back?But an editor will. If your work is over the word count limit, you'll be asked to bring it under the maximum. If your story has lots of extra characters, events, secondary plots that are extraneous to the central romance, you'll be asked to reduce them. If you have proportionally a lot more narrative than dialogue, you'll be asked to change the balance to around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative. And even if your story fits exactly into the word count limit, very often a trained, objective, editorial eye will see places where the action slows, where the dialogue goes nowhere, where you repeat something you or your characters have said before, and her pencil will come out, a line will go through the passage and in the margin will be the words:


So how do you cut anything from a few hundred words to several thousand from your precious manuscript on which you've worked so hard?

First things first - you swallow your pride. You push away all thoughts of how much you 'just love this bit!' and you look at your work as coldly and objectively as you can. After all, that's what your editor is going to do. She isn't going to think, 'Oh but she had such fun writing this,' or 'This is where she put in something that her DH said to her once - a secret message between the two of them'. No way. She's going to decide that this doesn't really contribute to the story or that has been said already on pages 34 and 78 and really we've got the point by now. And she isn't going to be impressed by long, poetic descriptions of scenery or clothing or meals or the history of a particular place. To her it's going to look like padding and the pencil will cross it out.

The best thing you can do is to try and get there first - to do much of the cutting for her. If you're careful and clever then you'll create a tighter, pacier read at the same time -you might even improve on the slightly saggy middle - and that will help to give your manuscript the best possible chance.

So what do you cut?

Cut anything you’re already said
If you have a point to make between you characters, make it once as clearly as possible and then leave it to stand. You can refer back to it briefly, but don't keep belabouring the point. In short books like romances, even just one line repeated on several occasions can seem way too much.

Unnecessary description
Obviously you have to have brief descriptions here and there - what your characters look like - what they're wearing - what the room they're in looks like. But don't waste time and precious words going into elaborate details. The sad truth is that more often than not a reader will skim over any detailed descriptions so as to get on with the good stuff - the relationship between your H & h - so you're really wasting your time if you go into poetic descriptions. Make it short and sweet.

Dialogue that doesn’t make its point
Okay, so everyday dialogue is full of Good morning/How are you/Nasty weather . . . but you don't have space or word count for that. You don't really have the word count for any dialogue that doesn't reveal one character to another. The conversations your characters have should add to their knowledge of each other, reveal facts about the conflict that has come between them, explain why things happened. They - and you - don't have time just to pass the time of day. Make your dialogue count. And don't constantly keep getting them to the point of revealing something and then breaking off and saying, 'No - not now.' No one in real life would let that pass again and again and it becomes irritating repetition.

Excessive introspection
Yes, the reader wants to know what your H & h are thinking - but keep it short, sharp and to the point. One problem with introspection is that it's always in narrative - and it's always telling, not showing. If you spend time having your hero reflect on how the way the heroine is behaving reminds him of how his mother always used to act in front of her many boyfriends and so he . . . before you know it, you'll have lost the reader's attention - and they'll have lost their place in the dialogue. Keep introspection to a couple of telling sentences. If there is more that needs to be explained, then it should go into dialogue and be told to the heroine.

Introspection that has been done before, that doesn’t add anything new, that is indulgent
This is much like point number one - yes, your reader wants to get inside the H/h's head and understand them - but we don't need to know every last details of their life, their thoughts, their relationship with their parents and every single girlfriend/boyfriend they ever had. Only use introspection when it actually tells the reader something about the way the person Is feeling now.

Elaboration on minor points
Elaboration full stop

The reason a reader has picked up a romance is because she wants to read a ROMANCE. She doesn’t want a travelogue, a history lesson. You may be a world expert on horse racing, or martial arts – but are the details you’re putting in directly relevant to the ROMANCE? If not, they are padding, and padding will weigh down and slow down your story.

Too much detail/dialogue/description/action involving minor characters who take away the focus from the H&h and so diffuse the action
The story your reader wants is the story of the HERO and the HEROINE. They don’t want her sister’s troubles with her husband or his best friend’s long last girlfriend.. Any time you spend away from the central story weakens that plot and so the focus of the book. Of course, this varies according to the different lines – a Superromance can afford to have more of a secondary plot and more characters than, say a Presents – but as a general rule, and certainly when you are trying to cut for pace, the main relationship should always be your focus and you can afford to cut back on the lesser ones.

Scenes that only show one thing and so could be combined with another to tell a couple of things in one go
In a restricted word limit, you don’t have time to detail everything and give everything its single focus in the spotlight. Use each scene to it’s best advantage by making sure that it shows something about your H&h and their story. Don’t just have one scene where the heroine finds a photograph of the hero’s dead wife – put that together with an argument that leads to her blurting out that she has been married too - unhappily – and the repercussions from that will lead into a sensual reconciliation . . .

Family – families often get in the way in fiction – and in fact!
Don’t however fall into the trap of feeling that you have to kill off all the heroine’s parents and relatives – that will just turn your book into melodrama. But families could interfere – a brother or father wouldn’t stand for the way the hero is treating the heroine – so set up a scenario where the heroine is working away from home – or living in another country – or Mum & Dad have gone on a round the world cruise and won’t be back till Christmas. Then you won’t have to have scenes in which things have to be explained to them.

Lovemaking scenes that don’t show any development – that aren’t different from the last one
The point about a sex scene is not just to show that your H&h fancy each other - they are there to mirror the development of the relationship and show the changes in it. If your word count is too long and you have some love scenes , however well written and erotic, that are really just a long-winded way of saying ‘they made love again’ - then why not just say that. Besides, too many repetitions of lovescene, even passionate love scenes lose their impact and become a bit too much the same. Don’t waste them. Make them count – or cut them.

Long, detailed ‘getting to know you’ that could be summarised into ‘and then he told her about…’
The H& h need to learn about each other, especially if this isn’t a reunion story – but you don’t have to have ALL the story – summarise – He told her about his childhood in Texas, the happy days before his mother died, the change that came after . . .’
Quite often if you show the beginning of the conversation – ‘Tell me about . . .’ then like a film would ‘fade’ - focusing again on the ending ;’ . . .and that’s why I came to live in New York . . ‘

Scenes that do not have the H&h together should always be looked at in case they’re not really needed.
This is another point on the focus of the plot - that central relationship. So even if a scene is the heroine discussing her relationship with the hero, if it’s with her mother/her best friend, it can probably be expendable and a shorter, more direct way of just stating how she’s feeling can be found.

Detailed telling of action that could become ‘with one bound he was free’!!!!
For example – if your hero has been captured and tied up – then finds a piece of glass and cuts through his bonds- again you only need the beginning ‘Twisting the glass awkwardly in his restricted grip, he began to saw clumsily . . . Two hours later the last strand finally parted. With a sigh of relief he rubbed his hands, wincing as he touched the places where the glass had slipped and nicked him.’
You don’t have to go into every last detail of how long it took, how he kept dropping the glass, how he cut himself . . . Leave that to the reader’s imagination.

Factual background that weighs down the action – history of places/family histories/ clothing details/ training details
A romance isn’t the place to air your knowledge – you are telling a story never forget that.

Cutting always hurts – you’ve written it and you meant it to stay but….

The rule of thumb is – yes you may have written this wonderfully well – but is the fact that it’s well written enough justification for it staying in – what does it ADD to the book – if nothing/not much – why is it there?

(c) Kate Walker 2008

You can find out more about the 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance and how to buy it by visiting the Writers' page on my web site. There you'll also find details of my latest release - the complete collection of The Alcolar Family Trilogy in either a print version or a Harlequin ebook bundle.


Aideen said...

Cruel to be kind.
I have your book and I have to say that it's made me realise two things. First and foremost, writing romance is so much harder than everyone assumes and two, if I never succeed at becoming published it will not be from lack of knowledge, it will be from my failure to apply said knowledge to my own writings.
Your book is a must have for us aspiring authors, it's cram packed with straight forward and easy to follow guidelines. You actually manage to make it sound easy!!
This post should be run in conjunction with Iheartpresents and the Modern Heat comp. I've certainly found this snippet reminding me of all the important steps that should be taken to ensure my work is the best it can be.

Much thanks,

carolsadan said...

carolc said...

Kate thanks again for some fantastic gems of advice. As always the way you explain things makes it seem very easy to apply.

Very timely as I've been cutting scenes and words from my ms like mad, not because it was too long, but because I wanted to be sure only essential things were in there. Now I have word count up my sleeve to really expand the emotions.

A second to what Aideen says, The 12 Point Guide is an absolute must have for anyone remotely serious about writing romance.


Dina said...

Sorry to have missed you here Kate, I'll see you at your blog. :)

Jennie Lucas said...

Brilliant and pithy, Kate. Great to have advice from a world-class author. I'm still thinking of something you said to me at conference--that it wasn't so much the idea but the *execution* of the idea. So true, and your voice has been echoing those words in my head as I brainstorm my next story!

I agree with Aideen--the I heart Presents website would also be a great place to discuss writing tips!

Kate Walker said...

Hi Aideen

Yes I reckon it is being cruel to be kind! Sometimes we can get self-indulgent in writing and need to be shown how to keep to what's important. My editor Ms Cut for Pace certainly showed me how to do that. But it's a lesson I still need to keep in mind.

I hope that my posts on writing (I did one last month on the differences between Modern Heat and traditional Presents)will help people who are aiming for that competition - if you're entering then good luck!


Kate Walker said...

Carol - thank you for the wonderful comments on the 12 Point Guide

and PS to Aideen - sorry - i meant to say thank you to you too but then I pressed publish by accident!

Thank you both! I'm just thrilled that the 12 Point Guide seems to be helping so many people. It's wonderful to think that I can help people take steps nearer to their dreams


Kate Walker said...

Hi Dina - I'll certainly see you at my blog. I know you often visit - thanks for that


Kate Walker said...

Hi Jennie

and thank you. It's great when a fellow author can still get something from my posts.

And yes, I'll stick to that 'all in the execution' quote - the editors are always using it so it's so true. I always say that in writing popular romance it's so so difficult to be truly original but you can be unique by being truly authentic and writing the book the way that *you* have to write it - that way it can be the same story as someone else has told but it will have your individual spin on it. And that's what gives you your individual voice.

Good luck with your next story