Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How I Cut 33K Words (Twenty Percent) From My Epic Fantasy Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Many of you know what I’ve been doing the past few months. If not, let me recap. I received the content edits on King’s War (Kinsman Chronicles, book three). This is the last book in the trilogy. There was a lot to tie up, and I knew the book was long. Too long. The full book came in at about 265K. So I wasn’t surprised when my editor asked me to cut some words.

He asked me to cut 40,000-50,000 words.

I failed.

But I came close! This was partly because I had to add some new content, which took up some space. In the end, I managed to get my word count down to 33,695 words, which made me dance and sing. There is an unwritten rule that says when you rewrite your novel, you should trim at least ten percent. This has never been the case with me. I write sparse rough drafts, and my final drafts always grow. Which was why when I first heard how much I needed to cut, it knocked the wind out of my sails.

If I was going to do this, I had to have a plan.

I like plans. I work best when I have a plan. So I knew I’d need a good plan if I was going to come anywhere close to cutting so many words. I thought you all might like to see how I tackled this daunting project.

1. I “saved as.”
If I was going to cut that many words, it wasn’t going to happen bit by bit. This book was going to undergo major surgery. I was going to have to hack into the thing with a machete. And I wasn’t going to do that without saving what I had someplace safe. Because I was pretty sure I would cut some things that later I would wish I had again. By saving a copy, I could always go back and find those things if I needed them.

2. I made a list of scenes.
Lists of scenes help me be able to see my whole book at a glance. In the past, I simply make a long list. This time, I wanted something a little easier to see. So I used Excel to create a page with twelve empty boxes. Then I scrolled through my book and put the chapter number, point of view character, and title at the top of each box. I wrote down how many pages that chapter was. Then I listed the gist of each scene in the chapter. That gave me a really nice way of looking at my book as a whole.

3. I cut twenty percent—in theory.
Math has never been my favorite, but it wasn’t too difficult to go through and subtract twenty percent from each chapter’s page count. If a chapter had ten pages, I was going to try and make that chapter have only eight pages in my rewrite. I went through my list of scenes and wrote my target page count at the bottom in a circle. Now, instead of a somewhat horrifying goal of cutting 50K from my story, I had close to one hundred tiny goals of cutting a few pages here and there. This was much easier to handle. And I could take it one chapter at a time.

4. I made a "To Do" list and added it to my manuscript.
I had my notes from my editor on things he wanted changed. I also had a pile of notes from myself of things I wanted to make sure were added to the story or got tied up in the end. I went through all of this, one item at a time. If it was something I wanted to fix or add, I scrolled to the right place in my manuscript and left a comment. “Add description of castle here” or “plant bad guy subplot.” With more complex matters like the latter, I would scroll through the manuscript and add comments in several key places. These acted as reminders for me. And if there were things in my To Do stack that I no longer wanted to add, I threw away those Post-Its or scraps of paper, which was a very liberating feeling. “Almost there, Jill,” I kept telling myself. “Almost to the end!”

5. I cut twenty percent—for real.
Then I started at chapter one and worked my way through the story. I cut everything I could. I especially looked for conversations that added nothing to the story or places where characters were being too wordy. I trimmed and trimmed. And if a chapter ended with five or fewer lines of text on the page, I went back through that chapter again, searching for paragraphs that ended with a few words of dialogue on the last line, then I cut and cut until I managed to pull those paragraphs, and eventually that chapter up until it ended one page earlier. This is a tedious process, but it really creates a tight manuscript. And it cuts words!

6. I added when I needed to.
When I needed to tweak or add things, I did. And there was a lot to add. I kept a spreadsheet in which I kept track of my word count each day, and it was always painful to have to log a positive number instead of a negative one. Still, overall I did pretty well. I had to add two new chapters at the very end, so that hurt my word count, but it also made the story better.

So that’s how I tackled the beastly rewrite of King’s War. I’ve turned it in, so it will be interesting to see if my editor finds more to cut. I will get the story back for line edits, then again later on for a proofread, so I’m not quite done yet. I’m close, though. I’m very close.

What do you think of my process?

Have you ever had to cut a lot of words?

If so, how did you go about it?

Monday, September 18, 2017

What Are Your Personal Writing Rules?

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

What are personal writing rules?

We all have them, even if we haven’t officially listed them anywhere. I first came across the idea of making a list of my personal writing rules in the June 2017 issue of the Romance Writers Report in an article by Katharine Ashe. Her article was specific to the rules she’s developed for herself as a romance writer, but the concept applies to anyone who has been writing for a bit.

"Personal writing rules" refers to the truths you've learned about you as a writer, the stories you like to tell, and your methodology for making the magic happen. If the word "rule" skeeves you out, think of them as guidelines or truths.

A quick example is something like, "I'm a plotter." When writers make that statement, it's a short way of saying something like, "I have learned that plotting my stories is important to me and the quality of my work."

For many of us, we begin with a rule like, "Writing matters to me. I make time for it." If you're early in your journey, this might be a rule that you repeat to yourself regularly. It might be the only rule you have so far, and that's okay! Depending on your upbringing and current environment, this might be one of the biggest hurdles you ever cross as a writer.

Here are some other examples of writing rules you might have:

"I write every day." This is one that Lydia Howe can claim. That's a practice that has brought her joy and discipline over the years. For other writers, that kind of rule feels like a noose.

"I edit as I write." Many writers, like me, prefer to plow as quickly as they can through the first draft and then spend more time in edits. That doesn't work for Roseanna M. White, however. She learned that she works better if she edits as she goes, regardless of the frequently repeated advice about how valuable bad first drafts are.

"Pretty writing matters to me." Beautiful prose is something that brings joy to Shannon Dittemore, and it influences her writing voice. If she focused just on being efficient with her words, she would lose a lot of what she loves about storytelling.

"My first drafts are private." This is really important to me, and it gives me the freedom to get the story on the page. It's a rule I had to develop so that I could be messy without fear. Nobody sees my manuscripts until I've edited them at least once.

Why bother?

I see several valuable reasons for writing down your rules, and I'm sure there are others.

1. Writing them down creates a good reminder. Same as writing down your goals instead of just storing them in your head. Sometimes we need reminders of what's important to us and who we are. So when you come across a blog post by a know-it-all writing teacher who says the very best way to write a book is to write a bad first draft (which I probably said in the early Go Teen Writers days when I was much more fond of the words "always" and "never") you can shrug it off and say, "Yeah, that's not what I've learned about myself. I've learned I edit as I write, and that's okay."

2. You can see how they serve or contradict your writing goals. When you put your rules side-by-side with your vision of where you want to go with writing, they can provide some great clarity.

Like if one of your goals is to publish your novel next fall, then a rule like, "I write every day" serves that well. If, however, one of your writing rules is, "I write when I feel like writing," you'll see how those contradict each other. Writing when you feel like it is great for joy, but not so great for deadlines.

3. You'll be able to watch yourself evolve. One of my personal writing rules in high school was that I didn't plot. I had tried several times and it just didn't work for me. I was a pantser.

In my early twenties, I took a class from Angela Hunt, a bestselling author who had been a professional for twenty years at that point. She said, "I like to try one new thing with each book I write." I loved her teachable spirit, and I embraced the rule for myself.

That new rule invited me to give plotting another try. With my deeper understanding of story structure, I found that I understood how to plot much better than I had in high school, and that there were some methods that worked for me.

Personal writing rules are meant to be tools to empower us, not chains that keep us from growing or trying new things.

Want to play along? What are some of your personal writing rules?

Next Monday we'll look at our writing goals and rules, and we'll brainstorm ways we can take action on them. I love making lists and dreaming, but if we don't get some actionable items on our calendar, then these exercises aren't very useful!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Writing Exercise #14: Endings As Beginnings

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.  

Every writer goes through dry seasons. Seasons of time where the words just won't do their thing. They're either stuck in your head or hiding from you entirely. If you're lucky enough to get them out of your pen and onto the page, the sentences are ugly and you find yourself wondering if you've forgotten how to write stories.

It happens to us all. It really does. The only way to claw out of a dry season like that is to {wait for it} write your way through it.

I know. I know. It's rough. It is. And I'm a huge advocate of taking time off when you need time off, but at some point, you're going to have to sit back down in that chair and knock the rust off. One of the best ways to do that is to just write.

"WRITE ABOUT WHAT?" you ask.

My answer is a simple one. Write about anything. Write about nothing. Just write.

The internet is full of writing prompts--and you should totally avail yourselves of those--but sometimes cyberspace can be like all those rabbit holes little girls fall into. There are so many options to choose from. So many shiny ideas. You just keep falling and falling and never getting any writing done.

So, today, instead of trolling Pinterest for writing prompts, I want you to grab the nearest book (puh-lease keep in PG, alright?). Flip to the very last page and put your finger on the very last sentence.

That, my friends, is your beginning. That's right. The last line of the book in your hand is the first line of your shiny new paragraph.

I want you to write me that paragraph and leave it in the comments section below. And then be sure to come back throughout the weekend to see what you're friends are coming up with. We all need a little encouragement now and then.

A couple things:

1. We frown on spoilers here, so please do not tell us the name of the book and if there are recognizable names in the final sentence (like Katniss or Hermione), do us a favor and change them.

2. Your goal is not to continue the book your holding. Use this sentence as a jumping off point. Start something new. Something that's all yours.

3. And, remember! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Seven Writing Tips From Roald Dahl To Celebrate His Birthday

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Three days left to finish my rewrite. And since it's September 13, and September 13 was Roald Dahl's birthday and is now Roald Dahl Day, I'm celebrating the literary legend.

Roald Dalh grew up in England. He moved to Africa at the age of eighteen to work for Shell Oil Company. After that he was a fighter pilot in World War II. As if all that wasn't adventure enough, when he was twenty-six he moved to America and began to write. (This is especially sweet to me, because I also started writing later in life. I started at the age of twenty-eight.)

Roald was twenty-seven when he published his first book, The Gremlins, which was about little creatures from the Royal Air Force. Walt Disney started making a film based on the book, but it never got made. Click here to see a cool picture (that I was afraid to use, because Disney) of a very young Roald and Walt with some stuffed Gremlins. (It's the second picture in the post, so you have to scroll down a bit.) Random Factoid #1: The 1984 Spielberg movie Gremlins was loosely inspired by Roald's mischievous little creatures. Random Factoid #2: You can see the original gremlins in the Epic Mickey video games. My kids were super excited to discover this. (Google "Epic Mickey Gremlins." They're cute.)

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 20 April 1954

Roald went on to write short stories about his war experiences for The Saturday Evening Post, and for years he wrote for adults. It wasn't until 1960, when he was living in England again, that he started publishing children's books again, beginning with James and the Giant Peach in 1961. Some of my favorite Dahl books are The BFG, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Roald also wrote two screenplays. One for the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (which is the one where Sean Connery has to fight the Japanese ninjas) and the other for the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (about a fine, four-fendered flying car), both based on books by Ian Fleming. Roald also wrote for television.

Talk about an amazing and inspiring career. You can learn more about Roald Dahl on his website.

Seven Writing Tips From Roald Dahl 

I found these tips as part of an extra in the back of the book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six Morewhere Roald talks about how he became a writer.


"You should have a lively imagination."

"You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader's mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don't."

"You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month."

"You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can."

"You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don't turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking."

"It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it's vital."

"You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble."

What's your favorite Roald Dahl book? Share in the comments. Mine is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

[FYI, my sources are: Roald Dah's bio in the back of The BFG, the extra section in the back of the book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six Moreand Roald Dahl's Wikipedia page.]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Writing Goals and the Clarity that Comes From Having Them

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

"When you set goals for your writing, do you write those down anywhere?" my husband asked as we drove to Colorado last week.

The conversation that ensued is one that I've been thinking about ever since, because it reshaped the way I've thought about goals for years.

When Ben asked me this question about goals, I started talking to him about plans. I rambled about how I used to make elaborate outlines for how I intended to spend my year, but something always came up that I didn't anticipate, so now I focus more on daily and weekly tasks to accomplish my goals.

To offer him an example, I said, "I have a goal to get my manuscript turned in on time, but I don't have that written down anywhere. I just have a daily and weekly plan for how I'll get that done."

Ben said, "No, I'm talking about big goals. Like, 'I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list by the time I'm thirty-five,' or whatever your goal is. Those kinds of goals."

I told him I didn't believe in making those kinds of goals. My philosophy has been that a good goal is something I can do on my own. I've even talked about that on Go Teen Writers a few times, including here:

(Two Ways To Make Effective Writing Goals, January 5, 2015)

When talking to my husband, I even cited the widely used "SMART" goal system to back up my beliefs. In case you aren't familiar with SMART goals, it means you should create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused (in a lot of places they say Relevant, but I like results-focused better), and Time-Bound. But even as I was saying this to Ben, I could see that there was nothing in any of those words that specified, "And you must be able to accomplish this with your own human strength."


The more I've reflected on this, the more I've realized the flaws in my thinking. As Ben said to me, "Just because JFK couldn't put a man on the moon by himself, should he not have had that goal for our country?"

I thought about when I was a writer longing to be published. My goal was to be a traditionally published young adult author. I made choices about how to spend my time, energy, and money based on that goal. I plugged away at that goal every weekday, and sometimes on weekends too. I read books, I took classes, I networked with people, I told those around me that I wanted to be a published writer. And I wrote. I wrote every day as if it was a job I was being paid to do.

I worked as though becoming a published author was entirely up to me, even though I was acutely aware that it was not.

I knew I couldn't control industry trends, or if an agent would like my writing voice, or what kind of mood the editor was in when my manuscript landed on their desk. I knew I needed many other people's approval if I wanted to achieve my goal, but I worked daily as though only my efforts mattered.

I know that's why I achieved my goal of becoming a traditionally published young adult author. Because when the right circumstances presented themselvesan agent who loved my voice, an editor who was looking for hopeful but realistic YA fiction, and a flourishing YA marketI had done the work and was ready.

When I knew what my goal was, my daily decisions became obvious. Not easy, but obvious:
  • Should I watch this Gilmore Girls rerun, or should I write my next chapter?
  • I'm frustrated that a few agents and editors have rejected this book. Should I try self-publishing it, or should I try to rework the first chapters and see if that helps me get more requests?
  • I have an idea for an adult book. Should I write that?
And yet somehow after my initial accomplishment of being published, I got it in my head that it was stupid to have goals about bestseller lists, awards, or publishing houses because there were factors I couldn't control.

When I told myself that I shouldn't have goals like that, what I unintentionally did was let myself off the hook because I didn't want to face disappointment. If I haven't allowed myself to have Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused, and Time-Bound goals about how much money I make or what kind of bestseller lists I hit, then it's easier to shrug and pretend like I don't care if those things happen or not.

I'm still mulling over what my goals are, and maybe you are too. That's fine. If you know yours, and you're comfortable with it, share them in the comments. 

If you don't know yours, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about them like I will be in preparation for next week. Next week we're going to talk about personal writing guidelines and how to build them. Which is something I've been working on, but hitting a wall each time. Not until my conversation with Ben did I realize my struggle came because I'd failed to do the first step. I'd failed to make big goals.