Thursday, April 17, 2014

What are You Trying to Tell Me?

You write and write and write...

You end up with 3000 words when in reality you need to have 500 or less. Clearly you are in need of a MAJOR edit. 
Major Edit

There are two possibilities:

  • You have far too much information (too much junk) in your story and need to do some real soul searching to decide what can be cut.
  • Your target market has changed and you should consider writing for an audience that will accept a higher word count.

Let’s first explore the “junk option”.

Let me start by saying editing from 3000 words to 500 words is going to be painful. 

There is no getting around it. The more junk you have, the more junk you have to get rid of. Also the more junk you have, the more likely it is that your objectives are getting lost.

i.e.This is a very necessary step.

People can only retain so much information, keep track of so many characters, relate to so many relationships… your goal is to make the stuff in your book all important stuff.

When I got stuck in the editing process, the most helpful exercise for me was to write my query letter.  I talked a bit about query letters last time, but they are a necessary evil if you are going to get an agent; so let me expand on it a bit.

The first paragraph of a query letter: write a description of your entire book using no more than a sentence (maybe two, if you must). 

This is a great way to pair-down what is really important.  It is very likely that you won’t be able to include all of your characters, all of your plot twists and all of the wonderful, magical, details and nuances that you spent so much time perfecting… that’s the point. If nothing else, that sentence will help you decide what the essence of your story is and what to absolutely, without a doubt, unarguably you need to keep. Think of what you read on a book jacket cover. 

Here are a couple of examples:

When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson's farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever. 

A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.

As you can see, not all characters and plot lines are included, however, the main objective is made clear. If these sentence don’t interest you, then you will most likely not be interested in the rest.

Next you get to turn that magical sentence into an entire paragraph.  Wow! An entire paragraph!  Three to five sentences! Oh, the luxury.

Finally, a bit about you. What makes you qualified to write this story. Have you won any awards? Have you been published anywhere ever before?

Once you have that query letter finished, you should have a better grasp on what is most important and what information you need to support that "most important". You are able to better edit your manuscript. 

Still struggling?  

  • Try this – First, go through and get rid of everything that you know can go.  Individual words, entire sentences, whole paragraphs.  
  • Second, highlight anything that you might be able to get rid of if someone made you; if someone came and said – get rid of this stuff or I will steal your dog, dye all of your shoes hot pink and put a sign in your yard that says “I love Scott Walker!”
  • Third – get rid of that stuff.  You’re at 2000 words. Nice work!

You are now in a good place to move on to: 
  • Step four. Put the manuscript down for a few days.  Not hours, DAYS. 

There’s no need to rush this. There is a very (very, very, very) good chance that once you have been separated from your story for a bit, you will see it with fresh eyes and it can only get better.
  • Step five: Whittle away word by word until you are at 1500 words. 
  • Step six: Repeat step four.
  • Step seven: Repeat step five. (you’re at 1237 words)
  • Step eight: Repeat step four.
  • Step nine: Repeat step five. (you’re at 989 words)
  • Step ten: Repeat step four.

You see where I’m going with this.

You will eventually get to a place where you absolutely cannot get rid of anything else.
Your story is only wearing underwear at this point. Getting rid of any more will make your story cold and hard to look at and fairly awkward. 
That means you are done! Yea!  Even if you didn’t make it all the way down to 500 words, you have made it through the hardest part.

Now, let’s consider option #2. 
A true story: After getting my story to a place I was fairly happy with, I was close to 4000 words. I was shooting for a max of 2000 words. Well darn-it all… After going through the previously mentioned (painful) process, I settled at 2300 words. I was running out of time before this self-inflicted date of “local writers conference weekend”. I hesitantly took it to pitch to a couple of agents. After convincing them this was the greatest book ever, we talked a bit about some of the challenges I was having with word count. They both (as if it were the obvious solution) told me that instead of a children’s picture book (a very long winded and possibly unsellable picture book)  I should ADD words and turn it into an early reader’s chapter book.

So, that is exactly what I am doing.  I do not at all regret the deep edit that I did however – my story is much more readable. My characters are much more believable. I was forced to take a good look at the story's main objective and realy dig deep and decided what it was really about.

So, without stalling for another paragraph, here’s an example of the query letter that I wrote for my upcoming children’s book:  

The Beautiful Weeds

A Harvest Hollow Tale
As told by me, Pumpkin Lou 
(a small sprightly fellow)

(Addressed to specific agent)
Getting lost in the forbidden fields was admittedly not a well thought out plan. But in a twist of fate, Pumpkin Lou’s adventure yields an unexpected encounter with a smelly ally and an intriguing new world among The Beautiful Weeds.

Harvest Hollow is an idyllic place for a young garden sprite like Pumpkin Lou to grow up, but being volunteered for some unwanted responsibility is the corn kernel that pushes him over the edge. In a snap-pea decision, he decides to run away but soon finds himself lost in a world that has only been seen in his nightmares. While trying to get his bearings in this strange place, he meets The Beast. Although a smelly, unsightly lady at first glance, she teaches him that things are not always as they first appear. Lou learns new details of his homeland and his family’s past. He realizes that what is considered beautiful and useful in life will change depending whom you ask. And he learns that a new view on the world is sometimes exactly what you need when you are feeling stuck.

This easy reader, picture book is 2300 words for children ages 6-10. An engaging story with thoughtful characters and a roller coaster of emotions, The Beautiful Weeds is the perfect book to introduce children to the magical world of a garden. It creates intrigue for the possibility that other tiny worlds live and thrive among us.

I am a technical writer by day and a creative writer by night. I have been drawn to the small, hidden details in nature my entire life and am no stranger to gardening. I strive to write stories that challenge the imagination while teaching something new. A full copy of my manuscript is included. I appreciate your time and consideration.
(closing and signature)

Thanks for reading and happy Easter!

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