Surgery for the Manuscript

Surgery for the Manuscript
Terry Odell

I hit “The End” on the current WIP, which is really “The Beginning.” James Scott Bell talked about getting rid of mosquitos in his recent post. To continue with his analogy (it was an analogy, wasn’t it?) Sometimes you’re getting rid of angry wasps, and sometimes it’s annoying gnats.

I prefer thinking in surgical terms when I tackle my draft. First, the major medical. The current manuscript came in longer than I wanted. Although I firmly believe that a story should be as long as it needs to be, the operative word is needs, and I check to make sure that every scene pulls its weight and advances the story. I confess that as a non-plotter, I often find things that never got followed up on, or were just fun scenes to write. If they don’t connect to the overall story, they get cut.

  • Purely practical note. At Amazon, for books priced for the 70% royalty option, there’s a “delivery fee” for ebooks based on file size. Longer books, bigger cut for them. Example: for my three-book box sets, they slice from 25 to 27 cents per book. They take about a dime from my “normal” length books. For those who go wide, B&N, Kobo, and Smashwords don’t have these fees. D2D keeps about 10% regardless of book length.
  • In print, the cost to produce the book via KDP is based on page count. More pages, bigger cut. I don’t sell enough print books to check out the other distributors, so I can’t speak for them.
  • If you’re going to produce the book in audio and pay a narrator, the longer the book, the greater the cost.

These, to me, justify excising ugly fat. If you want more advice from the real experts, Ruth Harris has an excellent summary. Check this out.

Back to cutting plot threads. Should be easy, right? Patient has appendicitis, you cut out the appendix. In the manuscript, you find the threads that don’t need to be there and remove them.

Trouble is, threads don’t exist in nice, tidy packages. There will be places where you’ve foreshadowed, places where you’ve followed up, and places where you’ve made a reference, almost in passing, to something that happened in that now defunct thread.

Example: One thread I’d decided wasn’t necessary (even though it created conflict and tension) related to the character finding an earring in the pasture. How did it get there? Who dropped it? Could it belong to the cattle rustler? I set things up by having my hero spot similar earrings on the heroine and asking where she got them which led down a path I decided was no longer needed. I had enough other mystery threads to be solved. The entire scene had to be revised. (And it was at a restaurant, JSB.) If that patient’s appendix burst, the surgeon wants to remove all traces of infection. In the manuscript, I have to make sure I’ve removed all references to this “earring thread.” It showed up in several more chapters, and cutting them leads to more problems.

A tip: Watch your transitions. It’s more than likely the scene before the one you cut led into it. That will have to be adjusted. Likewise the one after it. If you ended the scene with a page-turning cliff hanger, that cliffhanger now sends readers into an abyss with no bottom.

Another example came from removing a simple piece of stage business. My characters love coffee, and they were often (too often?) brewing, pouring, sipping. In the scene in question, the characters were dealing with a suspicious package purportedly delivered by FedEx, and the heroine offered to make coffee while they worked. Yet another coffee-making scene. Didn’t add enough to justify the extra words, so I deleted it:

“There’s time for coffee. Want some?”
Figuring the simple task might take her mind off what she was dealing with, he said yes.
As she went through the process of water, filter, and grounds, he mulled over what had gone on.

But now, since they had coffee, there were more references throughout the scene (and more) that had to go: carrying the mugs upstairs, bringing them down and washing them, leaving the half-empty pot for the house-sitter and … having the hero taste like coffee when they kissed. The kiss was important, but he couldn’t taste like coffee anymore. None of these references went on for more than a sentence—a paragraph at most. Often they were simply action beats. But if you want the patient to recover, you have to make sure there are no sponges or instruments left behind when you close him up.

Deleting a paragraph can create a dominoes effect. Watch what happens right before and after, and smooth out the edges. Critique partners, beta readers, and editors are helpful here, because they haven’t read the manuscript seventy-eleven times.

Moving on to the gnats, or doing the minor and microsurgery.

Words that don’t add anything to the story need to go. They might even add distance, keeping a layer you don’t want between your readers and the characters. Or, there might be awkward bits.

I’ve talked about using SmartEdit before. It’s great for finding those pesky adverbs, repeated words and phrases, and another source of extra words: redundancies.

As with any automated program, you have to review every “suggestion” it makes. These programs don’t write genre fiction. SmartEdit suggests possible redundancies. I’ve run chapters and scenes through Grammarly as well, and find the same problem. Many of their suggestions don’t apply in context. However, they deserve a second look. Fortunately both programs show you where each “offense” occurs, so you can move through the manuscript quickly. Some examples:

  • Outside of
  • Whether or not
  • Start off
  • Ask a question
  • Started out
  • Advance warning
  • Off of
  • Open up
  • Shut down
  • Temper tantrum
  • Major breakthrough
  • Basic essentials
  • Stand up
  • Fall down
  • Advance notice
  • Burning embers
  • Shrug a shoulder

I remember my high school Latin teacher complaining about advertising wording. “From its earliest beginnings to its final completion.” Or “Free gift.” He also said “up” is an overused word, which I talked about in an earlier post. I’ll never forget class clown Leon saying, “So what’s the bank robber supposed to say? This is a stick?”

Then there are the clunkers. Sometimes the eye catches them, but having Word (or your program of choice) read the book aloud to you will help you find them.

Example from the current wip: A woman was busy decorating a wooden wall hanging made from pieces of weathered wood.

Duh. Do I need to use the word wood twice? Wouldn’t the same information get across more efficiently as A woman was busy decorating a wall hanging made from weathered wood.  Do I even need “was busy”? Can it be A woman decorated a wall hanging made from weathered wood?

Listening calls attention to repeated words. Plus, you can hear words that aren’t really repeats, but echoes, such as this passage I discovered:

His mouth dropped. “You’re saying you’re going to wash my clothes?”
She sighed. “Apparently.”
It took several heartbeats for his mouth to close….

Did you spot the ‘clunker’? If not, read it out loud.

OK, TKZers: What are your tips for performing surgery on your manuscript?

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellAvailable Now Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


42 thoughts on “Surgery for the Manuscript

  1. Good morning, Terry. Thanks for another peek behind the curtains.

    One thing I look for in my writing (and I find it!) and that you mentioned is word redundancy. It’s elementary but can make an otherwise interesting passage dull. Reading aloud doesn’t help me for whatever reason. I need to read through it. I like your SmartEdit suggestion, however.

    Thanks for another informative and helpful post, Terry!

    • Good morning, Joe. I read through the manuscript (using my ‘trick’). I can’t read it aloud myself; I let the computer do that. Tedious though it is, it’s amazing how much more I pick up.

  2. Great analogy to surgery, Terry! Esp. this line: “make sure there are no sponges or instruments left behind when you close him up.”

    The other day, my critique group wisely recommended deletion of an entire subplot in my WIP. Now I have to go through and catch all those hidden artifacts in the rest of the story that refer to that subplot.

    Better not leave any scalpels inside the patient before stitching them up or the reader will wonder, “What the heck was that line about?”

    • Right. We don’t want “Bob? Who’s Bob? Where did he come from?”
      I had a character go to take care of her grandmother once, yet she showed up at the conference table (in person–no Zoom yet) for a meeting. A reader pointed it out in a review. Nobody else caught it. Thank goodness for indie publishing. I fixed it and reuploaded, so no new readers had to see my snafu.

  3. Great post, Terry. I especially liked your points on removing all references to threads – ?metastases?. Too bad there isn’t a PET scan for manuscripts.

    Text-to-voice is particularly helpful for me. I started with Word, liking the clunky slow reader so I wouldn’t get drawn into the story. I now prefer Scrivener, because I can turn up the speed and race through the chapter faster than I read, and still hear the “clunkers.”

    Another good analogy. Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve. Word’s current ‘read aloud’ feature for Office 365 does let you adjust the speed. Which I do.

  4. Great analogy, Terry. And I love Steve’s suggestion of a PET scan for manuscripts. I can envision manuscript as patient.

    Since I’m a hybrid plotter/pantser, there are many opportunities for me to leave the surgical instruments in the patient. I recently changed some things about a hand-written clue, but I forgot to change the way a character described it in a later chapter. I caught it on the umpteenth time I read through the ms. (Does anybody else read their WIP umpteen times?) 🙂

  5. Excellent tips, Terry. I also find uploading the manuscript to my Kindle helps to catch things I wouldn’t see otherwise. Surgery is an apt analogy.

    • Yes, Sue, the more ways you can fool your brain, the better. Read it in several formats. Listen to it. Use an automated program.

  6. Love the surgery analogy here, Terry. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now with my first mystery. I went through the manuscript, making minor fixes, and writing up mystery points, and what needed to be changed. Then, I wrote up a new outline of the mystery, beginning with the murderer’s story and what they are after, since I changed that during my first draft. I then revised my hero’s investigation plot. Doing a revision outline here has proven very helpful.

    I’ll continue to rely on beta readers and my editor to catch things, but with this first mystery novel, unsnarling the plot I’d spun in the first draft and making sure it works is the least I can do before sending it to my developmental editor. The last thing I want is to send her a hot mess. Not only would that be expensive, I know what I need to fix. She’s going to help me with what I might not know I need to fix 🙂

    The good news is that I’ve already done a basic outline of Book 2 in the series and the mystery came together much easier than this one.

    Thanks for another informative and interesting post!

    • Thanks, Dale. I agree, we owe it to our editors to give them the cleanest possible copy. They’re watching out for a lot of things, and they’re not infallible. Things slip through the cracks. Or off the operating table.

  7. I tell my manuscript to turn its head and cough. Then I determine what to do…

    Re: transitions, I find this a good way to control pace. Often, cutting transition language to the bone, or removing it altogether, creates valuable momentum. But when you need to slow things down, as in a “sequel” beat, you can use description consistent with what’s going on inside the character. So sometimes you cut, other times you put in.

    • Yes, after cutting, there’s often adding to suture the incisions. Thanks for bringing up transitions for pace control.

    • Good tip, Priscilla. Thanks. I do change the page background color when I’m working with edits so I don’t ‘fix’ the wrong file. Margie Lawson suggests using different color highlighters for things like dialogue, narrative, etc, but that’s another step of the editing process.

  8. Thanks for the shout, Terry. Let’s hear it for the delete button!

    What Jim calls mosquitos, I call cooties. Same diff. In either case, need to get the Raid and go to work.

    Your surgery analogy is so apt. Even though lots of times it feels more like the Emergency Room than the surgical suite. 🙁

    I don’t know. Why do we do this to ourselves?????

    • Thanks, Ruth – it was a great article.
      My critique partner and I ask ourselves the same question, which goes back to Kay’s post — because we can’t NOT do it.

  9. I wrote one story for my 1 pm weekly workshop. Not wanting to wait till the last minute, every Tuesday I’d sit down about 11:30 am and crank out a chapter to read. Did I ever stop to outline? Nooooo.

    Flash forward 2 years: continuity glitches everywhere in what is now a 110,000 word manuscript. In a separate folder, I find a beautiful 3,000 word B-plot short story in 1st person, instead of 3rd, written one midnight and forgotten in toto.

    It took months to create an outline and a coherent M/S. My primary fix-it tool was searching for words like “sword,” and all its synonyms, to ensure my MC didn’t leave places with one sword and show up wearing another. Hats, similarly, etc., etc. Was the entrance to the Bishop’s palace in the back? Or on the side? The possibilities were endless. Never again. I outline my grocery lists, now.

    • Or have dinner twice, or not at all. Back when I was actually going into grocery stores, I’d lay out my list the way the store was arranged. Cursed it when they moved things around for no other reason that it’s a marketing ploy to get you to see “other stuff” when you’re looking for what you want.
      John Sandford had a good tip. Make all floorplans of homes the same as yours so your character doesn’t go the wrong way out the back door.

    • Make yourself a book bible as you write. Here, you put all the info you may need later as well as research info., etc. I kept mine up to date by adding info after I finished writing for the day. I don’t have time to go into detail right now so I’ve put a link to an article.

      Be careful not to use a thesarus or word-suggestion program on things like swords and guns. A katana and a longsword aren’t the same thing.

      • I keep a spreadsheet of chapter/scene summaries. Yet, somehow, minor bits of information that I don’t think could possibly be important keep showing up later to haunt me.
        The late Barbara Parker used to strip all the dialogue from a scene and print out what was left, which she said helped keep her on track. I’m thinking I might try that.

  10. A good trick is to have a separate document from your manuscript. When you delete larger chunks of manuscript, paste it into the document. Not only will it ease your trauma at killing those babies, you’ll have a place to check for missing info. of the “did I cut out the woman’s ring description?” variety. Also, the bigger scene elements.

    • Good tip, Marilynn, and one I use when I’m doing major surgery and rewrites. Don’t try to patch; start fresh.

  11. BTW, there’s no point in trimming your KDP hard copy book until you exceed 110 pages. It’s only after that point that you get charged extra per page. The price is the same for any length book until you pass 110. My feeling is that I should add more content for readers as necessary to reach that limit.

    • All my a print (paperback) books from KDP come in at 300+ pages. One might be 297, with the exception of the 3 short stories I bundled into Seeing Red. That one’s 128 pages, so I was unaware of the 110 page breaking point.

      • I’ve been doing little anthologies–poetry collection, short stories, etc., that come in around 100+ pages. I pad the front and back with forthcoming works, begging for reviews, etc. I’m considering doing two genre novellas back-to-back.

  12. I like the surgery analogy. Having been an assistant to an orthopedic surgeon in my younger years, I’ve attended in the surgical suite several times.

    I’d add this tidbit to my WIP “surgery” technique: Sometimes it’s necessary to take a component out and insert a new one (such as, on 11/16, I’m having a new hip put in…but first the old, diseased one needs to be cut out-sounds scary, huh?).

    I’ve experienced this scary technique when editing. Non-working details (my darlings) removed, and new shiny ones inserted.

    Voila! Now my WIP races on to the finish line, all tidy and spruced up.

    My surgeon tells me I’ll be able to ride my bicycle this coming spring. And away I’ll go. 🙂

    • Wishing you the best results on your hip, Deb. Both my knees are not original equipment. Having yakked extensively with other Six Million Dollar people, hips are supposed to be a much easier recovery than knees.

      • Yes, they are, Debbie. I will be going home about 2-3 hours after I wake up, so, the same day. In the ’90s, when I worked in the field, it meant a 2-3 day in-house stay.

    • Good luck with your surgery. I’m still original equipment with a couple of minor adjustments, although I definitely feel the knees and hips reminding me how long they’ve been around.
      Enjoy your bike rides.

  13. Clunker – – “You’re [you are] saying” and “you’re [you are] going” in one sentence.

    Possible rewrite: “You’re going to wash my clothes?”

    I enjoyed the surgery analogy, Terri, and gained a few new tips on approaches to identifying cut threads and sizing books for Amazon.

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