Get Your Novel Out of Sweatpants

“#ds139 ‘Writer’s Block'” by Sharon Drummond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on this year, it’s that sweatpants are pretty great. Maybe we didn’t appreciate them enough pre-pandemic. Maybe we had an old pair from college, tucked away for years, that we now realize are the greatest pants on earth. Maybe that’s just me.

While some of us may never return to “hard pants,” no one wants their novel to look like a schlump.

Something we dearly miss from before times is gathering with writing friends after a book event or a workshop and comparing notes: tips and tricks for our works in progress. So I gathered for a virtual happy hour with Vanessa Lillie and Emily Ross to commiserate about the slog of making our novels look polished.

Join us and share your tips for buffing up your novel in the comments!

Vanessa Lillie: Like childbirth, I’d forgotten how much pushing is required to get my novel ready for an agent/potential-editor’s eyes.  I’d slogged through my final “real editing” pass. I got chapters in shape. Cleaned up confusing places, threads I’d dropped and added more vivid descriptions. I was feeling good!

But then, I remembered I should do some crtl+F of my filler words. Just a real quick pass. Yeah, no. Nothing quick about it. Here’s some tallies on my (then) 99K word thriller:

Just (156)

Maybe (138)

Really (89)

I think (53)

Some (478)

I heard (42)

I see (78)

I notice (45)

Some (55)

Almost (84)

-ing (3705 – for passive voice)

When you read this list, perhaps you notice what I notice: these are eggshell words. As in, I’m walking on eggshells with the reader. Well, just maybe I think you might really consider some…blah blah blah. Or, call them wet blanket words. They don’t add anything, and actually pull my punch.

I’ll add my gratitude for sweatpants is almost equal to the glorious CRT+F. Seeing just and some and maybe highlighted in yellow led to deleting 1,500+ words (and counting!). Happy chop chop chopping!

Vanessa Lillie is the author of the Amazon bestselling thrillers Little Voices and For the Best. She’s *this close* to sending her third book tentatively called Blood Sisters to her agent.

Sara Shukla: I sent this message to my writing village Slack: “Is there a support group for people who, for the first time ever, do a search and replace for ‘that’ on a full manuscript?”

I didn’t record exactly how many “that’s” I cut because my brain broke in half. When I recovered, I hitched up my elastic waistband and did a full doc search for “just.” It’s unnerving to see how many times you’ve unconsciously typed a word that is just (ahem) unnecessary.

Like Vanessa says, removing “just” made a line or scene feel more immediate. As the piles of “just” added up, I realized I was hesitating, letting my characters hold back—it’s one of my writers’ Achilles heels. (Maybe it’s something I need to work on in real life, too, but this isn’t that kind of essay.)

Take “she just needed to relax” vs “she needed to relax.” One is like, NBD—if all she needs to do is relax, why are we reading this? If she needs to relax, it’s a necessity. What happens if she doesn’t? There are stakes.

Sometimes replacing “just” made a line better: “It’s just a little bonfire” became “It’s a modest bonfire.” It’s funny in context, OK?

Sara Shukla started querying her first novel, Pink Whales, two weeks ago. Send help.

Emily Ross: I admit it. I love living in sweat pants. Best thing is they don’t feel tight even with my extra pandemic pounds. But when I got on the scale recently I decided to put on my tight jeans as a painful reminder that I have work to do. When my novel spreads out a little too much I have my own revision version of tight jeans.

Sounds a little whacked but to cut pages what I do is look for chapter endings where the last page is only a few sentences. To get my page count down all I have to do is cut enough so those last lines don’t spill onto the next page. I know it’s ridiculous. My page count may be lower but the book is not significantly shorter so outside of the psychological boost of seeing my page count reduced what’s the point, right?

The thing is to get those few lines onto the previous page I examine every line in my chapter. Are there extra words? Can I say this more simply? Will one metaphor work better than two? Can I use narrative summary instead of dialogue? Can I combine several paragraphs into one? Is this sentence essential to the story?  In my desperate attempt to lose that extra page everything is on the chopping block. When I’m done my book is a little shorter but more importantly the entire chapter is tighter and polished.

Emily Ross is the author of the International Thriller Writers Awards finalist Half in Love with DeathShe’s feverishly ‘polishing’ a detective novel tentatively titled The Black Sea.


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