In other words, edit your work.
Writing 500 words a day for the past year, you now have 182,500 words — and you don’t need half of them.
Novels, like attention spans, are getting shorter, and while you probably need more than a tweet’s 140 characters, the typical length for a debut novel by an unknown author like you (and most of us) is between 80,000 and 100,000 words, with 80-90,000 being the most sellable.
If you’ve skipped a few days, and find yourself at only 60,000 words, you may need to do a little more writing — that number begins to look more like a novella than a novel, and unless combined with a few stories, might be difficult to sell. On the upper extreme, many agents will reject debut novels that approach the 100,000 ceiling. (To be fair, there are some agents, specializing in sci-fi and fantasy, who will seek out longer works, and regularly accept 120,000-word first-time novels.)
Some classic writing about editing
“The Fiction Editor, the Novel and the Novelist,” by Thomas McCormack — Since 1988, a standard reference for editors by the former editorial director of St. Martin’s Press.
“The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” by John Gardner — A classic handbook on the principles and techniques of good writing.
“On Writing: A Memoir of Craft,” by Stephen King — Even if his is not your genre, there’s much to be learned here. As one reviewer wrote, “Long live the King!”
For now, though, my assumption is you have too many words, and you are ready to do your first edit of a completed manuscript. What to do first? Correcting typos and grammar might be a start, and you might do that with your first read-through. During that, I like to track my story lines, making sure the chronology of events works in terms of which characters know what and when; the unanswered questions in the plot are resolved; and I haven’t made promises to the reader I haven’t kept.
Are there characters that need further development? Have I gone deep enough into a character’s emotional life? Plot lines incomplete? Ironically, before you edit, you may need to write more!
The next edit, a substantive edit, is not unlike getting a brief ready for the court, both in terms of the clarity of your arguments and brevity. Look for points that are made and remade more often than necessary. Look for unnecessary throat clearing in conversations — characters can skip conversational formalities that the reader is likely to hear even if you don’t put them on the page.
Look for all the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and replace them with strong verbs or metaphors. Stephen King is quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” When you spot an adverb in your writing, it might be telling you that you haven’t chosen (exactly) the right verb.
See? I don’t need “exactly” — it’s either the right verb or it isn’t. As a lawyer, you know what it means when a client leans across your desk and says, “I want to be completely honest with you.”
Seek out “-ly” words (use the “find” on your computer) and test your sentence without these adverbs: actually, angrily, carefully, closely, completely, definitely, extremely, finally, frequently, happily, honestly, lately, mostly, nearly, only, really, slowly, softly, suddenly, truly, typically quickly, usually.
If you’re left with a weak verb, consider replacing it. T.C. Boyle is the master of the creative use of verbs, stretching them into new contexts where they activate a scene. For instance, stars aren’t simply rising in Boyle’s work, they’re “arching into the backbone of the sky.” Your character might have walked down the hall, but a better verb — and maybe even a metaphor like Boyle’s — would characterize his or her mood or condition: he/she stormed, tip-toed, staggered, wobbled, caned, hobby-horsed, skated. But avoid using “like a gazelle” and “like a drunken sailor!”
For even greater impact, combine your strong verb with a metaphor that fits your narrative voice and the tone of the story. For Boyle, a master of outlandish vocabulary and wild metaphor, the days don’t “pass slowly” for his character — “The days stuck to him like fly paper.”
Cut out all the flowery language. The more in love you are with a sentence, the more you know it has to go. “Kill your babies.” Why? Because they stick out. They draw attention to themselves. Those precious sentences may be more about you, the writer — Hey, look at me! — than about the story. (You might ask how T.C. Boyle gets away with it — for now, the short answer is, your middle name is not Coraghessan.) Every single sentence in your book must belong to the story, forward the story, deepen the story — or it’s out.
These two edits are just the beginning. You’ll need to come back to the novel after a period of time and read it anew for clunkers that have snuck through and for repetitions in sentence structure that have become dull. But for now, these preliminary edits will help you hone your craft.
Think of it this way: Once you’ve researched the law and the facts, you still have to craft an argument, see how the puzzle fits together and how best to express it. Right now, you have lots of words on paper, and you’ve got to shape them and sharpen the sentences, word by word, and then the paragraphs, sentence by sentence.
You’ve written the words. Now craft the story.