Taking a step back from your novel to evaluate it is a necessary yet daunting process. Darcy Pattison, founder of Mims House Childrens’ Books, is a children’s book author, writing teacher, and creator of the Incredible Shrunken Manuscript editing technique. This technique is a thorough and fun way to analyze your novel.
I interviewed Darcy to find out all you need to know about editing your novel with fun and ease.
The Incredible Shrunken Manuscript
MC: The Incredible Shrunken Manuscript technique involves shrinking your manuscript so you can see all of it at once to evaluate its structure. Could you tell me the story about how you first discovered this editing technique?
DP: I was swapping critiques with another author and wanted to save as much paper as possible to save money!
MC: I love that! How small do we want our manuscript before we evaluate it?
DP: A shrunken manuscript should be 30 pages for a 50-60,000 word novel. For larger novels you can shrink the manuscript to 30 pages per section or act. The key thing is to make it work for you and your book.
To shrink your manuscript as much as possible, use an 8-point font, remove the chapter and page breaks, and single space. You can even put the manuscript in columns to shrink your document further.
Identifying Strong Scenes
MC: Once the manuscript is small enough to analyze, we want to mark the powerful scenes. How do you know if a scene is strong, and will it depend on the type of novel?
DP: Whether a scene is strong depends on the genre and what the author is trying to achieve. For example, powerful scenes in a thriller may include action scenes and scenes where the protagonist and antagonist are facing off against each other.
When I’ve taught Novel Revision Retreats, I’d ask authors to identify the five strongest scenes. Then I’d ask others who had read the manuscript if they agreed with the author’s choice of strong chapters. It’s interesting to see what other authors feel are the strongest scenes and why. This provides further insight to the writer regarding scene strength.
MC: Is there a rule of thumb for how many strong scenes we should have or how they should appear throughout the novel?
DP: In a novel of up to 40,000 words, you want to select the five strongest scenes. For 40-50,000 words choose the top six scenes, and for 75,000 words select seven or eight. Beyond 75,000 words you will select your strongest scenes proportionately based on what you want to analyze.
How the scenes show up throughout the novel depends on the author's analysis of their manuscript. This is where the fun begins! As you've highlighted your strongest chapters, you will notice patterns.
A manuscript with zero scenes highlighted at the beginning will show a very slow start. For a novel with no strong scenes marked at the end, this will show the author hasn't written an end yet. And then there's the dreaded sagging middle where there will be no scenes marked in the middle of the manuscript. An author can adjust their manuscript based on the patterns they see in their shrunken manuscript.
Adapting the Technique
MC: What else can you test with the shrunken manuscript technique?
DP: The possibilities are endless. You can test multiple things at the same time as long as you are clear about what you are looking for. For example, you can choose one color to highlight romance scenes, another color to mark action scenes, and a third colour to note where your protagonist and antagonist appear in the same scene.
MC: What is your personal system for using the Incredible Shrunken Manuscript?
DP: I have internalized the shrunken manuscript structure, so I do it mentally while editing.
MC: Have you seen other authors using this technique in unique ways?
DP: I have seen the shrunken manuscript technique used to highlight narrative and emotional arcs. You can also evaluate dialogue where each character’s voice is highlighted with a unique color.
MC: Can you use the shrunken manuscript technique on any book?
DP: Yes, authors can use the shrunken manuscript technique on any book. I created it to be flexible so it would work with any structural editing goal the author was trying to achieve.
When using the shrunken manuscript technique for picture books, shrink the margins so the text is only two to four inches wide on the page. This allows you to see the patterns better than with regular margins.
MC: What kinds of things would you look for when using this technique to edit the structure of a picture book?
DP: You can look at the same things in a picture book as you would in a novel. You might look at whether there is enough action, and whether certain characters appeared enough times throughout the story. There are several examples online where people have used this technique on picture books.
MC: I know you have a blog, Fiction Notes, and YouTube channel. You teach the Incredible Shrunken Manuscript technique online and in person. Where’s the best place for authors to learn more and dive deep into this technique with you?
DP: They can find the best description of the Incredible Shrunken Manuscript technique on the Highlights Foundation YouTube channel.
As a special bonus, Darcy shared with me her final editing process where she puts her manuscripts through ProWritingAid. One of Darcy's favourite reports is the Echoes Report to identify repeated words. She says this is especially useful when editing picture books.
She also likes the House Style Report where writers can add their own personal ticks to ProWritingAid.
I'd like to thank Darcy for sharing her Incredible Shrunken Manuscript technique with me, and I hope you will try it with your novel. Shrinking your manuscript so the entire thing fits on your screen can show you several things. It's a matter of determining what you want to analyze and starting from there.