Thursday, April 01, 2010

CUT

Over the past months... okay, years... I've made frequent reference to editing my terribly overwritten historical, Kindred, but I'm not sure I've ever noted exactly what it is I'm trimming away. At this point, it's getting harder. Harder to find material to trim, harder to do the trimming once I've found it, be it a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a chunk of a scene. But given enough time I'm usually able to see that those words, sentences, paragraphs or scenes that I suspect don't absolutely have to be there... don't. So here are the main "weedy" areas I've noted in my pruning this past week:

Back story. I like back story. I rather like it in the novels I read too. But not everyone agrees with me. So I'm trimming as much back story as I can, saving what I do include to fall in the spot in the story where it's essential for understanding the present. Hopefully not a moment too soon.

Excess description, especially static description. I once read a bestselling author say she never allows more than two lines of static description together. I've never checked her 400,000 word historicals to see if that's actually true (I'm usually too engrossed in the story), but it sounds like a pretty good rule. But in my effort to trim down my (already skinny by comparison) 142,000 novel, I'm distilling the description down, and down, and down, attempting to create the same setting and atmosphere with one sentence instead of three. One phrase instead of a whole sentence. One word instead of a phrase. It means going deeper, spending extra time searching for the right word, not five or six just-okay ones.

Too much stage business. My characters turn around, and look, and gaze, and reach, and lift their hands, and walk across rooms, and... well you get it. They're antsy creatures and because I'm fascinated with their every twitch, much like a proud parent, I want to tell you each move they make. But that makes for dense and distracting prose. Finding the balance is tough--including enough stage business so that Ian doesn't start out in the parlor then suddenly seems to have "disapparated" into the cornfield. But I've also learned I don't need to show every step and turn and gaze between parlor and field either.

Unnecessary dialogue. Dialogue is another thing I'm learning to distill. Sometimes it takes paring down the stage business or description around it for me to see I really only needed two lines of dialogue for the character to make her point, instead of three. And I can even rewrite those remaining two to be a bit tighter, punchier, more on the mark. No dancing around the point, Kindred cast. Say what you mean! Unless of course dancing around the point is what you mean to do.

Interior monologue. Character ruminations. Internals. Whatever you want to call it when a character worries over conflict like a dog with a bone, all inside their head. Quite often, still, these internals run on too long and so I'm taking an equally long look at each such instance. Is all of it needed? Is there one core issue the character needs to ponder now, and can the rest be cut away? Have I tackled this same issue as an internal elsewhere, or very nearly so? Snip, snip. And that leads me to the last area I want to mention, the one that's the cause for most of the material that ends up on my cutting room floor.

Repetition, on every level, be it single words or entire scenes or anything in between that come at the same plot point or point of character from just a slightly different angle than I already have. Am I bludgeoning the reader to make a point, when one solid whack on the head would do it? I'm learning to do something in my writing that I as a reader love to do, make those sudden leaps in understanding of character or plot when the author hasn't spelled every little step of it out for me, or connected each dot, but supplied enough of them that my reasoning brain has filled in the rest. I love that experience. It makes me feel clever and deep! If at all possible, I want to give that back to readers.

The best tip I have for helping authors to see these spots in their manuscripts is... take a break from the work. Put it aside for a week or two or a month, if you possibly can. That distance will make those bits that are only serving to clutter the "essential story," as author Bonnie Grove aptly phrased it, much easier to spot. It also infuses you with the objective ruthlessness needed to delete them. Or at least toss them into a "save for later" file.

On Wednesday, Sharon Souza posted some excellent editing tips at Novel Matters blog. Don't miss those. I especially benefited from William Brohaugh's "Sixteen Types of Wordiness and How to Trim Them."

6 comments:

  1. Interesting about never having two lines of static description together. Now you've got me guessing. Is it Margaret George??

    And I like how you call all those action beats stage business. When I first started, I didn't know how to move a character from one spot to the other! Now I'm trusting my reader can figure things out.

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  2. Caroline,

    It's Diana Gabaldon. I really ought to see if she truly does stick to the two lines of static description rule. But even if she didn't, I wouldn't mind. The trick with description I've found is to make sure it's doing double or triple duty. And make sure it's filtered through the POV of the character seeing it. Make it say something about the character as well as the setting.

    Trusting the reader to make and enjoy those leaps, whether in time, place or understanding, is a wonderfully freeing thing to learn, isn't it?

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  3. How interesting! I'm only half-way through the Jamie and Claire saga, and there are places in the third? fourth? book I would have definitely cut. Not description, though. I guess we all read and write differently!

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  4. Caroline, what's your favorite book so far? I found my original inspiration for Kindred in the pages of Drums of Autumn, then further in discussions with Diana about her research. I love the later ones set in NC best.

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  5. Voyager, I think? The one where Claire and Jamie are apart and eventually come together again. I thought it was lovely.

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  6. Caroline, that's Voyager. My favorite so far is the fourth, Drums of Autumn, because it sparked my own passion for late 18C US history, and also contained the spark of inspiration that became Kindred. Diana has been a wonderful mentor (informally, of course) on the Books and Writers Community forum. I'm sure I'd have given up writing long ago if it wasn't for that encouraging place.

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