December 29, 2010

instinctive editing

Today's wisdom comes from my experience with editing manuscripts, whether they be my drawer full of half-finished novels, or those few short stories I write every once in a while.

When in doubt, cut it out (or, more positively, go with your gut feeling).

Now, this isn't to say hold the delete button over paragraphs that you aren't sure about. When you're going over your rough draft, and something doesn't feel right, take that word/sentence/paragraph/scene/chapter and move it to a blank document. Delete it from your original draft, and analyze the story again without it. Nine times out of ten, the story is better off. On the other hand, sometimes, what you've taken out needs to be woven into the story elsewhere, because it is an important part of your story, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You'll usually have a gut feeling about these parts of your story, but you'll be scared to change anything, to cut anything, because you just worked so darn hard on it.

For instance, in my rewrite that I'm working so famously on, I cut, literally, ten chapters. In my original draft, I had ten chapters' worth of aimless goings-on. That was 23,000 words of my characters meandering around without really doing anything. So, those ten chapters are gone from my new outline. I have of course compensated such a loss with the addition of more focused activities. All-in-all, I transformed the plot from a big, wild, circling monster to a streamlined and focused arrow. It's clearer now, and every action makes sense and forwards the plot. One of my beta readers had pointed these particular chapters out to me and asked "What's the point?" I didn't want to admit that he was right, that those weeks of my life were wasted, that 23,000 words of my 62,000 word novel weren't doing anything for the plot. Why, that would be admitting that I hadn't actually finished a novel. I couldn't do that, not when I was still riding the high of finishing a book!

It took five months for me to realize that the chapters had to go. Five months. I had always had a gut feeling about those chapters. I always knew that something wasn't right there; I just never wanted to admit it. It still scares me that ten chapters of my original story are going to waste away in a file on my computer, never to see the light of day. At the same time, I know that my story is stronger for it. I know that I made the right decision. My gut feeling tells me so.

So next time you dive into revisions, don't ignore those gut feelings. If your writerly conscience is telling you "That scene doesn't belong there," or "That sentence is too awkward, fix it," or "What is the point of this scene?" don't ignore it. Listen to your writerly conscience. Don't just skip over those sections thinking, "I'll get back to that later," because this is later. That's what revisions are for, fixing stuff.

It can be scary making such significant changes to your beautiful baby novel, but sometimes, it just has to be done. You'll learn and evolve as a writer if you can take on such a challenge and succeed, so just do it.

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  1. There's an old adage in Hollywood: save what you cut for the sequel. ;)

    If you don't believe me, look at Terminator 2. It was built completely off of discarded ideas from the first movie. And considering its reputation as one of the greatest film sequels of the last 20 years...

    Those ten chapters might have value elsewhere, in some form or another, which is why it's never a complete loss to cut them from the present narrative.

  2. i meant to include that :) there are several stories i've written and discarded that have had scenes find homes elsewhere. i have a feeling that they'll find a place later on, but for now, they're in limbo.

  3. I've already deleted my first chapter and I'm only a quarter of the way through the novel. When I say deleted, I do mean, removed from the first draft and placed in another folder :)