All writing is editing. Any writer who has faced a blank screen (or sheet of paper) recognizes on some level that they are editing out the rest of the world and focusing on one particular aspect: how much to cut out or keep in? What’s important for the story you are trying to tell? Or for the affect you are trying to achieve?
Grab the gun
To the point, what is not important and could prove a bothersome distraction to your reader?
This fundamental question is one faced by thriller writers honing their craft in action scenes. There may be a lot going on but the reader wants to stay focused on the action. I have read scenes that have the potential to be incredibly pulse-pounding vignettes but read like the staging of a dramatic play: he goes there, she stands here, he looks there while she shifts on the couch. You should remember that this isn’t a movie where we see the entire scene all the time: an author needs to focus on what’s important at the moment. Your reader’s imagination should be stimulated in a way that fills in the details. You keep in what’s needed and discard the rest. To exaggerate: we don’t need to know the planet continues to keep spinning right at this moment, but we really want to know is whether or not the main character, feeling under the couch cushions, is going to grab the gun. Keep the focus on the action.
Obviously, this is important for all writers of any type or in any genre: what is necessary context and what is superfluous? What adds to the scene and what clogs it up?
Calling Maxwell Perkins
Every author hopes for a clever editor with a sensitive light touch who will not despoil their perfect prose creation. Sometimes even I can be that editor, but often I am not.
In fact, I may have a bit of a reputation as not being that editor: of being the heavy-leaded one who might be waved over for help on a project that is fatally, morbidly obese, a manuscript that calls for the most ruthless trainer from The Biggest Loser to whip it into lean, mean, fighting shape. I am that man.
The method to my madness
For bigger jobs, there are two basic kinds of editing.
Sometimes a book needs to be cut because it’s not working for some reason — for example, maybe the pacing is off. Here I may look at the work as a whole and seek out larger conceptual cuts: Is it possible to cut the subplot with the brief romance, or the Istanbul flashback that explains motivation? Might this be something you as the writer need to understand about your character but that is actually unnecessary for your reader’s enjoyment? Do we need the character of the stepbrother? Whole subplots may be disappeared in this process, and they may well be edited out without remorse by your editor. This can, you might guess, be a somewhat more traumatic process for the author. Avoid this shock and heartbreak. Do the necessary work ahead of time.
William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Have your heard this brutal sounding literary advice? He was referring to the dangers of an author using personal favorite elements. While these may hold particular significance or sentimental meaning for the author, they may also cause cranky readers to roll their eyes. “Kill your darlings” can refer to elements both big and small, from purple prose or the egregious overuse of certain words or phrases to unnecessary subplots.
After these cuts (of the major sort) have been made, the issue becomes continuity: how to insert smooth transitions in places that have been disappeared.
Pen in hand, to the rescue!
Perhaps my greatest work of derring-do in this regard was accomplished years ago when free-lance editing a historical romance. The editor at the publishing house wanted this novel to be much, much shorter. A Medieval mass market paperback, the story was about a spirited young princess betrothed to a nasty much older lord, a man with a highly un-romantic penchant for molesting and torturing children. For this overlong romance, this revolting subplot struck me as an easy cut: the creepy old dude was bad enough news without this book’s mid-section bulging with his horrid and depraved behavior. I managed to cut 50 pages in a row, and write two elegant sentences that bridged this previously unsightly gap – perhaps my proudest editorial moment.
Usually the necessary surgery is less obvious. Maybe the overall reading experience of a book is wearying: there are no glaring child molesters, just the sin of too many words. Cutting a book down this other way – word by word – is a laborious and time-consuming process.
I mastered this skill years ago when I abridged books for audio. In those days, audio book scripts were limited to 28,000 words. That’s how many words would fit on those eight cassette tapes. It also meant I had to cut You Can Stop Smoking to 28,000 words as well as Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote to 28,000 words. No easy task but it can be done.
Math comes in handy. I start out by deciding how much is too much. If a book is 250,000 words and the goal is 150,000 words, how many lines do I want to cut a single page? I want to cut 2/5 of the book, and if there are 24 lines per page, my goal will be to cut 9 to 10 lines per page. If I’m feeling especially German-Virgo, I might keep a running tally of cut lines. Then I can do calculations at any given point as to how well I’m keeping up with my projected cuts. Sometimes I cut whole pages and get ahead of my line quota and leave other pristine passages untouched. But I’m always aiming to cut by at least this specific amount, and it’s helpful to keep count.
Writers’ ugly secrets revealed
Winnowing prose down by using this painstaking method, you learn a lot about writing: about what is needed and what’s not. Editing can reveal a lot about a writer’s idiosyncrasies. When an editor casts their beady eyes on prose in this deeply analytical way, a writer’s oddball secrets may well be laid bare. Beware. Extra stuff that works its way into a plot when it’s not necessary can be very enlightening about an author.
Or maybe you are Marcel Proust, and while your written page has a lot of words, none can be cut. They are all entirely ripe with profound meaning. Indeed, you may be such a writer, but the more than likely misapprehension that you are this genius/Voltaire reincarnate when you are not, can be dangerous to your prose.
The way we write now
And even if you are brilliant this way, to a current day publisher’s eyes, your book and writing style might seem less commercial in a world where many readers access the latest fiction on their iPhones. Read Tolkien and see how differently he writes than modern writers in the same genre. Writers today are less inclined to delve into the back story or digress the way Tolkien did. That was Tolkien then and this is the commercial fiction market now. Your perfectly brilliantly wrought descriptive and emotional sentence could give the appearance of being too long and flowery for today’s market.
Praise is nice, criticism is useful
I encourage everyone to read the classics and study them closely – and by that, I mean Elmore Leonard novels of course. And all the others, too. (You may be familiar with Elmore Leonard’s Ten – actually eleven – Rules of Writing, but if your goal is to write commercial fiction, you can go nowhere better for advice than this master.
For writers starting off, or more experienced writers, I suggest that they join a writers group to get real-time feedback and input. It’s important for a writer to listen and really hear what a well-meaning critic has to say. You may be told by someone that your work can use additional editing or cutting, and your immediate reaction is that this is an absolutely impossible task. You don’t want to listen but listen you should.
Here’s a challenge: Take ten pages of your current writing project, and let’s see if it’s possible to trim it down – word by word, line by line – to eight pages. Odds are, there’s room to be cut. You might even get it down to seven.
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