Brrr, the ancient floor furnace has gone kablooey and I’m relying on those oil-filled radiators that plug in. Not quite as good, but they work. Hopefully it’s just the thermostat, because no one will work on the damn thing, and I don’t have $10,000 to spare for a new furnace and ductwork. Come on, Publishers Clearinghouse!
Today’s post is about cutting. No, not the kind you do to your wrists, or your enemies, but to your manuscript. It’s all part of revision, the bugbear for so many writers.
How do you know what to cut? You can start with the obvious: material that doesn’t belong. Let’s say I wrote a story about a mad killer in the Batman universe, who strikes during thunderstorms, and Batman has to figure out how to catch him before any more innocent Gotham citizens are harmed. And imagine I wrote a long section explaining atmospheric disturbances during thunderstorms, how lightning works, etc. Would it belong in the story? Only if Batman needed it to find the killer. Otherwise, it’s only a digression. No matter how excellently the thunderstorm trivia is written, it shouldn’t be there. Its only purpose is to move the plot forward and if it’s not doing that, it has to go.
A more elegantly written, literary work might have a bit more room for meandering, but in plot-driven commercial fiction there is little time for asides. No one cares. They only care whether Batman will find the guy in time to save the pretty heroine, or perhaps his beloved Alfred, who is knocking about Wayne Manor, unaware that the killer, posing as kitchen help, hid in the pantry during the ball and the thunderstorm is raging and he is now sneaking up on our poor, unsuspecting butler/father figure with a huge knife—EEP!
If I stopped that kind of suspense to tell you how lightning is formed and it had nothing to do with Alfred’s rescue, you would clout me with my own book and I wouldn’t blame you.
Words and phrases that are extraneous clutter your manuscript. In William Brohaugh’s excellent Write Tight: How to Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused and Concise, he reminds writers to watch for unnecessary adverbs. Look for phrases like pulled off (or off of, which is especially heinous), called out, dropped down, etc. The verb is fine by itself; it doesn’t need the extra word, because we know what is happening.
He pulled a piece from the crusty loaf.
Alice called to the White Rabbit.
The knife dropped and the killer began to cry.
Most of these modifiers come from the way people speak. But you’re not going to write the way you speak, are you? I confess, I’m very bad with this, and I must have cut thousands of extra adverbs, adjectives and prepositions from my book. Since I’m cutting again to reduce word count, I’m sure I’ll find many more that I missed.
Another thing Brohaugh mentions is checklists in your descriptions. I had trouble admitting that I did this one. Here’s an example from the first draft of Rose’s Hostage, a scene where the captive Libby has been allowed upstairs to take a shower:
This bathroom was white, with a colorful floral shower curtain and matching window dressings, and green towels. White wicker accessories – a tissue holder, magazine rack (empty – didn’t anyone read around here?) and one of those tall toilet paper reserve containers that held several rolls – studded the room and the walls were decorated with faded flower prints. The overall effect was of a garden. It was much nicer than the bathroom downstairs, with its silly ceramic fish and light-devouring blue walls. She wondered who had done the decorating. Obviously it hadn’t been updated in some time, but at least someone had tried to make this room a pleasant one.
And now in the fifth draft:
This bathroom was white and green with floral trim. The accessories were white wicker and framed botanical prints decorated the walls. It was much nicer than the bathroom downstairs.
Better, no? Obviously no one cares if the bathroom has a toilet roll holder; we all know what accessories are usually found in a bathroom, and it’s not necessary to list them. Three sentences and only twenty-nine words. I hope you can see it just as well.
If I described the bathroom too well, the reader would not have his/her own unique picture of it. When I read The Lord of the Rings, I see the Shire in a very different way than someone else might. It’s not that Tolkien’s descriptions are sparse, but that each person has his/her own filter and my vision of the bathroom or the Shire will be my own. It will remain in my mind and I’ll revisit it each time I read the book.
Try a bit of cutting on your own work. I promise it won’t hurt. Not much, anyway. If you have any tidbits to share on this topic, please feel free to post in the comments.