What to Leave Out
Whether we like it or not, most books are shorter now than were their counterparts twenty years ago. Blame it on attention deficit, paper costs, whatever you want, but many stories now are more compressed. It's not necessarily that the plots have fewer events, but rather that there's little room for anything that doesn't directly affect the story. Those fun meanders into whale biology (thank you, Herman Melville) or digressions into the third most important family in town or backstory about the heroine's previous marriage, are less likely to make it into print.
That's because editors are probably going to cut all that. And so I'd suggest, save time and don't write it. Leave it out.
In fact, if you streamline your scenes, you might just have a bit of room for that backstory about her previous marriage if you can make it fit (I fear whale biology, however, is gone for good).
So a few thoughts on what to leave out, that is, what I as an editor would probably cut out, starting with the least painful:
- Roundabout scene openings. If there was ever a time when you could start a scene with the character waking up, getting up, brushing teeth, reading the newspaper, sipping coffee, and finally, finally getting into the car and driving to work, where she is met by her boss who gives her a new assignment (the action of the scene), that time is over. Those "getting up" scene openings are a waste of print. They are usually the writer's attempt to "write around" until he finds the actual scene opening. Write around all you want, find the true scene opening (where, um, something important is about to happen), and then go back and cut all that junk.
- Irrelevant events within scenes. Okay, say the heroine is given the assignment of interviewing the new mayor at his downtown club. Think about where you're going to end up. Say the mayor fields all her questions with aplomb, but when she asks a question supplied by her grizzled old colleague, the mayor gets all flustered and then abruptly stands up and leaves. So you know what the scene is aiming for—her realization that the grizzled old colleague has something on the mayor. Well, aim for that. Leave out anything that doesn't add to setting that up. That includes the whole "ordering lunch" digression. Okay, maybe that's not your choice of digression, but I've seen exactly that so many times I gave it a name, the "Waitress Digression." That's when the waitress comes over and we're treated to a play-by-play –
"Hello, I'm Judy. I'll be your server today."
"Hello, Judy. I'll start out with a martini. And get the young lady a – what?"
"An iced tea."
"And bring some of that bread, will you? I'm starved."
You think I'm kidding? I've seen these trivial encounters go on for pages, the characters debating the merits of red sauce or white sauce, the waitress reciting the specials, the viewpoint character making judgments about the mayor based on his selections, the mayor flirting with the waitress, on and on.
Do we really need to know all that? Really? Why? If you say, "Well, it reveals the mayor's personality, how charming he is," I have to ask, if that isn't revealed by the actual action of the plot, the actual meaningful interactions of the characters, why not? Don't relegate important character development to nothing-events. After all, we readers, who have probably been in restaurants before and ordered lunch too, are likely to skim that passage, and miss the mayor's charm, and then what will you do?
Now it's possible that this passage has something of plot importance, in which case, okay, keep it, but trim it, or at least make it interesting enough that we don't skim. For example, let's say the mayor questions the waitress closely about whether there are walnuts on the salad, and makes her go back to the kitchen to make sure. And he says in an aside to the reporter, "I'm deathly allergic to tree-nuts." Well, if he's going to end up dead by walnut, then that passage isn't irrelevant. (I must warn you, most readers are going to read that and say, "Aha! He's going to eat a walnut later and die!" Most readers are too savvy.)
One Psychological Device:
One Psychological Device:
Imagine that you have to cut two pages out of every scene—and don't come crying to me. Theresa once had to cut 20,000 words out of a book of mine. (Okay, so I couldn't do it myself! But she was very gentle, and the book was MUCH better without all those amusing but purposeless digressions.) What would the reader skim? Start there. What doesn't add to the plot? Actually, it helps almost every book to give yourself the assignment: "Cut two words out of every paragraph. Cut three lines out of every page. Cut two pages out of every scene." If you can't figure out a way to cut out two words without destroying the paragraph, maybe you're already writing nice and tight… or maybe you should ask a friend to do it. Worked for me.
Anyway, if you force yourself to consider what is extraneous, you very likely will find the extraneous stuff. Let me give you an analogy. I'm out of town on a business trip, and I knew I'd be driving. So I knew that I had lots of room, and I packed accordingly. I put in 5 pair of shoes, because who knows, maybe I'll need rain boots, right? But last month, I was contemplating dragging two suitcases all over London, and what do you know, I managed to get everything into one suitcase. Why? Because I had to. See what you can leave out if you have to.
(I actually have a separate file called "cuts.wpd" for each project, and when I cut something, I put it in that file, so it's not really gone forever, and I know I can restore it if I have to... yes, it helps. I can be ruthless when I'm not sure it's permanent. :)
(Later... the painful suggestion that many will hate me for, and what the heck, many already do hate me for just that....)
I try to leave out the parts that people skip.