Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What to leave out

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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."

Etc., etc.

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:

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.
Elmore Leonard



Dara Edmondson said...

That's a good way to look at it. I think as authors, we tend to enjoy our characters' company. Since we want to know everything about them, we assume everyone will be. Of course, that's not the case!

Edittorrent said...

I tend to be self-indulgent when I write... I just love my people! It's like my child. I was one of those moms (still am, I bet) who would regale you with the cute thing my son said just because it was cute--

Well, heck, I'm going to do that. :)

When my older boy was 4, he was playing with his friend Sam, and suddenly Sam asked, who knows why, "Is God bigger than the universe?"

And my son said, "No, but he's taller."

For some reason, I've always thought the key to understanding religion and spirituality was there in his comment somewhere. :)

EB said...

In general I'd agree with you.

(But explain to me why James Frey's most recent invention features digressions on the development of the California highway system. Shall we all invent stories of drug addiction and rehab. But I digress)

I think Leonard's writing advice is spot on: some of these "waitress scenes" can certainly be interesting and useful for character development provided the writing isn't skimmable.

I tend to build up as I write. Very, very bare bones at first, mostly constructed around dialogue. And I dispense with all thse hihowaya's and drill down to the conflict and character development. Then I allow myself a bit of description, just enough to give a flavor. If my eyes...or those of my readers...glaze past things, I tend to slash. The skim test is a good one.

Edittorrent said...

It was a lovely book before I pushed it through the sieve. Beautifully written. Never doubt that.

I do think it can be hard for a writer to do that kind of editing triage on their own book, though. Editing needs objectivity.


Dave Shaw said...

Is anyone else here old enough to remember John Belushi's Samurai skits on Saturday Night Live? I'm picturing 'Samurai book editor' now... ;-)

Natalie Hatch said...

Oh Alicia, I've been looking for had and was (by the way was came in at 1322 times in my 82,000 word story) had 'was' a little less (I crack myself up). Now I'm going to have to go get a sieve... slave drivers! Sucks in breath, starts to slash novel, two words per paragraph, two pages per scene... what about my digression into the transgenderisation of clown fish and how they can switch back and forth between sexes, male one minute, female the next..... that's gotta go too? sugar honey iced tea.

Bernita said...

My problem is not flensing but fattening.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Bernita.

Pruning a lush tree sounds like a luxury. I spend almost all of my time throwing water and fertilizer at an anemic stick, hoping to coax another leaf or two.

My readers are always begging me to slow down and describe the settings, the characters' clothing, and the meals.

My mystery WIP is so lean, there's hardly a character who isn't a sleuth, a killer, or a victim.

Anonymous said...

I've revised my book eight times using the "cut two words from every sentence" approach, and I've gotten it down from 68,000 words to just nine pages.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Bernina and Adrian. We're sitting on a 55k word mystery right now and I'm still feeling guilty about leaving in the anaemic subplot about the detective and his 'family' scenes. But what's a girl to do?

We had a discussion about trying to force in another subplot but decided against it. Is a 220 page debut novel acceptable?

Edittorrent said...

jwhit, maybe just make it not anemic? Make the subplot a bit more meaty? Think about how it affects his detecting. Like, you know, if a suspect was sort of a lot like my brother, I might not be completely clear-thinking about him. That is, how does his family subplot support the main plot of the mystery detection? How does his feelings for or interaction with the family cause conflict that affects his ability to solve the case?

Natalie, I think I could probably cut 20 pages out of my books by taking out the word "then"-- I swear, I use that or "just" in every paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Anon. You've just written a short story.

Natalie Hatch said...

I found at first it was the word 'probably' so using Nick Sparks idea I went through and culled extensively whilst my maniac laugh haunted the darkened room (or I just searched with Word, whichever sounds better). I can understand now how he cut an 85,000 word story down to 45,000 words. But there are parts of my story I really love and don't want to touch.... it's like circumcising your child....

Carole McDonnell said...

Thank you sooo much for this article. Everything you've written is so true. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen beginning writer novels where there is all this irrelevant small talk. I think sometimes writers have to learn to discern between what is relevant and what isn't. And you gave such practical advice on how to cut out those unwanted words. I'm gonna send this url to several crit groups I'm in. Thanks. -C

Wes said...

Very interesting......and useful. I've hated to cut scenes or sentences from my historical fiction, because those parts generally deal with the flavor of the times. But I've found a test. Does it slow down the story or take the reader out of story? If it does, it gets cut.

Edittorrent said...

And Wes, the historical fiction we all grew up on was not as tight and taut as it is today. One of the aspects I think a lot of us miss about the old historical novels was those digressions ... they really added to the story, if not to the plot. Sigh. Oh, well, it's a new world.

Whirlochre said...

If the worst comes to the worst, there's always haikus.

Just got The Power Of POV, btw — very useful.

Genella deGrey said...

OMgosh, DAVE! 'Samurai book editor' I LOVE IT! Great visual! :D

I usually* have three documents open when I write.

1) the notes
2) the outline (unless I'm pantsing*)
3) the story

When I feel the need to cut something from my story, I put it at the end of the notes document under the heading "Not Used." Sort of Alicia’s 'not really gone forever' scenario.