Here’s a copy of one paragraph from the edited manuscript for Before You Go (Spring, 2012), my first young adult novel — a book that just so happens to contain many, many paragraphs. I selected this one because it displays a heavier editorial hand than Liz usually employs. There are many pages that she’s left untouched, since her focus tends to be structural, more macro than micro, more about, say, the arc of a character than the stylistic tendencies of the author. But in this paragraph, something is tripping her up.
Now as the writer, it’s for me decide how to deal with those suggested cuts. Right now, at this moment, I don’t have to decide — and haven’t. I appreciate cutting, eliminating, paring down. I get that part of it. But at the same time, you have to be conscious of what you might lose along the way. You have to ask:
* What am I saying?
* What am I trying to say?
* And is it worth saying after all?
That’s the end point, isn’t it. Do we need this? Does it serve the story? So a lot goes into the trash. I do agree with Liz, fully, in dumping those last two sentences. I added them somewhere along the line and even as I wrote them I had my doubts. But early on I think it’s better to have too much than too little; it’s easier to ditch it down the line. I especially believe that’s true for humor, jokes. I’ll try to be funny somewhere, throw in a few lines without really knowing if it’s working or not. Later on, it’s pretty easy to take out the humor that falls flat. When you are early in the writing, though, it just not the time to question. You are slopping paint on the canvas, not stepping back to gaze upon it with furrowed brow.
For the other edits, I believe I’ll try to address the idea without necessarily sticking with the specific suggestions. There’s a thought in there that perhaps I didn’t convey well, so it might be a matter of taking another shot at it. Or two, or three. We’ll see.
There’s a short piece written by Stephen King floating around cyberspace, titled “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: In Ten Minutes.”
It’s quick and pithy and contains no fluff. I’ve come to respect King more and more over the years, and as an aside, I recommend his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I admire King’s clear, direct, plain spoken, lunchpail approach to WORK. He doesn’t turn the business of writing into Fruit Loops & the mists of Avalon.
In the essay, King enumerates 12 basic guidelines. For number 4, he advises: “Remove every extraneous word.”
You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.
Of course, he’s absolutely right. But at the same time, it’s easy to say, harder to do. I find that it’s an honest struggle to separate what’s extraneous, and what’s poorly stated, from what’s important. I suspect the paragraph above will give me all sorts of trouble before I’m done. What am I trying to express about Jude’s father? And about Jude’s perception of his father? Is it that he runs, or that he runs to escape from something, or that somehow all that running has never offered him the solace he sought?
What happens if I honor the edits, delete as suggested, but insert something between “it all, yet always.” Such as, top of my head:
He ran to get away from it all, yet despite all the hours spent and miles logged, he always returned to the same place; the road never rose to lift him to some new, shimmering elsewhere.
Oh dear Lord. You can lose half a day this way. Which is why they say that novels are never finished, they are abandoned.
And finally . . .
Here’s a quick recap of King’s 12 guidelines:
1. Be talented
2. Be neat
3. Be self-critical
4. Remove every extraneous word
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
6. Know the markets
7. Write to entertain
8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”
9. How to evaluate criticism
10. Observe all rules for proper submission
11. An agent? Forget it. For now
12. If it’s bad, kill it