12.15.2020

What Was and What Is Now

When a manuscript grows into a sprawling behemoth, the place to begin cutting is often the beginning. Perhaps not the first chapter, which tends to be worked and reworked laboriously, despite the glaring problem that looms beyond (it’s way too long!). Past that, in the early going, a dispassionate eye will find plot ventures that are not absolutely necessary.

When you examine the book-making process, that can tell you a lot about what contributes to the story’s climax. An author deems where a likely starting point should be. A large portion of outline notes drawn up beforehand form the basis of the early going. Expanding them into the actual scenes takes a chunk of pages. That is augmented by the author’s explorations into what really makes the characters tick and how they interact. The characters’ interactions begin to form a pattern, and they bend the novel to suit their evolving personalities. All along the way the gleam in the eye about what you really wanted to write takes firmer shape. Months go by as you work out how the novel must proceed until page 500, 600, 700 appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

What has gone so horribly wrong? If you review only the second half of the novel, your conclusion may well be: not much. You did follow the directions that had become so clear by then. Plus, the scenes are genuinely exciting, taut, or compelling, and you’re not just fooling yourself. The banging around in a dark room may have taken awhile, but the door to your sunny future opened at last.

Now return to the first half. That’s where the path was not so certain. Given what you know about which characters and which plot lines turn out to be gold, how does this early material seem? Since this part of a novel often is filled with background stories, for instance, you might examine each one and ask: is its length commensurate with the importance of the character? Is a back story even needed at all? 

You might outline the sequencing of chapters. Do you find that a character who turned out to be minor has a lot of early scenes—because you thought they would be major when you started off? You should trim that section, shaving down those appearances and/or the length of the appearances. That’s not just for the sake of cutting. You also are streamlining your plot lines, so that readers are following the characters that will pay off later.

If you are given to writing dialogue, examine each one for relevance. Are the conversations aligned with the plot overall? Do you have minor (who were once thought major) characters having extended conversations? Maybe you cut a page of one of them and insert a two-sentence narrative summary of what is said. In other words, once you know the end game, you can edit accordingly.

“Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.”  ― Christopher Hitchens

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.