Cut. It. Out.

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Last week I began a month-long discussion about description/exposition in fiction writing with a post of examples from the greats.

This week, I want to take a closer look at making each word count, cutting the fluff and the filler. The adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all” could easily apply to my editing strategy. If the words don’t improve or add to my story then they don’t need to be there.

Listen to Uncle Joey and Cut. It. Out.

For me, the extra words creep in as unnecessary adjectives and flowery language or direct exposition of the characters’ feelings. Reading it back to myself I feel like I am channeling my 14-year-old protagonist a little too closely when writing – she plays older than her age, thinks everyone either loves her or hates her, and, oh, the feels. There is too much wild emotion and it leads to wild writing.

No purpose, no plot, no book.

At the risk of completely embarrassing myself, I am going to share some of the lines that recently got hacked from my book.

 

Rosaline reached out and grasped the paper in his hand.

Um, in order to take something in your hand you must move your arm. No one is going to lift it, place an object in your hand and close your fingers for you. Delete!

 

Now seeing the last gift she had planned for Catalina gave her comfort; her loss was great because their love was great.

If the reader can’t tell how much Catalina means to Rosaline by the time she dies, than I need to do a lot more work on the beginning of this novel. This falls under the show don’t tell philosophy of writing. Delete!

 

“I know why you want to stay close to me,” Rosaline said, taking a step closer to him. She knew her head fit neatly below his chin. She could step three feet closer and lean against him and he would put his arm around her. “You like being close to me.”

Marco’s eyes glimmered and a faint smirk crossed his face before his low, rumbling laughter took over.

WTF. I love me some romance novels (see here, here and here) but, regardless of the fact that I changed the relationship between Rosaline and Marco, this is no YA love story. Ugh. Delete!

 

In an attempt to fill my head and my pages with better writing, I’ve started reading more about description. I am currently reading The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty. While the book uses poetry for examples, I’ve found the focus on how much can be inferred with only a few lines and well placed words to be illuminating. I’m going to keep up my secondary reading on description for the rest of the month as well. So if you have any books to recommend, let me know in the comments.

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Deadline extensions are the best

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Last month I discovered that a publishing house was accepting unagented submissions in June and tasked myself with preparing my first 50 pages for consideration. I worked on getting that ready (more on that process in a moment) but, of course, I wasn’t content with what I accomplished as the deadline loomed. But I promised myself that I wouldn’t chicken out and I would send in my work for review.

So you can imagine my relief when I learned that the deadline for submission is actually the end of June not the beginning. Yay! Additional days to smooth the scene transitions and rewrite clunky dialogue.

I’ve been reading more historical fiction with the idea that reading great examples of the genre in which I am writing will force me to up my game. And it is, but it is also showing me how much work I have yet to do.

My biggest fears in writing historical fiction are that I will be historically inaccurate or shallow and that the writing will be immature. I am 35 years old and, while there is great writing for every age group, my aim is to write a book for adults, not YA, not New Adult, but for actual, can’t-deny-it adults. To me that means the story is more than just the experience of the characters, it is the experience of that time and place and expresses an idea larger than the situation, which is no small feat to accomplish. Most of the time I’m not even sure that I’m up for it.

But I won’t know until I get the bloody thing done.

So with that in mind, I printed out the first 50 pages of my book and read them straight through with a pink pen in hand (much more friendly looking than red). By the end of my read, I had removed four pages of text, the equivalent of around 1,300 words.

And it felt good. Really good.

I learned a lot about my writing in this editing pass, but here are the five key things I took away from experience:

  1. I go too fast. It was like my story was on fast forward. I couldn’t wait to get to the next scene, the next plot twist, the next conversation. I need to give my characters time to take things in and build up the world they live in.
  2. My characters touch each other way. too. much. And not even in a sexual way but just like they have no personal space. I mean, I’m a hugger, but even I was thinking, “back up a little.”
  3. Pick a genre. Ugh, sometimes my writing has too much feels. #melodramaticmuch?
  4. I have more research to do. I read Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus and in the first three pages she presented a master class in historical fiction that really made me see how details can be implemented to help the plot along while grounding the book in its time period. Meanwhile, in my editing pass I actually wrote “kind of bullshit” beside a passage I crossed out
  5. I like my main character, Rosaline. I want to know what happens to her and I hope readers will too.

After I finished my slash and delete editing pass, I headed to the library to pick up a massive stack of books to help build up the work I have already done. The weeks remaining in June will be busy ones but I am glad to have them. There is so much more to come and that is exciting.

BJL

The first cut

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I’m editing my first 50 pages and needed a little perspective:

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?”  Steve Wright

Ah, better. Now back to editing.

 

For more quotations on editing, check out the blog Terribly Write.

Get on with it

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Sometimes you just want to feel like you are accomplishing something and moving forward with your goals. With that in mind, I have decided to submit my novel to a publishing house that is accepting unagented authors in the month of June. I’m going in with no expectations; I just want a real deadline and a purpose to my progress.

 

So the month of May will be all about cleaning up my first 50 pages. I’ve been a little terrified about rereading my own pages. The impulse to delete everything because it is not good enough will be difficult to suppress, but this is where the hard work of writing comes in. Deny the doubt and get on with it.

 

That means I will be editing and reworking 14,400 words – too much of it dialogue. Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve noticed that the fiction I admire generally has very little dialogue. While I can’t completely change my style, it is a little chatty, like me in real life, I can work on being more selective with what needs to be said or at least present the same information in a less direct way.

 

I will also have to answer questions that I’ve put off answering in order to avoid more research, such as the size of personal libraries in late 15th century Italy (FYI, Google and Wikipedia are no help).

 

And I will have to decide where to begin. I’ve already changed the beginning twice. I’m not sure if I’ll keep the beginning I have right now, which is an extended flashback (admittedly another crutch in my writing), or rework the back story to be revealed as part of Rosaline’s character development.

 

The first step will be printing those pages out, grabbing a green pen (it stands out and isn’t as angry looking as red ink) and marking up my work. There is a different feel to editing in hard copy. I can see more when I have all the pages out in front of me rather than scrolling page by page on a screen. Call it old school, but it works. That is this weekend’s homework. Then I’ll set about putting my story back together again.

 

Now that I’ve started talking about it, I’m feeling more and more excited. Be sure to check back throughout the week and keep me honest!

 

BJL