(I’ve been fighting with my own rewrite lately. I have too many scenes of people driving or sitting around and thinking. So I’ve been thinking about the subject. Lee here has some good advice, advice I can use on my own work, so here it is for you too!
PS: Lee’s new book, Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children is coming out soon. Isn’t that a great title? And isn’t that a great cover? Delirium Books is doing some beautiful dark stuff!)
My big lesson on editing came not too long ago when Delirium Books accepted my novel IRON BUTTERFLIES RUST (August 2011). I had to cut a 1/3 of the story out to hit the top of the novella line. Yikes! I didn’t know how I could do it. I write pretty lean, and it’d already been through the hands of my two buddies (Shaun Ryan and Kevin Wallis) who read all of my work. I’m up for a challenge though and the worst I could do was fail. I took a few deep breaths. I did a jumping jack or two. I figured the best ways I might attack the challenge. (I’ll use some examples from Iron Butterflies Rust):
***A chapter outline (this after the book was finished and polished). The goal was to figure out the “True Essence” of each scene and find ways to condense or cut. I ended up finding four scenes (about 15,000 words) that I loved but could be cut down to about 10 pages (about 3,000 words for me.)***
***I had to find ways to introduce backstory and not make it lame, where it could be poetic, have zing, emotion and movement to it. I didn’t want any of it to be static. So I went through the manuscript looking for ways to cut backstory down to “Defining Moments” because I think they slice to the heart of every character. An example of the revised backstory, on what’s shaped Jennifer Gibson’s view of men, and how Frank Gunn has disrupted what she’s come to believe as something universal:
Frank closed his eyes and stroked her hair, remembering her tearing a comic book to bits like some frustrated teenager, amazed at the waves people rode when they felt overwhelmed and powerless, and how easily they let themselves walk straight into the devil’s mouth. He shivered. She whispered, her breath hot across his chest, “When I was a little girl, all of the boys watched me grow up. It made me sick to see their stares change as I got older, and how the light flickered inside them. Even my own dad backed away and would get close and back away again because he didn’t trust himself. I thought all men were the same because when I was 14, Bobby Decker held me down out by the railroad tracks and ripped my clothes off. He had an old knife. I wanted to fight back and stop him…” She sighed. “But he was too strong, and it was dangerous. And all the men after him have treated me like he did, only they didn’t have the same knife, they used words and money, promises and everything else, but they only wanted me to get off on. I don’t think one of them ever cared to know me. Not one.” Her tears wet his chest and he tightened his arm around her. She said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t seem disgusted or reptilian now that it’s over. I don’t get it.”
***To combine movement and description. They don’t have to be separate, and actually take up more space if they each have their own paragraphs. Here’s an example of connecting them:
The front door squeaked and Frank glanced that way, expecting to see Tanya’s mother, but James walked toward him, hands stuffed in his pants pockets, brow scrunched and eyes red-rimmed like he’d already written off the woman they both loved as dead. James’s mouth worked as he closed the distance, as if he were praying and unable to stop, even if the entire world thought he was crazy. Frank started toward him. He felt rain pelt his skin though the sky burned royal blue and the clouds were thin and a million miles off. Tanya’s dad stayed rooted in his place. He looked at the road.
***Description and scene setting are nice. But you’re killing the reader’s participation if you’re going into too much detail. Here’s a quick example of getting the point across without slowing the story down:
They pulled into Ruby Tuesdays on Hall Road, ready to meet James’ contact from the prison. Inside, James approached the booth that Frank had sat in the day before with Jennifer. A sense of loss, of loneliness and longing clambered through Frank. They sat, the clatter of plates spilling through a swinging door in the back, a few chatty business men laughing obnoxiously at the bar in the center of the room, a helpless looking twenty-year-old bored out of her mind, listening to the suits, while she chewed on her fingernail.
***Telling isn’t ‘bad.’ If you have five pages of characters sitting around or driving somewhere, doing nothing that serves the plot, you’ve just wasted a lot of your reader’s time because you love the sound of your voice. Look for places where this is happening. Highlight suspect passages on a read-through. Then you can tell (in a paragraph or two) what you had used multiple pages to ‘show.’ Showing works, but only when it’s engaging. Example of telling something that I had shown (and really wasted pages on) before:
After they’d searched him and taken his pistol, they’d made him sit on the ground as a uniform took his statement. He knew that Whittle was trained to ask questions that had already been answered, it part of his nature to drill away until he heard someone’s story change and then subtly go for the throat, make a man eat his words like the dirt he’d started burying himself in because sometimes people dug graves inside themselves.
Yeah, that’s what worked for me. 1. Outlining after the book was finished to see what was truly essential to the story; 2. Finding ways to make backstory emotional and active; 3. Combining movement and description; 4. Combining brisk details in scene setting so my characters can get to the story; 5. ‘Telling’ to dramatically shorten what really didn’t need shown to begin with.
Not only did these changes improve pacing, they also improved clarity—making the story more vivid in the reader’s mind and demanding a bit of them, too, which is good.
Thanks for reading! And thanks, Cindie, for having me!