Monday, August 15, 2011

Cutting: A Writer's Process

The story’s too long. You’ve decided this, your teacher’s decided this, your editor’s decided this, the margin’s decided this. For whatever reason, it can’t stay at the length it is now. Now you must take the scissors to it.

The question begins, where to start?

"YOU CAN..."

How to cut a work is determined by the desired effect. If it is, in fact, “too long,” being that the regulations of a contest demand a smaller number of words, or the margins of the newspaper column won’t fit, or the novel is so damn huge a publisher won’t touch it, then the easiest first step is to just

Cut the Excess Words.

Very simply, make the sentences all as short as possible. Remove any word that doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase.

For example, take my sentence above:

Make sentences as short as possible. Remove unnecessary words.

By just cutting most of the “slack” and changing one expression, I brought my word count down from 21 to 9.

This makes it smaller without needing to cut parts of the story. Often, the work can be made into 1/3 the size without changing its contents at all. If deleting moments was a painful thought, now it isn't a problem.

A lot of advice says to do this anyway—whenever an author’s writing anything. I disagree. If everyone cut to the bare minimum without a deliberate purpose in mind, writing styles would grow homogenized. I saw only cut excess words when trying to fix a problem. Often the writer put them there for a reason: My first sentence sounds different than the second. The shorter version reads more sharply, and on the edge of a little more hostility. Changing the tiny details can alter the entire intention.

There are many reasons that shorter sentences can be better than long but the main reason for the absolute fixation is this: The past generation wrote longer. It’s a pendulum thing. When most people are trying to be poetic and long winded, then succinct is preferred. When they’re sweet and to the point, alliteration is preferred. We’re all about variation. Writing advice is all hypothetical. They assume you have the problem the majority has, and makes rules accordingly.

There are several situations in which considering cutting out excess words can better a work:

1. If the sentence is confusing.
2. If he needs a smaller word count.
3. If he’s trying to instill hostility, faster pacing, or a more tense moment.
4. If the description is boring.

Essentially, it is a great tool for fixing certain issues. It is not something to base a style around. Especially considering how much sentence length affects mood.

"OR YOU CAN..."

If the length of the work is affected by pacing or story, and not the literal length, consider Stephan King’s definition of a second draft: The first draft minus 10%.

Deleting the “Musings”

Stephan King has the slowest pacing of today’s great writers. Not much actual action happens in a lot of his books. Yet, he manages to draw the audience in throughout long durations of action dry spells. How does he do this? You tell me, because I have no flippin' clue.

But from his declaration that all second drafts should be shorter, I recognized the connection between my own belief that a good portion of the first draft (probably about 10%) is what I call “stalling.”

Often times, the writer isn’t positive of every aspect. A good amount of the story is him figuring out what’s going to happen next, or playing around. He knows that Johnny has to get from the village to the Mountain of the Apes, but doesn’t know what should happen as he’s traveling. Or he realizes that this is the point Lucy wants to admit her feelings, but isn’t sure how to bring it out in conversation. He turns to the Stream of Consciousness.

For those of you who don’t know, Stream of Conscious writing is, basically, where the author just writes. He doesn't think about it. He allows his subconscious to lead the plot. He doesn’t plan, he doesn’t self-edit, he just does.

The Stream of Consciousness, however, tends to ramble. It explores and finds itself, going all over the place before it figures out the direction it wants to go in. It’s a fantastic way of finding “the point.”

When deleting for content, looking for the moments in which the author started to ramble is the best way to cut parts that aren’t actually story oriented. Understanding that there are three descriptions as to “how the Magic Medallion works” makes the author realize he felt he wasn’t clear the first two times. He kept describing it until he was satisfied the audience got it. So, he now cuts the first two parts.

Deleting the author’s muses, or his explorations, rid the story of the parts that don’t move the plot forward. Looking for these moments of “stalling” is a good way to give a fresh look at the situation when the author is having problems understanding his own point.

"OR YOU CAN..."

Last but not least is the hardest but easiest method:

Want to Delete It

The technique is simple. Read through the story many, many times. Do lots and lots of edits. Eventually, the editor will get to a part in which he says, “Oh my God, I have to read that again?”

By that point, he’ll want to delete it. Then he won’t have to read it again. "I don't need to edit something that's not in the story." If he possibly can remove it, then he will. If there is important information in there, he’ll recognize that and labor through it, or maybe try to change it so it doesn’t bore him so.

This is the easiest way to find the appropriate parts to delete, but it takes the most effort, because it demands more time and actually doing the work of reading the crap.

"UNFORTUNATELY..."

In the end, the hardest part of cutting is the mentality that “I did all that work for nothing.” Feeling as though the author wasted his time writing all of those pages and then, they’re just gone, demoralizes him some.

Some of the ways that a writer can prevent feeling dejected when erasing what took him so long to write can be 1) Keeping it—Adding the cuts to another file makes the author feel it’s still there, he can always get it back. 2) Still rewarding himself for writing it—Still counting the pages deleted as effort included. “It may be a 300 page story now, but I still wrote 500.” 3) Understanding that often portions of “unnecessary” scenes is just the same as brainstorming, and led the story along. Or 4) Choosing not to be attached. Decision is one of the most powerful tools we have, and the simple act of admitting that you want to cut it down can take out a lot of the heartbreak.