Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nip/Tuck Your Novel

For years, I've passed along to my students one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever heard. I wrote it down at a writer's conference I attended long ago, and sadly, have no idea which editor or writer said it, and so, I can't give proper credit. But, here it is:

A word or sentence must EARN the right to live.

I love the wording of that. A sentence or word must work hard, must prove itself on the page - must prove that it works, that it fits - before it earns its right to be there.

I'm in the editing process right now, and I have something to add to that great bit of wisdom. It's more of a reminder to myself, that this is a priority:

A storyline, character, or scene must EARN the right to live.

When nip/tucking your novel with a sharp, careful eye, I think it's important to ask yourself constantly - "Does this character/scene have a reason to be there?" In fact, sometimes I go so far as to pretend I've cut it, then ask myself, "Did that cutting change, affect, or hurt the overall story?" If the answer is "No," then it should probably be cut out.

Now, of course, it's never that simple. There are sometimes-delicate or complex plots where certain extraneous parts should be eliminated, and certain crucial parts must stay. And difficult choices must be made. That's where things can get sticky or stressful.

In the end, I try to use my gut. To do what's best, overall, for the book. Not what's best for me, the writer (sure, it's difficult sometimes, wiping out whole scenes that I'd worked very hard on, or changing plotlines in order to serve a better story purpose). But my goal, my end game, should be to build a better, stronger book.


  1. I recently decided to mash two of my novels into one. That means deleting over 100,000 words. I've cut two secondary characters and about 70,000 words, but it's gotten to the painful stage of deciding, do I *really* need this scene? I find it much easier to cut words and sentences.

  2. Wow, Deb - that's a challenge on a big scale! And a great example of nip/tucking! You've got the right attitude, for sure, and I admire your courage to dive in and do what needs to be done. For me, that's the hardest part - changing my attitude and realizing how MUCH work needs to be done in the editing process. Best of luck with your "new" novel!!

  3. Actually, I love that part. I tend to overwrite in my first draft and the FUN comes in whittling everything down. ('Course, it also SUCKS to whittle stuff down, because then you have to THINK about how to join things now that you've, say, wiped out a narrative bridge, but then all sorts of new ideas come up, and it's back to the races!) Great post!

  4. Thanks, Zoe! I like to read about how others approach editing. I like your attitude about it - seeing the positives that can come from digging in to the process. I guess for me, it feels technical, like a puzzle (in my case right now, I'm shifting lots of things around - moving flashbacks from p. 100 earlier, to p. 23, and so on). I've never had any patience with puzzles, lol, so it's a bit tedious for me. And, as you said, it sucks to take OUT things you spent so much time creating.

    But - there is a part of me that sees the fun in it, in just watching, before my eyes, the book become a better book. In the end, editing is necessary, so I'd better just get used to it. lol

  5. Yup. This is very true and something I constantly have to remind myself to do, unfortunately. I put something in there and grow attached to it...but it really has no purpose. I've always been a rambler.

  6. Very perceptive. I once wrote a 900-word author interview for a kid's magazine. An editor asked if I'd cut it down to 300 words and re-submit. Although I disliked deleting parts, it was accepted at 300 and published.