Friday, May 21, 2010

GUEST POST: The Cutting Table

Ali Cross is an award-winning author of YA and MG sci fi and fantasy. She likes to say that her stories transcend the ordinary because the heart of them are based in reality yet they take you places you’ve never been before. A Canadian maritimer, Ali now lives in arid Utah with her husband and their twin boys. You can find Ali at her blog (alicross.blogspot.com) on Facebook (facebook.com/happygrrl) or on Twitter (twitter.com/ali_cross).

Shortly before I’d finished my first novel, and before I ever dared call myself a writer, I took a local continuing education class on fiction writing. One night we had a guest speaker, Ken Rand (1946-2009), who spoke to us about self-editing, particularly cutting the fat.

So before I’d even acknowledged that my precious collection of words-turned-full-length novel might not actually be perfect, I’d already learned the value of going after your precious words with a hatchet. Cutting is not a pleasant experience. No matter how Lizzie Borden you are, no one likes to remove the words they slaved over laying down. And yet, cut we must.

Recently, a friend asked me to have a look at her manuscript to see what could possibly be deleted as she needed to eliminate about 20% of her words in order to fit more comfortably into her genre. She’d already been through the book and felt she’d cut everything she could.

And that’s where I came in.

Here’s her first two paragraphs, before I pared them down:

“You’ve come a long way, Mouse,” Kira said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. It was sarcasm, of course. It had been six months to the day since her mother left town with her boyfriend, leaving Kira with an empty apartment, no job and nowhere to turn. Her last words were the definition of the nickname she’d had for most of her life. Mouse wasn’t the loving term of endearment she grown up hearing, but referred to Kira’s weakness and the fact that she was always under foot. She’d been crushed by the revelation. And the nickname no longer held any kind of sentiment, but mocked her way of life.

Instead of proving her mother wrong by being strong and independent with visions of success in the real world, she’d become exactly what she swore she’d never be. From her mousy red hair to her worn-out sneakers, she was her mother’s daughter. Kira had turned inward, rarely venturing outside the tiny one-bedroom farmhouse except for school and the necessities. If it hadn’t been for her friend Lydia helping her with a job and a place to live, Kira would be on the streets. (194 words)

And here’s the slimmer version:

“You’ve come a long way, Mouse,” Kira said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. It was sarcasm, of course. It had been six months to the day since her mom left town with her latest boy-toy, leaving Kira with an empty apartment, no job and nowhere to turn.

Kira used to think mouse was a term of endearment—until she’d overheard her mom talking to the boyfriend about her runt-of-a-daughter who was always underfoot. She’d wanted to prove her mother wrong by being strong and independent, but instead she’d become exactly what she swore she’d never be. From her mousy red hair to her worn-out sneakers, she was her mother’s daughter. (112 words)

**

In the end, the decision of what to keep and what to actually cut is up to the author, but sometimes you just can’t see which of your own words you can part with. But once you practice cutting, it gets remarkably fun and easy—like a game to see how many words you can cut this page/editing session.

We all love our words, that’s why we put them there. But sometimes our words can get in the way of the story. Think of what a gift you’ll be giving your readers (and the ultimate success of your book) if you can strip away all the extraneous stuff to reveal the story within.

10 comments:

Margo Berendsen said...

A great example, though "mousy red hair" sounds contradictory!

I just discovered that it can actually be kind of fun to cut! I took my first page and started editing it make it more active (remove passive wording), which then forced me to restructure it, which ultimately brought it down from 249 words to 211 words. Me thinks I could get it down even more.

Iapetus999 said...

No! My precious wordses! Precioussss worddddssses!

Bane of Anubis said...

I'm a big-time cutter, perhaps even too much (at least according to agent feedback I've received), so I'm actually trying to work at fattening things up without clogging the arteries.

Valerie Ipson said...

Great post, Ali! I liked your example!! Do you charge for editing? Nice job!

L. T. Host said...

Thanks for posting for us Ali! Great post, and very true-- I actually don't mind cutting all that much; my problem is ADDING words. I know, right?

My first drafts tend to come in at about 55-65K and I have to add 20K or more sometimes to smooth out the story and get it into the ideal genre zone (I write for adults).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Cutting is fun, mostly because it looks so pretty all trimmed up.

And you're a MG and YA SF writer?? Yay! I'm hopping over to your blog now. :)

Angie said...

Great post, Ali. I actually like cutting the excess, but I have to get a little distance from the manuscript first. It also helps to have someone who is brilliant to show you were to cut. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Great post. Sometimes cutting is the hardest -- and best -- thing for our stories.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, I got a sick little chuckle about the Lizzie Borden reference.

I'm twisted- I'd rather be revising and cutting fat than writing the first draft. They're the most painful part of the writing process for me.

ali said...

Thanks for having me Alliterati folk!

And thanks to all of you for the great comments. I really cutting too ;) *whack*whack* (that's me chopping away) ♥