Saturday, May 9, 2009

cutting remarks

cutting--an activity writers fear from literary agents and editors; a process in which writers are asked to pare words, sentences, even scenes from their mss; removal of detail that does not contribute directly to the overall effect of a story.

The writer begins work on a story in one of two ways, with a detailed outline or with a concept that has been stewing for some while to the point where the characters have names and vague shapes, agendas, and attitudes. In either approach, this is the fiction writer's equivalent of a nonfiction writer doing research. The first intent is to get everything down. What pleasure to writers of a particular age to see photographs of a first draft by such a gifted storyteller as Colm Toibin, done in ink in a bound composition book. What a sense of intimacy to see the spidery handwriting of Rachel Maddux for the spine of her magnum opus, The Green Kingdom. Nevertheless. What a pleasure to see the direct-to-computer-screen mss of Leonard Tourney's mysteries set in the times of Elizabeth I and, later, of James the VI of Scotland as he became James I of England. In some form or another, the writer must get the material down in some manageable format, then begin the process of revision (one result of which is that the work may not begin where the writer imagined nor end where the writer supposed it would).

Into this calculus comes variously the literary equivalent of moving furniture, expansion of some innocent aside remarks, combining of two characters into one, and reformatting exchanges of dialogue into narrative. Perhaps none of these is enough, singularly or in aggregate. Now comes surgery. Cutting. Removal of repetitions, of the obvious, of the overly descriptive.

It is the nature of some writers to resent any suggestions for cutting, even when these suggestions are made by the writer's literary agent, who sees the pared manuscript as a better candidate for publication, even when these suggestions are made by an editor who agrees to issue a contract if the suggested surgery is made.

Then there are writers such as Tobias Wolff who believe in removing from the early drafts of the manuscript any details that would prevent most enlightened readers from making decisions on their own, without authorial nudge.

When is enough? Better still, when is too much? It is no comfort to answer that both questions will obtain with each new work. There is no formula, no rule. Some literary flare-ups, as persistent as fires in Southern California, leave the public with implications that a particular writer might not have been published in the first place if a particular editor had not weilded the scalpel in the second place.

One reasonable approach to the matter of how much to cut from early drafts and where to do the cutting: Trust the characters. Do not describe what a key character already knows unless it is to show how he or she is presented with new information that warrants change now, in the immediate present.

Another reasonable approach: Don't tell the reader what the reader already knows, either from inference, direct experience, or information from other characters. Thus if Bill and Roger both report to Fred that Phil is not reliable in repaying his loans and yet Fred loans Phil money, readers are going to make a number of assumptions--whether the author gets in on the discussion or not.

MTIWTK--more than I wanted to know--is the reader's complaint. Readers who complain too often and too loudly about such matters might resort to putting the book down, then forgetting about it. Or, as Dorothy Parker once wrote in a book review, "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown across the room with great force."

Get it all down in early drafts, then begin to regard it as a child ready to go out into the world on its own, without thinking of it as a thesis to be argued and defended but rather on the merits of its characters, its revelations of the human condition, and the confrontations it must face.


Querulous Squirrel said...

And then there is the story one wrote two years ago that never felt quite right that just needed a little editing that you take out two years later that is suddenly wooden and plodding and the characters are crying out "free us from this prison" and a total rewrite is required, not a moving of the furniture but a purchasing of a new plot of land and a rebuilding of a new house from scratch. This takes courage and facing reality and resisting the impulse to dump the entire effort in the trash.

Anonymous said...

The physical act of taking scissors to my novel has made the idea of editing much easier.

Whether it has made the novel any better is an open question.