Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Trim the Fat

And so it’s done, 450 pages of the best writing you are capable of at the moment. You’ve chased down every loose thread, expunged all the adverbs and adjectives possible, vetted every line of dialogue for authenticity and relevance. Then you went through and made sure every character tag wasn’t trite, every passive sentence was active, and junked passages that didn’t move the story forward. And then you did it some more, until the goose has been roasted to perfection.

You send it out to your agent or editor, certain socks will be blown off clear to Topeka, you sleep good that night, secure. Two weeks later, a letter arrives. “Cut 12,000 words,” it says.

WTF? you think. You’ve already cut as much of the story as humanly possible. It’s been parboiled within an inch of its life. Goof with it any further, and the whole thing will fall apart.

Nah. Take some Advil with a Cuervo chaser and pull up a chair, mon amie. Perhaps my experience will be instructive.

I’ve been blessed with an agent who had once been an editor at a major publishing house. That’s why I like her. She points out what needs to be pointed out. Without fail, she put the big red pen around the passages of introspection. “Cut here,” she said. “You’ve already revealed this in dialogue or action. No need to have your characters think it, too.”

She was so right. As a reader, I routinely skip long-winded passages that meander in the character’s minds. As a writer, I love ’em. Every rhetorical urp from my character enthralls me. But here’s the thing. No one else cares. The reader wants to get the story from the action and dialogue, and will tolerate introspection in small doses.

Granted, a handful of writers have the talent for writing entire books of introspection. That’s why Alice Hoffman has her place in our Must Reads. But for the most part, introspection is the psychological equivalent of description. It reads slow. It bogs up the action. Chances are, you’ve already said what your characters are thinking somewhere else, or perhaps you should have made the passage dialogue in the first place.

Take a look at your current wip. Any chunks of fat that can go?


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