Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Writer Edits: Why We Must Cut

I recently decided to cut a narrator from my manuscript. That meant eliminating several chapters – in total, about 20,000 words.

One of my writer friends was worried. Won’t that take an awfully long time, he asked. Won’t it be painful?

As it turned out, it was neither, which has a lot to do with why we so often write more than we should in the first place. In a recent post titled “Editing Down to the Truth, ” Cinthia Ritchie, author of Dolls Behaving Badly, points out that although we write to be seen, there are parts of us that prefer to be hidden. “Maybe it's like therapy,” she says. “We talk on and on, we circle around meaning, fortify ourselves with pauses until we feel safe enough to see the truth.”

Cinthia’s post struck a chord with the writers who read it. “I woke up this morning with the realization that I need to cut at least half of the scene I wrote yesterday,” said Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child, wrote in a comment. “But sometimes I think the stuff I write and then cut is just as important in helping me tell the story, but in ways that maybe no one will ever know but me.”

We write our way toward the truth. It’s not an efficient process – not for me, anyhow. In the case of my novel, one of the characters demanded a voice. She had to speak so I’d understand her; if she hadn’t, I’d have judged her wrongly. But once she’d had her say, I knew her – well enough to let go of her voice.

Attachment for its own sake is deadly. To cut, we have to trust our readers – and ourselves. Those 20,000 words did their work, pointing me to the truth. They earned their retirement. Sure, there were some great scenes, some nicely turned phrases. But the book is lighter and freer and more true without them.