One of the lines commonly heard at writing seminars, critique groups and workshops is “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.” Often that is met by a collective, “What? I could never do that.” Babies refers not to cuddly little munchkins, but the parts of your manuscript that you love. The words that will make you immortal.
Okay, maybe that’s taking it a little too far, but most published authors know at some time they had to cut at least one thing they loved. The possibility always exists that it might fit in a different story, book or article, but it definitely didn’t belong where it was.
I , too, dug my heels in when it came to cutting prose that made my heart sing. That is until l I attended a workshop called “The Machete Edit.” I listened in shock as the presenter prompted avid listeners to do just what none of us wanted to do.Tighten the vise. Swing the red pencil like a machete.
Unfortunately many authors and writers don’t realize what sound advice this is.
It’s critical to be merciless if it results in a stronger book or article. Cut out the deadwood. Tightly written pieces keep the reader turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next. You may love a particular passage, but will your readers? Even before the readers see it, assuming it does, indeed, make it into print, will the agent, publisher or editor you’re pitching think your writing is compelling? Even if beautifully written, phrasing that goes nowhere other than the opposite of where you want the reader to go, is cumbersome. That makes it a minus, not a plus, for your work.
I’d attended that workshop when my sister/co-author and I were still in the querying process for our award-winning comical crime caper, “A Corpse in the Soup.” We both thought we’d wrapped up the final edit and were satisfied that it was tight and read well. Being a good student, despite my certainty I wouldn’t find a thing wrong with it, I reread it one more time.
What a surprise! With what I’d learned about machete editing, all of a sudden superfluous passages jumped out at me, begging to be cut. I spent days going through it without telling my sister what I was doing. Normally we e-mailed manuscripts back and forth showing exactly what had changed by using highlights, strikeouts and text notes.
I tentatively suggested doing just one more edit, but Phyllice didn’t want to change one word.I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I sent a clean copy, not showing where one thing had been changed or cut, and ashed her to indulge me by reading it with an open mind.My thinking was if you don’t miss what was cut, it didn’t have to be there.
She e-mailed back saying, “You were right. This is so much better.” Together we refined it, in some cases cutting passages we really loved that diverted the reader. The result was the version that ultimately was published.
In addition to strengthening the book, services of a reputable editor—one who is well matched to your genre—can be like taking a one-on-one class. If for some reason you can’t use an editor, here here are some extremely valuable preliminary steps:
1. Allow what you think is your final version of the manuscript to get cold. Then reread it trying to maintain an unbiased eye. Make sure it has a clear beginning, middle and end with parts that form arcs to increase the reader’s involvement.
2. In long manuscripts there might be a few culprits. Ask yourself:
- Is this one book or more than one book?
- Are there excessive tangents that are entertaining but really have nothing to do with progressing the story from beginning to end?
3. Make sure you know what your story is about. Then determine whether you love the characters and think others will love them (or hate the villains.)
4. Most of all, do you have a book or story that is worth the time it will take to go through the manuscript another time or even multiple times to make it saleable?
If you answer yes, understand the importance being willing to check some of your favorite parts at the door. Tell yourself you’ll keep what works and be willing to abandon what doesn’t. Then try to read it like someone who has never seen this story before. Someone who knows nothing about the characters or events.
With that open mind when places that cry for tightening become immediately apparent, wield your red pencil like a machete. When you’ve finished this edit, it’s important to allow the manuscript get cold again. Reread once more. If it reads well this time, it’s probably ready for the query process or for submitting it to your publisher. If it still doesn’t read tight, you know what you have to do. Chop and tighten.
For more info: Morgan St. James and her appearances: www.morganstjames-author.com
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