Wednesday, January 07, 2009

On Culling

I want to thank Teresa Reasor for sharing her quilling expertise with us yesterday. I'll admit to knowing nothing about the craft until I read her article. And thanks to everyone who stopped by and left a comment to make her feel welcome.

Some happy news on the writing front. When Danger Calls is one of 5 books Jay Boyar reviewed in the January issue of Orlando Magazine. Of course, my local bookstore doesn't have the issue in stock yet--so much for a special trip out there yesterday. But you can read the article here.

Today's topic: Culling.

Robert Crais said the best words of advice he ever got were, "Your words are not precious." So when my agent said editors are now looking for manuscripts in the 90-100,000 word range, and my manuscript hit "the end" at 115,000 words, I thought of Mr. Crais and did some serious culling.

Here are a few other quotes to that effect:

Write as much as you can and then rewrite. Simple and plain is more powerful. Avoid intensifiers. I skirt adjectives and adverbs, and aim to keep the descriptions brief, pithy and revealing. I often go back and kill the best sentences in anything I have written.
~Richard Conniff
The Writer, May 2008

Words need to be crafted, not sprayed. They need to be fitted together with infinite care.
~Norman Cousins

Like stones, words are laborious and unforgiving, and the fitting of them together, like the fitting of stones, demands great patience and strength of purpose and particular skill.
~Edmund Morrison

Now, some of the culling was easy. Forgetting the storyline, I could simply look at a paragraph and see where I'd stuck in extra words that really didn't need to be there. LIke really in the previous sentence. Really is one of my crutch words. It flies off the fingertips like the written equivalent of throat-clearing. So are just, very, well, and, I discovered, moment.) But I didn't have 13,000 of them.

Another technique was to read paragraphs out of context, ignoring how they fit the story, but just (another of those crutch words!) look at the words themselves. If it's dialog, are they all needed. Although people ramble in real-life speech, in writing, one doesn't want to transcribe a real-life conversation. Also, one has to consider who's speaking, and what the situation is. Guys don't use as many words as women. In a tense situation, they'll be more laconic. And if they're talking to people they're familiar with, they probably use personal shorthand. For example, in the opening scene, my characters are in a helicopter after rescuing a woman. My hero, Fozzie, is worried that they were too late. He asks Hotshot, the medic how she is.
This was the first version:

"I hope so." Hotshot's grim expression sent a knife through Fozzie's belly. "She's severely dehydrated, plus she's running a high fever. I can't diagnose that, but let's hope the local specialists are familiar with whatever bugs lurk here."

Sounded fine to me when I wrote it. But here's the second version:

"I hope so." Hotshot's grim expression sent a knife through Fozzie's belly. "She's dehydrated, running a high fever. The local specialists are probably familiar with whatever bugs lurk here."

38 words cut to 29. The meaning is still there, there's nothing that affects the plot. And so on, and so on, for the next 375 pages.

I had to get more drastic. Each scene had to be considered against the mantra I mentioned in my post on January 1st. "Does it Advance the Plot?"

One thing I cut was an entire personality trait of my hero. I don't like the 'big, bad, macho alpha hero." They need flaws. It's more compelling to me if they have to overcome internal issues as well as external ones. But I had to cut, and I'd given my hero two fears. One would have to do. Snip. Out goes his needle-phobia. When I finished, I had a shade under 102,000 words. My agent is willing to look at it at that length, and I sent the first 3 chapters off last night. But before I did, I read them again, and found 57 more words that didn't need to be there.

My words might be brilliant, but they're not precious.


Teresa Reasor said...

I agree my words aren't precious. In fact I've gotten to the point that I have to edit each chapter as I go and weed out any redundancy before I can move on to the next.
It's not a habit I'd recommend though. It makes for some slow writing. I wish I could just write and write and worry about all that later instead. I think I'd be more productive.
I think that's what I'll set as my goal for the new year.
Ignoring that internal editor until the manuscript is finished then do it all at once.

Terry Odell said...

Teresa -- I've tried. Can't do it. I can leave the major tightening, but I have to know the story line is moving along, and am too afraid that I'll forget my character decided to move to Chicago and get a new job which might have trickle-down effects through the book, and that I'll miss some on the rewrite. I do leave notes for myself, though, when I'm stuck or need to do research, and then I go back and fix them.

I wish I could plot in advance, too!

Jenyfer Matthews said...

Culling isn't my problem - writing LONG ENOUGH is more my issue :)