The Lean Edit
Greetings from Portland where I am eating frozen blueberries and it is the first grey day in nearly two weeks. It has been sunny and warm otherwise, and I have been happy to take long walks through these streets and nap in a backyard hammock and eat good vegetables. I had a few nice meals with friends, but in general talked to few people.
Instead, I eavesdropped and observed a lot in public. Last night I heard a couple reminisce fondly about a salad they had at a wedding a year ago. Once I heard one café worker say to another, “You know when you can tell two people should just break up already?” One morning I watched a man drop off his children to what I presumed was his ex-spouse’s house and noted the care with which he hugged one of them in particular goodbye, as if they needed a little extra attention.
I was alone but not lonely, because I had my imagination and my words to keep me company the whole time. Still, it was strange not to talk to anyone for five days in a row, and when my voice did finally surface it seemed so much deeper than I remembered. Is this what I sound like? I wondered if I were a new person now.
I do feel new at least a little bit, anyway, because wow, did I get a lot of work done here on my novel. The book feels more toned and shapelier now, even if I have some brand-new holes to fill. In the end I cut about 18,000 words and I also composed a good list of rewrites that need to be made. Progress in Portland.
It isn’t an entirely new book. You wouldn’t read it and think: I don’t recognize how it sprang forth from the other one. But it has a different focus. And I cut two characters out entirely. As I cleaned it up, I thought of what I was doing as “the lean edit.”
When I write anything about “craft” to you I always feel like I must be stating really obvious things. I didn’t get an MFA so I don’t have the language that some people do. And it’s been about 1000 years since I did my undergrad in creative writing and I honestly don’t even know much I learned in college besides how to stay alive. My best writing professor was Steve Dixon who basically told me “you’re good at this” and “make this part weirder” which is actually more helpful than it sounds when you’re starting out, but of course I can’t do that for 32,000 of you.
All this to say that what I am about to share with you is maybe all obvious shit. And it came out of just ten days of work. But maybe sometimes it’s just good to hear obvious shit.
Anyway, I made a list of things I did as I cut 18,000 words in ten days, and here they are:
I had some chapters that were exceptionally long and unwieldy. I just started by, more or less, cutting every third sentence of description. I cut out dialogue that didn’t move the story forward, when it was just two characters riffing in the moment. I took out any parentheticals. I reduced interior monologues so that they were more direct and to the point. I looked for where things were actually happening and trimmed around that moment.
I made it a numbers game: Any chapter that was less than 5,000 words could easily be 3,000 words. Any chapter that was 10,000 words needed to be cut to at least 7,500. And I wouldn’t let myself stop till I got there.
For a few chapters I took the approach of asking myself: What it would look like if it were a flash fiction piece instead? And then revamping it from there. What if these 20 pages turned into just one page? It meant basically turning each big paragraph into just one sentence. Once I did that I could revisit what was really important in the original version of the chapter and cut from there.
A big revelation: I had been treating some of these chapters more like short stories than chapters of a novel that needed to fit into a larger universe. I was answering all the questions at once rather than creating suspense. So I went through and cut off chapters 3/4 of the way through, at a climactic moment, rather than letting the chapter glide into a resolution. Stop here, I told myself. End on the interesting part.
I tried to make everything extremely active, just moving in forward motion. I don’t want the reader to look back, I want them craving whatever happens next. Whenever possible, I tried to turn a flashback into a present-day occurrence, or at least make it feel more in the moment, which tended to kill off some extraneous sentences.
And finally, as I wrote about last time, I worked from the starting point of a new first sentence of the book and it was really helpful. It forced me to redirect the book in one specific theme, and I abided by it throughout, always returning to the idea when I was trying to decide whether to keep something or not. I really think it’s helpful to have a guiding sentence when you are writing a new draft.
Shit like that. I did shit like that. Does it feel scary to cut out this much of your book? Well, yes. And there was a small amount of grieving for it, too. But I didn’t allow myself to consider what I was doing when I actually showed up on the page. I just turned off that part of my brain. We must attack our edits fearlessly.
In some ways I felt like I was writing this book for the first time. Did you know you can always start over again? Even if it feels all sticky and like you’re in the muck of it all. There is always a way through to something new.
Here’s to clearing a path,