Cutting your babies

The setting: Overworked and Underpaid Editor sits in her office, sucking down one of the beagle’s fresh margaritas. She stirs the frothy drink with the end of her evil red pen. Laying on a couch across from her is an overwrought manuscript, bulging and bloated. Loud sniffles and cries of angst fill the small office. OwUp Editor orders the beagle to make three pitchers and have them waiting in the wings; it was going to be a long, painful session.

Bloated Manuscript: Another rejection! I’ve lost track of how many that makes [loudly blowing its little nose]. What is wrong with me? Do I suck?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: It’s hard to tell if you suck because you, my portly little friend, are overweight. Just how much do you weigh?

Bloated Manuscript: [recoiling in disgust] That’s none of your beeswax! Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to ask how much something weighs?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Ach, my mother told me lots of things. One was to always wear clean Victoria Secrets in case I was in an accident. I mean really. If I’m bleeding in fifty different places and have an emergency brake sticking out of my eye socket, does anyone believe the emergency room is going to stop and admire my lacy underlilies? But I digress. [uncorking evil red pen and donning designer spectacles] Ah, I can see on your title page that you weigh 196,000 words. You, my little pork chop, need to go on a diet.

Bloated Manuscript: Gah! No! The only way I can lose weight is to rip out pages. If I rip out pages, that means only one thing; I HAVE TO CUT MY BABIES! NOOOOOO! I love my words, every single one of them. There isn’t a single verb, noun, or dangling participle that can be removed, let alone full chapters.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Just because those words are sitting on your pages doesn’t mean they belong there. I can’t believe that it took you 196,000 words to belt out your story, when I think you could say it better in 84,000 words. And more to the point, I’m suspicious you’ve gorged yourself on Twinkie Fluff – that lovely, sweet dessert that fills up a page faster than I can drink one of the beagle’s chocolate martinis. Twinkie Fluff are empty calories; they may taste great, but if you overload yourself with them, your pretty pages become bloated codfishies that scare the bejabbers out of editors. In fact, if I see a word count that high, I won’t even bother reading it.

Bloated Manuscript: But why?? [wailing miserably] Just because we’ve put on a little weight doesn’t mean we aren’t lovable, readable manuscripts.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Yah, that may be true, but I have to work too hard to find it. A manuscript that is as overweight as you are make me wonder if you are a new kid on the block and not experienced enough to know how to write a story with the proper balance of brevity, plot, and development.

Bloated Manuscript: Wahhhh, I don’t even know where to begin.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Knowing when and what to cut takes writing experience. After you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll learn what is integral to the plot and what is wasted space; what backstory is essential and engaging, and what goes.

Organization is key to any new manuscript – experienced or not. You should have a clear vision of your characters and how they move your story along. Your characters are going through some sort of conflict or dilemma – be it finding out who murdered their favorite dust bunnies or chucking the rat race behind and moving to the Bermuda Triangle to open up a factory that manufactures chocolate-covered mosquitoes.

From there, you need to organize your thoughts on how to propel the plot. You need to be mindful that every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to have a reason for being on the page. They have one duty; to propel your plot. Now, of course, a little backstory helps round out the character development, as does a wee bit of Twinkie Fluff.

Having a chapter outline can be helpful in keeping fat manuscripts on their diet plan. You always have to ask yourself what is it you want/need to say in each chapter. [Overworked and Underpaid Editor flips through the pages] Now see here, this entire chapter has zippo to do with your plot, so why is it here?

Bloated Manuscript: Because it’s so well written!

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: But it doesn’t have anything to do with the story. It’s all backstory that doesn’t impart anything relevant to the character’s current dilemma. If you are so in love with that backstory, then think about writing that book. But really, it has no place in this book.

Bloated Manuscript: Are-are you saying I should stick myself in a drawer and start all over again with something new?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: I’m suggesting regular visits to the literary gym, where you will work out every day to get lean and mean. It may be that you are so overweight that you require some time in the isolation unit while you learn the technique of proper weight reduction. And yes, you should consider that you need to start over with something new. Regardless of where you’re headed, get yourself some good literary coaches. Eat healthy verbs and nouns, and ease up on the adverbs, backstory, and exclamation points – they’re empty calories. Losing weight doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient.

Bloated Manuscript: [sighing heavily] Ok, I’ll try. Now, can we talk about my red-pen phobia?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Oh good grief. Beagle, another round of margaritas. This is going to take longer than I thought.

18 Responses to Cutting your babies

  1. I’ve always loved the manuscript=writer’s baby analogy because it works on so many levels. Sure, we’re like parents raising a kid, but it also means we run the risk of being the only person who loves that kid if we blind ourselves to their poorest qualities and don’t enforce some discipline.

    I don’t have kids yet, just a third draft and a Boston Terrier, but my biggest fear is being THAT mom.

  2. Several published writing friends like to save their major cuts in separate files. This makes them feel like they are not throwing away good stuff.

    Most of these files just sit there, but some go onto their website as part of their promotional material — special extras for their fans who will be interested in minor scenes with favorite characters.

    As a writing teacher, I suggest that writers really look at their subplots when the novel is overlong or slow. If the subplot does nothing for the main plot, then it should be deleted.

  3. Natalia, being a mom of three, I always ran into THAT mom somewhere along the way. She the one who always says, “My little Johnny would never hit a girl.” Meanwhile, I’m holding back my daughter from beaning the kid after he gave her a black eye during a rousing game of tetherball. I so do not miss those particular days…

    Marilynn, saving the cut pieces is an excellent idea. I do the same thing. I have a file called “Exorcism,” where all my little darlings await the chance to live on somewhere else, or gather dust.

  4. Allen Parker says:

    I hate the baby analogy. What sane person would take their baby to a room and slash, cut, beat, torture and scream at a baby?

    We would be better off calling them our enemy. Let’s carve them up, treat them like a stolen car, or beat them like a thrift shop teddy bear. We should make them our pizza dough.

    Who doesn’t like pounding on pizza dough?

  5. I understand the sentiment, Allen, but the truth is when it comes editing out big chunks of text and scenes, many authors react as though they are being asked to sacrifice their babies – hence the analogy. Outside of my son, I don’t know of anyone who has the same attachment to pizza dough.

  6. NinjaFingers says:

    I feel the pain.

    I just cut nine whole pages out of a *short story* because…they were completely unnecessary.

    I’m hoping that the editor will now get back to me with a yes.

    But nine. whole. pages.

  7. I feel your pain, Ninja. When my editor told me I had to yank out a couple scenes in my novel, I protested by wearing a black armband for a few days. She was right, of course, but oh, the names I called her when sobbing into my pillow.

    There must be a twelve-step program for the editing process…

  8. I think I must be the only person on the planet who thoroughly enjoys liposuctioning* my prose. Pity it doesn’t work on my own bodily blubber.

    *and if that’s not a word, it oughta be.

  9. I’m with you, Sally. I think the more experienced one becomes, the easier it is to look at the writing with a more critical, unbiased eye. As much as I may love a scene I wrote, I’m also pretty quick to shoot it out of the story if it doesn’t belong.

    It was those tough early days when I was convinced that I’d never write another scene THAT great, and who was this bovine to tell me to yank it out. Oh…the pain…the suffering of it all [she said with a melodramatic sigh]

  10. BubbleCow says:

    Oh these are wise words. Cutting those precious words is hard but, in my view, the sign of a good writer.

    Do you think that writers are hung up on hitting certain word counts for certain types of novels?

  11. Do you think that writers are hung up on hitting certain word counts for certain types of novels?
    Hi Bubble. I’ve always gotten the impression that new writers don’t think about word count because many are unaware that parameters exists. Rather they get carried away with their writing and don’t pare anything down in their next draft.

  12. NinjaFingers says:

    Oh, it didn’t hurt *that* much. Which, I suppose, means I’m getting better.

  13. I daresay you were/are much braver than I back in my early days of writing. Nowadays I’m brutal on myself. No more tears and heavy drinking for me. Just a very sharp blade and an evil red pen.

  14. Pelotard says:

    Try writing a novel by hand. There will be very few unnecessary words in that MS.

  15. Bob Stewart says:

    Wonderful topic here. Never had trouble cutting or pasting a nonfiction work since I spent forty years as a journalist.

    My trouble lies in trimming the fat out of fiction. I’m never quite sure what should or shouldn’t go. Several times, after attending a writing conference, I’ve gone back and rewrote an opening, or changed a section. Put it away, then returned to it, only to decide the original was better but did need editing. To me editing is much more than cutting or pasting but more in line with creating a sense of the scene.

    Guess I’m going to have to find a high-priced editor to help me decide. By the way, fellow critique folks always tell me I’m very good at editing their work. But, apparently I stink at editing my own.

    Forest and trees type thing.

    Keep up the good work Lynn. I enjoy your blog and its topics.

    Sorry about the double comment. [‘Tis ok, Bob. I fixed it for you]

  16. Bob, you bring up a great point, and that is the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. I’m a novelist, so when I sat down to write Tackle Box, I quickly discovered that I had to switch gears. It was a wonderful experience and gave me the confidence to try my hand at more nonfiction.

    As for self-editing; it’s very hard in the beginning because we’re too close to the story and haven’t learned how to separate ourselves from our story. This will come with experience, so stick with it!

    Good luck to you!

  17. Crows says:

    I’m coming to fancy your blog a great deal. I’ve been pointed to some wonderful tidbits on it, and even things like this – which I do, in my heart, know very well – are presented in a fresh, engaging way that makes me want to re-pay attention to them even when I don’t feel like it. Thank you!

  18. Thanks, Crows. I always found that when my teachers of yore injected a bit of humor into their lectures, it went a long way toward my remembering the information.

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