Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cut to the Quick

            Two cutting references in two weeks.  Hmmmm...
            Bonus points and a vocabulary star if any of you actually know what that title phrase refers to.  No, don’t cheat and look it up.  Be honest about what you know and what you don’t.
            So, since I was away editing for a bit I though this would be a good time to toss up some thoughts on editing.  I’ve been doing this professionally for almost a decade now--full time for close to six years--and I still need to do lots of editing.  It’s just one of those unavoidable truths--99.9999% of us don’t write usable first drafts.
            For the record, that .0001% is Paul Haggis, so don’t think you’re the exception.  He is.  And it took him thirty years to become the exception.
            Cutting is painful, though, because it means losing lots of stuff.  I poured my heart into the first draft of 14, but in the end I still needed to cut over 20,000 words from it.  That’s a hundred pages, gone.  And it’s a leaner, tighter, stronger book because of it.
            Well, because of most of it.
            Knowing that my writing needs work is a strength.  It’s not admitting failure.  It’s admitting I can improve, and if someone can’t admit that they’re never going to improve.
            The thing is, so many folks think making cuts means lopping off entire subplots or removing well-developed characters or cutting out that three page monologue from a random guy on the street explaining how tax cuts for the rich are really good for the middle class.  Editing doesn’t mean cutting all that (although you probably could lose that monologue and not a lot of folks will complain).  It can mean just a general tightening and trimming of all the little things. 
            Think of those Olympic swimmers, runners, and bicyclists.  They know that shaving their exposed hair and wearing tight clothes reduces drag.  Not by much, but the little things pile up and can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver one. 
            So here’s a couple very easy, straightforward ways you can make cuts and maybe trim a few thousand words from your writing...

            That— Whenever I start editing, I always start with a “that” pass.  It’s a word we all drop into our writing in an attempt to be grammatically perfect, but four out of five times the writing would be just as clear (and more concise) without it.
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            Phoebe thought that Wakko would love her new dress.
            He chose the same weapon that his predecessor had used.
vs
            Phoebe thought Wakko would love her new dress.
            He chose the same weapon his predecessor had used.
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            On my first pass through 14 I removed over 600 uses of that.  That’s over two pages.  In Ex-Communication, I cut over 200 of them.  Use the Find feature in Word (it’s up there under Edit) and search for it in your writing.  See how often it shows up.  Check how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find at least half of them aren’t.
            Adverbs--  This is usually my second pass through the editing draft.  This time I use Find to locate all the places “ly” shows up.  I can admit it—as I get caught up in the flow of words a lot of adverbs sneak into my writing.  And they’re pretty useless...
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          They all screamed loudly at the approaching psychopath.
          “Shut your damn mouth, bitch,” snapped Phoebe angrily.
          He eagerly grabbed the statue he'd spent weeks searching for.
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            Do those adverbs add anything to their sentences?  Would a reader figure out that Phoebe was angry, or that the scream was loud?  I’d guess three out of five times I find an adverb in my writing I don’t need it.  The fourth time I’ve chosen the wrong verb, and once I’ve got the right one... well, I don’t need the adverb.  If I’m using my vocabulary well, there aren’t many times I’ll need one.  I cut over 500 adverbs and adverbial phrases out of 14 and 330 out of Ex-Communication.
            I heard a great rule of thumb from writer/ editor Pat LaBrutto that I've mentioned a few times.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s just a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging six or seven adverbs per paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look.  And then a third look.
            Useless Modifiers -- I've also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times.  This is one I struggle with a lot, but I’m getting much more aware of it.  It's when I pepper my sentences with  somewhat, almost, a bit, slightly, and other such modifiers.  They show up in dialogue a lot, and sometimes in prose when I’m trying not to sound awkward with a bunch of specifics.
            Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything, though, except adding to my word count and slowing my story down.  Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are doing anything, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.  I cut almost 450 of these out of 14 and over 200 from Ex-Communication.
            ...Of... --The word of can be a flag that something could be cut.  A fair amount of the time, of is being used to tack on an extra bit of description.  More often than not that description’s unnecessary and something the reader already knows.  Which means it’s dragging my prose down and slowing the pace.  There’s a reason we all tend to say United States far more often than United States of America.
            Check out these examples...
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Captain Lancaster of the Defiant is here to see you, sir.
The razor-sharp edge of the sword flew through the beast’s neck without hesitation.
vs.
Captain Lancaster is here to see you, sir.
The razor sharp edge flew through the beast’s neck without hesitation.
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            It’s not a sure-fire thing, but once I went looking I found three or four of these in Ex-Communication that could go away.
            Appeared to be...   --This is one of those phrases some people latch onto and use all the time.  It slips into my writing, too.  It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description.  This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.
            The thing is, though, appeared to be doesn’t get used alone.  It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance.  So when you’re saying...
            --Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall.
            ...what you’re really saying is...
            --Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her stiletto heels.
            And what you meant to be saying all along was just...
            --Phoebe stood six feet tall.
            If you aren't trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.  I cut thirteen of these that had slipped into Ex-Communication at one point or another.
            "As you know..." –I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  If you take nothing else from this little rant, take this one lesson.
            “As you know...” is probably the clumsiest form of exposition there is.  Really.  Think about it.  Just by saying "as you know," I'm stating that you--the person I'm speaking to--already know the facts I'm about to share.  As a writer, why would I have two characters engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?
            When a writer uses "as you know" or one of its half-breed cousins (“you may recall” or “if you remember” or many others), it's a weak attempt to put out some exposition through dialogue.  My lovely lady pointed out that a lot of these sentences tend to start with “Look...”.  If I’m using any of them, almost across the board there's either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for this information because it ‘s already covered somewhere else. 
            If I've got a really solid manuscript--I mean rock-solid-- I might be able to get away with doing this once.  Just once.  As long as I don't do it your first ten pages.
            In Ex-Heroes it’s on page 98.

            Anyway, there's half a dozen quick, easy, and relatively painless cuts.  Try them out and see if you can drop a thousand words or more.
            Next time, I think we’re long overdue for a talk about spelling.  And I’ve got a great list for you this time.
            Until then, go write.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is really good advice. I have just tried it on my own work an it amazing how much I was able to cut.

Eoghan Odinsson said...

Fantastic advice, simple, yet effective. I started going through my own manuscript...Argh!! "That" is bloody everywhere!

Back to work for me!

Thanks Peter!

BTW. do you have time to read my manuscript? (Kidding)