Thursday, April 15, 2010

To Cut Or Not To Cut: An example of one scribe’s revision process

Editing a novel always gets me thinking about ways to offer a cinematic presentation of material and characters, which leads me to question what to leave in and what to take out, a painstaking process that pertains to plot (which I mentioned last week), character arcs, and even line-by-line editing.

I read an interview in NEWSWEEK in which James Patterson says he cuts just about every bit of “extraneous information.” I’m not willing to go that far. I enjoy reading and writing descriptions, details, and images that develop some aspect of a story. I guess each writer must define “extraneous” for himself. I strive to follow the less-is-more adage. But what to leave in? And what to take out? Questions I typically face are: How sparse is too sparse? Do I need attribution in my dialogue? Does the dialogue clearly convey the character’s emotion? If I add a clue here, is that tipping my hand?

Every writer, at one time or another, overwrites. Below are two example paragraphs from the novel I just finished—a first draft and a final draft—to show what I started with and explain what I did and why.

First draft:
The past is a soft voice always at your side, a voice you can’t outrun and can’t leave behind. Although the sound can be harmonious, its content can equate to a bedside shout in the dark. For me, memories of two people disturb my waking and sleeping moments—one, a boy I’d known years ago; the other, my father, who’d reappeared the previous night in a recurring dream.
The dream had surfaced three times now, bubbling from the depths of my subconscious. In it, there is a newspaper obituary with my name. The text beneath the name is always blurred. No photo. But it’s the unclear column that bothers me most: What did I accomplish? Do the smeared words represent worldly failings?

Final Draft (eight months later):
The past is a voice always at your side, and although its tone can be melodious, its content, depending on how you’ve lived your life, can equate to a bedside shout in the dark.
I was at my desk on a cold Tuesday morning in December thinking of a recurring dream. It had surfaced three times, bubbling from the depths of my subconscious. I always saw a newspaper obituary, my name at the top, the text beneath blurred. Never a photo. Yet the unclear column bothered me most. Did the smeared words represent my worldly failings?

What do you notice first? Probably that there is no mention of the speaker’s father in the final draft. That storyline was cut. It added some character development to the protagonist, but in the end, I thought it bogged down the plot. Second, the opening image is simpler and, I hope, clearer. Third, the scene is progressing much more quickly. “Bubbling from the depths of my subconscious” is a dreadful phrase and stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it months after writing it. (Thank God I cut it before some unsuspecting reader pulled the book from a store shelf and was blindsided.)

Now delve a little deeper. Notice what words I cut or changed. This was painstaking. I read this chapter aloud several times and these opening paragraphs over and over again until they sounded right, clear and fluid—all of that to cut 26 words. This process speaks to confidence: when I’m drafting, I’m not sure if I’m being clear enough, accurate enough, so I add appositives and (like most writers) overwrite the initial draft. The final draft, hopefully, offers clearer prose and avoids repetitions.

This is what I’ve been up to of late. Revision is a personal process and every writer has his or her own approach. I thought I’d share part of mine with you this week.


Sharpo said...

The first cut IS the deepest. I have found that once I can bring myself to that first edit, then I can grin and bear the rest. Thanks for a great blog and valuable insight!


John Corrigan said...

Thanks for the feedback.

SQuick said...

Great post. I think the editing process is very difficult - especially when, in certain instances, the one line needing to be cut is perhaps the sentence that began the train of thought. It's a little heartbreaking when a line you think is so perfect is the one that needs to be removed :-)

I'll be following this blog, just because of a post like this. Great job.

Rick Blechta said...

Very insightful, as always, John. Thanks.

But I would suggest leaving that opening sentence intact. It really is creates a wonderful image and is so very true.

rilla jaggia said...

A very insightful post. Thank you. How much is too much is always a question in my mind while revising. Can't say I've gotten it right :)

I just wanted to comment, though, that I loved the first sentence in the first draft and was disappointed to see it go. And, I was slightly confused. You say you cut the phrase "bubbling from..." out of the final draft, but it's still there. I guess I misunderstood?

Thanks again for this example.

Ann Patey said...

Words of wisdom, thank you

Ann Patey

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