Thursday, July 05, 2018

Inside the Cutting Room

I’m in the process of tightening my work-in-progress, essentially streamlining a draft of a novel in a way that, in Edgar Allan Poe’s words, “plays fair with the reader.” I’m cutting to the chase, taking a 90,000-word mystery and possibly chopping 20,000 words in the name of clarity and precision or, as Elmore Leonard would say, ridding the book of “the parts the reader skips.”

I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go type, so this is a new experience. Other writers speak of the rough draft as throwing a lump of clay on the wheel and then molding it. I’m a little too type-A for that. However, this time around, I have no choice: the clay is spinning, and I’m using the wire to take inches off.

It’s been interesting and educational. One character, who played only a minor role in the first draft, is now a leading figure, working with our sleuth. Another, who teamed with the antagonist, is gone completely, a move to clarify the plot. If I were an outliner, perhaps this is all taken care of in the cutting room. But I’m not. And it wasn’t. So I’m learning as I go.

One concern was length. Can the book be too short? Some of my favorites (I’m thinking John D MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, and early Robert B. Parker) fall in the 200-page range, somewhere near 60,000 words. A typical thriller is 100,000 words; while mysteries are often shorter, and this book is a mystery.

Part of this means fighting is myself. The book is set at a boarding school, which is good and bad. It’s good because, I’ve taught at boarding schools for nearly two decades, and, well, I can describe “the parts the reader skips” in endless ways that fascinate probably only me. If you want to know what 350 teenagers eating a family-style meal sounds like, I’m your guy. But you don’t care, and you shouldn’t. You just want a good story, one that’s compelling, one you can’t put down. And I don’t blame you.

A lot of this comes back to something I think all writers face: sacrificing our self-gratification for the good of the story. Every writer has his or her own family-style meal for 350 teenagers that the reader doesn’t need to know about. If we write what we know –– and we should –– this means finding the balance and avoiding that tempting trap.

In the coming weeks, I’ll face difficult decisions and hopefully have the willpower to leave more lines and scenes on the cutting-room floor.

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