Where I spray-paint my thoughts…



As you probably know, most years in November I participate in National Novel Writing Month, the online challenge to write a complete novel, or 50,000 words, in one month.

This month, I appear to be participating in National Novel UnWriting Month (NaNoUnMo?), by deleting 57,000 words from an existing novel.  It’s an interesting dynamic.

By the Rivers of Brooklyn is a very long manuscript.  Too long.  The publisher and I agree it’s too long. They would like to see it at about 2/3 its present length, which would mean cutting the aforementioned 57,000 words.  That’s an awful lot of lovingly crafted, treasured words to dump.

But it’s actually proving easier than I’d thought. Mainly this is because I wrote the current working draft of the thing four years ago.  For the last four years, for reasons which I won’t get into here (if you want to hear sad stories about getting novels published, email me), I haven’t looked at the manuscript.  So when I came back to it with fresh eyes and a lot more emotional distance, it was easy to see places where I could make fairly sweeping cuts.  That doesn’t mean some of the losses aren’t painful, but on the whole I feel like the cuts are definitely making it a better book.

A fellow writer who critiqued another unpublished MS of mine (Prone to Wander) told me that I spend an awfully long time setting up scenes and include reams of detail, especially domestic detail (what people are eating, drinking, small talk, etc) before getting to the heart of a scene, and that a lot of my chapters could probably start 1/3 of the way in and be much stronger. I think this is true of By the Rivers of Brooklyn as well.  I really believe specific detail and realistic dialogue are what brings stories alive, but I also know I spend too much time on these things when they’re not absolutely necessary to plot and character development.  Sometimes I hit readers over the head repeating the same idea over and over — and I don’t always trust the reader to make the connections that need to be made.  As I’m rereading this manuscript after such a long hiatus from it, there are parts where my eyes glaze over and I realize I’m boring even myself.

I love long, heavy blockbuster sagas — both reading them and writing them — but lately, when I’ve been reading books that are really short and spare, I find myself examining the scenes and thinking, “How does this writer do this? How do they cut right to the chase, find the heart of the scene without dithering around?” I’m trying to do that.

The last time I did cuts this major to a manuscript was nearly 20 years ago.  It was my second novel, which the publisher titled Roommates (it had a different working title that I liked much better). Besides changing the title, the publisher needed that book to be much shorter than it was — I can’t remember the ratio but the cuts were really drastic, even moreso than these. And it was a shorter book so there was less fat to trim.  One of the biggest changes I made involved taking a major character and paring back his role significantly, essentially making him a very minor character.  His death was central to the story and it had a lot less emotional impact after I’d whittled him down to a couple of walk-on scenes. I’ve always felt sorry about those cuts. It’s true that in writing you have to be willing to “kill your darlings,” but it’s possible to take that too far.

These cuts, I feel good about.  I think I am really going to be able to reduce this book by 1/3 without losing a storyline or a major character.  Which means there is plenty of extraneous material there that probably needs to go.  And I don’t think I’d have had the steely constitution necessary to cut that deeply if I weren’t being pressured to do it.

So I’m thinking of this as my NaNoUnMo, and just as I keep a running word count of how many words I’ve managed to add to my story during NaNoWriMo, this month I have a running tally on my MSN and Facebook status messages of how many words I’ve managed to cut so far — just to keep myself motivated.

When I’m done, we’ll have By the Rivers of Brooklyn — same great story, but 1/3 less padding! At least, that’s the goal.


5 thoughts on “Unwriting

  1. Evening,

    I kind of stumbled onto your blog. Just wanted to say hello, I did a tag search for writing and your blog came into view. I like to read and am somewhat of a writer myself, trying to be anyway.

    Feel free to write back, I would be curious if some of my fictional and non-fictional stuff has any merit.

    -Peace & Prayers

  2. I have always been told to elaborate when I write, give my characters more depth, so I guess I have the opposite (and far worse) problems than yours!

    It is so much better (at least it seems to me) to be able to “over-write” and then whittle down to the actual body!


  3. Cool. I’ve never been good at “unwriting”. With essays, poetry, short stories… I’m just not good at it, so I leave it all and let the marker tell me what to get rid of 😀 Er, I should say “used to let the marker tell me what to get rid of’. Haven’t had a marker in years 😀

  4. It’s true, damyantig, that I rarely have the problem of having to add more detail — except visual detail; I do have a problem with that and often have to go back to put in descriptions of how places and people look. But generally my problem is writing too much rather than too little — we all have our different strengths and weaknesses as writers, I guess.

    FLG, if you ever decide to write for publication, you can just let an editor take on the role of the marker.

  5. Yes, we do. And one day I hope to get your weakness of “over-writing” down pat. I linked to you, and would like to come back as often as I can. Fascinating blog.

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