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On Murdering 22,000 Darlings, Part 2: Identifying the Dead


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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

Last month I posted about how and why I cut 22,000 words (18% of the original text) from the manuscript I’m currently submitting to agents. That discussion was largely in general terms, and some of you wanted me to be more specific and clearer about what exactly I carved away.

I’ve always found it hard to explain revision—what I change, why. So much of what gets changed or cut has to do with context and often responds to an intuitive sense of: This could be better. Or: This can go.

And by context I don’t just mean the preceding or following words, sentences, even paragraphs or pages, but the entire book.

As I was compiling examples for this post, I came face to face with that difficulty over and over. So much of what I cut resulted from an awareness that I’d said much the same thing (or said it better) elsewhere, and explaining to someone unacquainted with those other instances why this particular line or section had to go would involve laborious explanation.

Also, so much cutting has to do with pacing, and it’s difficult to demonstrate how a certain excised section improves pacing without knowing what comes before and what comes after.

As an editor, I often find myself thinking the story has started to drag when I’ve in fact already indulged one or more previous slow sections and have finally decided: enough.

So too with revising my own work: every time I felt things bogging down I had to ask myself: Is it really just this section or have I inadvertently cut myself unwarranted slack in the previous pages?

Now, as I said last month, a lot of overwriting results from the process of discovering the story for ourselves as we plow ahead. Excess, repetition, redundancy—it’s all part of getting the thing down. The trick lies in going back and recognizing when you’ve indeed been excessive, repetitious, redundant.

I generally believe in the precept: If in doubt, take it out. I then read the section again with the dubious section gone. If the result is still strong and not confusing, the cut becomes permanent.

I often believe that the underlying merit of Less is more lies in a sneaky truth Don Maass has drilled into my head: that readers don’t read to share my experience or the even characters’ experience but to have their own. This among other things means not inundating them with excessive detail—trust the reader, give them room to imagine things for themselves.

And afterward, when the revisions are made, take to heart Josh Mohr’s invaluable advice: Learn to respect the pages the reader will never see.

Now, with those difficulties laid out at the outset, let me do my best to provide some examples of what I cut and explain why I did so, with the intention of hopefully providing some useful tips for your own revision efforts.

There were several general areas where I found myself going astray, and I’ll identify those as topics as I go along. Some will overlap, because often overwriting is rooted in more than one mistaken decision.

Ready? Here goes.

(Warning: This is a long post—ironically, on the subject of minimizing word count. To paraphrase Mark Twain: If I’d had more time, I’d have made it shorter. Think of it as an extended, detailed lesson on revision. Print it out. Read it at your leisure. Or…)

First, for background, the story:

Oisín, a hero of the Fenian Cycle from Irish myth, did not suffer the fate widely attributed to him in the old stories (and Yeats’s classic poem). Instead, he’s been cursed to live and die over and over until he learns “the wisdom of all the world.” Having visited and revisited earth for over 3,500 years, he’s seen and suffered much, but not without retaining a dark Irish wit.

Having given up on his own salvation—it turns out the curse as worded is a trick—he’s dedicated himself to helping unfortunate souls blessed with the spark of genius. In his current incarnation, in which he goes by the name Shane Riordan, this dedication falls upon on a young poet and artist named Georgina O’Halloran.

A fragile but incandescent spirit, Georgie has been robbed of a brilliant work fashioned after the Book of Durrow, with many of the old Irish stories reimagined and illustrated magnificently. It was intended as a gift for her professor—who was also her lover. But the older man cruelly broke things off; Georgie fell into a depressive tailspin, requiring intermittent institutionalization; and the professor published the book as his own work. It’s become an international sensation, due in no small part to the money behind it, which has an insidious agenda: the book and video game spinoffs are used to promote the ideal of the Great White Warrior, enlisting recruits in a racial war that will rebuild America as a Caucasian capitalist autocracy.

With Shane’s help, Georgie emerges from her psychological down-spiral and dedicates herself to confronting her ex and retrieving her masterpiece—a quest that will entail a perilous journey across the entire expanse of an America descending into violent civil war.

First Person/Voice Issues

This is the first novel I’ve ever written in first person, and it proved challenging for all the usual reasons, especially the tendency to tell not show. A great deal of cutting (and rewriting) focused on this issue.

The rewriting often related to the narrator’s sensory perceptions, and cutting phrases such as “I hear,” “I can see,” “I notice,” and so on. Instead I just directly stated what was heard or seen or otherwise perceived.

That much was simple. But, given the narration is in first person, the issue of voice was key. As the story outline above should make clear, Shane’s perceptions and interpretations—being rooted in over 3,500 hundred years of intermittent life on this earth—were a crucial element in the storytelling. One reason I decided to use present tense was to suggest that for someone condemned to live and die over and over, time feels inconsequential. Past and present are mirror images of each other.

Concerning his thoughts, I originally used a “thought tag”—I’m thinking—to convey what was on his mind at a given moment. I went back and removed as many of those as felt natural. This created a kind of first-person free indirect discourse.

As an example, this small section occurs when Georgie learns from a former classmate that her ex-lover’s reputation on campus plummeted when his relationship with Georgie—and the cruel breakup—became common knowledge:

Original:

“No,” Georgie says. “I wasn’t aware of any of that.”

How could you, I’m thinking. For a good deal of the time you were locked away, like Joanna the Mad.

Revision:

“No,” Georgie says. “I wasn’t aware of any of that.”

Small surprise. Your stepmum had you locked away, like Joanna the Mad.

That was the easy part: a global search of “I’m thinking” directed me to every place I needed to consider.

The bigger challenge was when I’d embedded Shane’s observations and impressions into the text, only to find I’d done so to the detriment of pacing.

Now, I agree with Lisa Cron that readers want to follow the main characters thoughts and feelings as they struggle through the story. But I also believe less is more, and found numerous places where I was lathering it on a bit thick. Some examples:

1) From a section involving strenuous physical labor:

Strip that away—especially from a younger man, or one with a buzzing mind—take away his chance to put his back into something, to end his day sore and content, get ready to deliver him unto temptation. Or send him off to war. (On re-reading it just felt shoehorned in, unnecessary, and self-indulgent.)

2) In an early section where Shane has followed a banker home to plead with him concerning the discontinued checks for Georgie’s care:

I’ve barely turned off the ignition before my mind detects a sinister element lurking beneath the placid surface. Money terrors. Licentious daydreams. Drunken housewives murdering bridge—with dreams of murdering their husbands, who’ve lately been visiting strange hotels. Maiden aunts found hanging in their attics. Oversexed teens found hanging in their closets. (In trying to convey Shane’s long-standing experience with the darker side of human nature, even in its most benign environs, I descended into the gothic. This added nothing of relevance to the scene at hand.)

Scene Stoppers

This is an extreme example of the first-person narrative intrusions described above. Here, for the sake of an “interesting” observation, interpretation, or impression, they bring the action to a screaming halt.

1) In a tense section involving two armed Neo-Nazis at a roadblock, Shane and Georgie, in disguise because they’re wanted by the authorities, have been found out. Just as that occurs, drones can be heard dropping to firing level in the low storm clouds overhead.

In one of those mental flashes, quick as a dragonfly’s blink, that captures the very essence of one’s plight, I find myself thinking of all the murderers enflamed by purity, the uniquely vicious mania of the righteous, and the likelihood these two roughnecks belong to that breed.

Then again, maybe all they want is a little blood sport—drag Georgie and me from the car, flog the liver and lights out of us. They care not a jot if we support whites or blacks, Jews or Jesuits, Muslims or Mennonites. They just want their fun—what of it?

(The dead giveaway is “one of those mental flashes”—I’m trying to justify shoehorning this in by pretending it’s only momentary. And nothing here isn’t already present in subtext.)

2) Georgie has run for help in a storm while Shane is fighting with a much larger man in an isolated shack. He’s being choked, and senses he’s close to death.

And what of that, I wonder momentarily. I live, I die, I live again, peddling the wheel of my curse. So what if here’s the spot where this turn ends? Good as any other, better than most. I’ve always had a fondness for rain. And a good fight.

But of course that isn’t the point. Georgie’s out there in the slashing weather, alone, scared, looking for help. I can’t abandon her.

(Another dead giveaway—“wonder momentarily.” And once again it doesn’t say anything that isn’t already obvious to the reader by this point of the story.)

3) Shane notices that Georgie’s depression seems to be abating.

It is said that some depressives actually feel their condition improve during times of public crisis, for the outer world and the inner world at long last gel. The intrusively morbid, self-damning thoughts dissipate, since so much of their anxiety arises from dread of the unknown. Now, out here, the terrible thing has come to pass, it’s everywhere for everyone, visible and manifest, so why fret? You can’t be blamed, so let that go as well.

(As insightful as this initially seemed, it felt disconnected from what came before and after, and I could never find another spot where it didn’t feel like an intrusion.)

Excessive Detail/Description

This is a classic area where less is often more. It’s also an area where we tend to overwrite precisely because we’re fleshing out the characters, the setting, the social milieu.

But we have to go back and ask not what we thought was necessary as we made our discoveries, but how much does the reader need in order to feel immersed in the moment. I’ve noted my deletions with a strikethrough:

1) He could be a tennis pro, or a research arborist—slender, vigorous, tall—dressed in a French placket shirt, worsted slacks, oxblood bluchers. A soft mouth and Slavic eyes, full of tragedy and wit—they evoke an air of clandestine romance. His skull narrows slightly at the temples, lending his face an hourglass shape, the brow more prominent than the jaw, which nonetheless is strong and square. Short dark hair trimmed and combed to please a parson’s mum. Touch of razor burn on the left cheek.

2) Originally an orphanage for girls, St. Dymphna’s became a home for troubled women sometime after Vatican II, a refuge where the mad ladies could wander among the ghostly birches and pretend they weren’t prisoners—of this place, their condition, their minds—at least until they reached the tall, wrought-iron palisade fence encircling the grounds, its rails spaced so tightly only a cat could slip through, each capped with a spear-tip finial. The building itself is a massive Georgian hulk of ridged brick. Winged pediments of blanched stone cap its barred windows. Two marble coves, eerily devoid of statuary, flank the entrance. Winged pediments of blanched stone cap its barred windows.

The original manuscript also had lot of detail relating to the moving industry, as Shane and Georgie are helped in their journey by a woman truck driver named Agnes. Getting that detail right seemed important as I wrote the story—it fleshed out Agnes as a blue-collar woman. Much of this fell by the wayside in the end, as it simply felt gratuitous once I had the arc of the story clearly in mind, and Agnes’s actual role in that story clarified. It was still there, just less so.

“The old one-two”

 Annie Dillard in The Writing Life describes what she refers to as “the old one-two,” by which a writer will say something well, then either because they’re on a roll and charging ahead blindly, or out of mistrust that what they’ve said is as strong as they hope, they repeat the same thing in different language, as though the repetition enhances the impact. In fact, it diminishes it:

1) None of which qualifies as the official word, naturally. There is no official word—every assertion promptly engenders its refutation, every fact its negation. Truth’s gone on holiday. Rumor reigns. Rage decides. Plato’s Nightmare.

2) Half the country’s pitted against the other, split down partisan lines, color lines, healthy versus sick, Quakers versus Calvinists, coasts against the midlands, cities against the exurbs, natives targeting immigrants, neighbor turning on neighbor. Community weaponized: You don’t belong.

Duplication/Repetition of Scene

Steven James in his Story Trumps Structure makes the excellent point that repetition undermines tension. One form of repetition is repetition of scene. Given the state of my story world, checkpoints are common; but I ultimately realized again that less was more.

I ended up only including three, and made sure to make each one unique from the others: one where Shane is let through rightfully; one where he’s let through negligently; and finally the one mentioned above, where disaster strikes.

Chapter Beginnings and Endings

We often waste words at the beginning of chapters as we get into the scene—the novelist Max Byrd referred to this as “throat-clearing”—and we often attempt to summarize or wrap-up a chapter at the end when stopping sooner would create more dramatic tension.

An example of a belabored beginning that I cut almost in its entirety.

Returning to the banker’s home mentioned above, Shane has managed to finagle his way through the front door, largely through the intercession of the banker’s teenage daughter.

Original:

Entering the home, I catch the lingering scent of roasted chicken, that telltale hint of rosemary. The aroma feels strangely intimate, like a stolen whiff of perfume called Family Supper. The original:

I’m guided into the living room, which suffers the influence of two quite distinct and powerful temperaments—Modernist Mom on one side, on the other Traditional Dad.

The mother’s imprint reveals itself most notably in the paintings crowding every wall, which only an utter plank wouldn’t recognize as hers. Frenzied slashings of color—they resemble jagged wounds, scabs left by violent scratching at the wall, to attack the fathomless dread lurking just beneath the surface of things.

Meanwhile, Burgher Wilhelm, man of the house, clearly prefers the stately and classic, like the Chesterfield sofa with its plump scrolled arms, upholstered in oxblood leather.

I sense no lingering spirits about, no wandering ghosts. They tend to gather where there’s hope of something to learn from the living. I’ll keep their absence in mind as I plead my case.

I lay out my photos on an antique chest of old Pennsylvania Dutch design, turning the pictures so they can be viewed from the couch, where the family sits: Djuna in the middle, the parents looming to either side, like a stern pair of bookends.

“I met Georgie at Liguorian College over in Lansdowne.”

Revision:

In the living room I lay out my photos on an antique painted chest, turning the pictures so they can be viewed from the roomy Chesterfield couch. Djuna sits in the middle, the parents looming to either side. Paintings crowd the wall behind them, frenzied slashings of color that only an utter plank wouldn’t recognize as the mother’s.

I sense no lingering spirits about, no wandering ghosts. They tend to gather where there’s hope of something to learn from the living. I’ll keep their absence in mind as I plead my case.

“I met Georgie at Liguorian College over in Lansdowne.”

(I realized the point of the scene was Shane’s attempt to get the banker to agree to acting as intermediary between Georgie and her ex-lover, who’d been providing monthly checks for her care. The checks have suddenly stopped. I was trying to imagine the home vividly, but then realized the reader needed only the details I decided to keep.)

This same chapter provides an example of an ending that went on too long,

The banker has agreed to pass along a letter that Shane has prepared for the ex-lover. The banker, reading the letter, asks:

“What do you intend to do if he doesn’t respond?”

As I’ve said, I’m not one for fiddly plans. “To be honest, I’ve not thought that far head.”

The mother lets slip a breathy laugh.

“You will not return to this house,” he says. “That’s clear, or I hand this letter back.”

With that, everyone rises to their feet. The mother strolls off toward the door, ready to trundle me out, her long dark braid swaying back and forth like a mare’s tail.

“If I might,” I say, “put one last question to you. If you were in my shoes, with all I’ve described, what would you do?”

The daughter glances up at her dad, as though something far more than the posting of a letter lies in the balance. He looks at me with helpless regret, then merely shrugs.

I nod, content with that. I simply want him to understand what it feels like to race toward a cliff with a question, only to step off into emptiness while grasping at what you thought was the answer.

Dialogue issues

It’s often remarked that due to the importance of dialogue—“nobody skips dialogue,” per Josh Mohr—and the difficulty of making it sound like real speech without all the faults of actual conversation, no area of our fiction deserves greater attention.

A device I try to minimize is the use of speech tags—he said, she said, etc. The problem is particularly glaring in first-person-present. It’s seldom the case that “I say” feels natural.

Instead, I either try to use action beats to identify the speaker or make the speaker’s identity clear either from their unique manner of speech or in their unique goal in the conversation—i.e., distinguish the one asking questions from the one providing answers and both from the one offering offhand observations.

For the action beat approach to work, the beats need to be unique, organic, and vivid—not cliched, forced, or vague. Some of the action beats that I ended up discarding:

  • The light in her eyes grows warm and strong.
  • She looks me up and down, as though to assess if I really, truly comprehend.
  • Agnes waves that off like a smarmy compliment.
  • He gins up an uneasy smile.
  • Georgie holds up a hand as though to guard the conversational crosswalk.

Sometimes action beats are intended to reflect a pause in the dialogue and/or provide what in film is called a reaction shot: reveal how the other person in the scene responds to what was just said. These too can fall flat or feel forced. Examples of some I cut:

  • She looks at me like I personify treachery.
  • The look on him, like I’ve just posed some impenetrable riddle.
  • With that we both fall silent and, together, take a momentary vacation from our worries.
  • She shoots me the gimlet-eye.
  • He doesn’t even seem to breathe, though the corners of his eyes twitch with thought. I wonder if we’ve conjured a trance.

Karen Joy Fowler has remarked that often her students’ dialogue scenes feel like they’re all shot in close-up, with the speakers tucking hair behind their ears or smiling, grinning, nodding, etc., to the point the action feels like “a litany of tics.” Her solution. Don’t forget the setting. What else is happening in the room, or just outside? Where I needed a pause in the dialogue but my action beat didn’t work, I often reverted to this advice.

That said, it isn’t foolproof. I ended up cutting this one because I used it or something like it too many times: A sudden burst of rain drums against the outer walls.

Dialogue can also fall prey to “the old one-two” in that it can be equally repetitive. The following is from a scene where Shane and Georgie meet a pair of laborers Agnes hires to help pack furniture for a move. Their names are Antonio and Jeep, an African American and a Central American, respectively. Goodwin is Agnes’s husband, who is in prison:

Georgie wraps her arms around herself against the late-day chill, stomping her feet. “So—you’ve worked with Agnes before?”

Jeep takes a small step back, deferring to Antonio, who apparently serves as spokesman. “Oh yeah. Worked for Goodwin before that. Man was a legend. See that rig there? He could turn all fifty-three feet of it around in a carwash, swear to God.”

“You know what happened, then.”

“Mm-hmm.” He makes it sound of no great regret, as though prison’s no worse than chicken pox.

“Sad for the family,” Georgie offers.

Antonio squares himself, tightening the fold of his arms across his chest. His eyes blaze. “When disaster comes, has not the Lord caused it?”

I try to place the reference: Amos? Isaiah? I wonder if [H]e might not be an ex-con; so many wind up either radicalized or born again.

Meanwhile Jeep has produced a yo-yo from his pocket and is doing tricks—Walk the Dog, Rock the Baby, Hop the Fence.

Georgie says, “You’re saying God’s responsible for Agnes’s husband being in prison?”

“‘I form the light and create darkness,’” Antonio thunders. “‘I bring prosperity and create disaster—I, the Lord, do all these things.’”

Jeep, apparently inured to these pronouncements, turns to Georgie. He has a thin, darkly freckled face, kind eyes—unzipped Ohio State hoodie, Bengals t-shirt underneath.

“You like animals?” That soft lilting accent—Central American, not Mexican.

Antonio bristles. “Don’t start, Jeep.”

“I’m just asking, man.”

“We’re having a serious conversation here.”

“I love animals,” Georgie says.

“Once had a pet iguana, could ride a tricycle, no lie.”

“Jeep?”

“You know rats are as smart as dolphins?”

“Jeep!”

“And you can train a snake to hold a flower in its mouth.” He yanks back the yo-yo, it slaps home in his palm, and he returns it to his pocket. “My tío had the gift.”

(The deleted lines of dialogue echo but don’t advance what’s already been said. And the additional details concerning Jeep’s clothing actually serve to detract from the visual impression made with his doing yo-yo tricks; his “thin, darkly freckled face [and] kind eyes;” and the unique tenor of his accent.)

Clumsy Transitions

In a recent post, Don Maass noted the frequent but unnecessary appearance of scenes in which the characters get from one place to another with the actual trip not mattering dramatically. I found several of these in my original manuscript, and cut them all. An example:

Our destination lies one neighborhood away, ten blocks further west toward the river, where Grays Ferry rubs up against God’s Pocket and Forgotten Bottom. Specifically, I’m searching for a string of modest brick rowhouses I’ve visited just once before, to deliver a package.

(Just get to the house, David.)

Inside Jokes/Obscure References

Sometimes that fascinating research you’ve done tries to force its way into the story. Don’t succumb. One such tidbit I cut, concerning teenagers attacking stalled cars on the freeway:

avatars of the becchini of plague era Florence, or the Ukraine’s beguny

A Few Arguably Honest-to-God Darlings

There were several sections I genuinely slaved over and believed contributed meaningfully to the narrative, but on re-reading once again decided they either served as scene-stoppers or otherwise felt shoehorned in, irrelevant, or self-indulgent.

The following came from the same section I discussed under clumsy transitions above, but I cut it for a different reason. Shane is driving through South Philadelphia searching for the home of a friend who might be able to help them. (They’ve escaped from St. Dymphna’s, where Georgie was being treated for her depression; she was being preyed upon by one of the Franciscan friars in residence; she stabbed him and then fled with Shane into a thunderstorm.)

I feel my way along the narrow streets lined with grotty houses and parked cars. Finally, in the misty distance, the glow of a neon cross: Christ the King Shelter and Commissary.

It conjures a thousand recollections. That’s where the soup kitchen lies, the one I frequented when I first arrived in town, penniless, hungry. But the memories extend beyond that to another time as well, long ago, far away—those years when the famine struck, and the Scarecrow Irish, starving and desperate, condemned as thieves and idle liars by their free-market overlords, fled the blighted land for workhouses in the cities. There, proselytizing Protestants offered parents a devil’s bargain—your children will eat if they surrender their faith. Choose between pope or porridge, they said. “Taking the soup,” it got called.

Out there in the downpour I imagine seeing the faces of some I watched die. The sorrow comes over me then, beyond weeping, just that cavernous shaft within me, from the bottom of my heart to the bottom of the world.

(This particular section, though arguably insightful regarding Shane and how the present and the past are one and the same for him, just appeared in a spot where the action needed to move briskly, and I couldn’t find another spot where it didn’t feel intrusive. As it also fell under the “clumsy transition” rubric, that only added more reason to let it go.)

Which of these areas best reflects what you focus on as you revise? Are there any areas I didn’t touch upon that you make sure to address before finalizing your manuscript?

What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to cut from a manuscript? Have you ever found a use for them elsewhere?

 

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About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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