Editing & Angst: Tactics for Triumphing over Tough Choices

There’s some contention about who said it (Da Vinci? Picasso? E. M. Forster? Paul Valery?), but whoever voiced it, the thought’s a salient one:

“A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

For novelists, this means–after much hard work–finally making the choice to unclench your fingers and drop that red pen. At some point, you have to kick that baby bird out of the nest and let it fly or fall as it will.

Alas pour moi, that point of abandonment is not now. Every time I try to nudge one particular novel out of my drafting/editing nest, I find it chirping obnoxiously, squawking that it’s not quite ready.

And so I find myself flourishing that vermillion ink yet again, this time to do a massive, content-oriented edit aimed at culling thousands of words.

Now I may grumble and groan and gnash my teeth–just ask my long-suffering husband–but I’m also invigorated by it. Because who doesn’t want to make her book the best it can be?

That doesn’t mean the project isn’t daunting. Yet as I read through my novel, I’m finding two images to be helpful guides as I decide what to keep and what to cull. For my fellow writer/editors, I thought I’d share:

No. 1: Often during this editorial process, my thoughts have turned to the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic, in which journalist Rebecca Bloomwood attempts to maintain her image as a financial guru while hiding her runaway shopping habits and massive credit card debt. (Let’s just gloss over the fact that as a writer, a bit of a mess, and a keen shopper, I have far more in common with Rebecca than I’d like to admit.)

One scene in particular has relevancy for editors. In her efforts to curb her obsessive shopping, Rebecca wields a tool meant to help her assess her purchases: before buying anything, she asks herself, “Do I need this?”

Obviously, this scene doesn’t illustrate a win for Rebecca’s anti-shopping crusade. But it remains pertinent for writers. It’s natural to become attached to certain scenes or plot points–to see them as your 50% off Gucci boots. But when making tough decisions, asking yourself “Do I like this?” isn’t enough.  The question must be a merciless “Do I need this?” And if the answer’s “no,” that scene/plot element/turn-of-phrase has to go! Unless you want to wind up with a shopping bag–or novel–full of unnecessary items that do more damage than good.

No. 2: Cutting out those beloved-but-nonessential scenes can be pretty painful, especially if you’ve already spent time polishing them. It’s tempting to indulge in some self-pitying mewling: “Were all the words and hours spent on those scenes a waste?”

But agent Jill Corcoran offers interesting thoughts on dumping excess book weight during re-writes:

Do not mourn those lost words.  Thank them for helping you get started, for helping you understand where you book is going, for activating you to write rather than spend your years like so many wannabes saying I have a story I want to write but I just don’t know where to start. Congrats. You started. You got to the end. Now rewrite…

Book PumpkinI also find it comforting to envision a novel like a pumpkin destined to become a delicious pie. (This is the part where we pretend I’m a motivated-enough chef that I wouldn’t just buy pre-canned pumpkin puree.) It would be ludicrous to mourn the time/energy the pumpkin spent growing its skin, its seeds, its leaves, just because these don’t ultimately wind up in your pie. All of these components are part of your pumpkin’s healthy development, and therefore essential to making those delicious, pumpkin-y insides. In writing, a little verbal wandering can be necessary for you to identify exactly what needs to be said. Only after the pumpkin has ripened, and the novel been fully drafted, can the most essential elements be identified and harvested. Thank the other bits for their help toward the whole, then discard them.

Content editing–particularly of your own content–can be tricky. But the fruit of that labor is hopefully a novel readers can’t put down.

Have any tips for hacking through the novel-editing jungle? Please share below!

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IMAGES PROPERTY OF Harrogate International Festivals AND Better Homes & Gardens.


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