Writers, You're Not Alone, Here's a Pillow for Your Troubles
It’s one of those days where the only thing on my mind is finishing this revision of my novel . . . when my editor gives me a number.
Why is 28 significant? I’ve hit a chunk of comments where my editor has noted, “from this page to this page, the pace of the novel changes, you may need to evaluate what you need and don’t need.” In short, it drags. For 28 pages, my characters aren’t moving, they’re in the exact same place the entire time. This is where I scream into a pillow.
Then I’m given the crazy number that these pages amount to one-tenth of my total novel.
I stop typing and I take my rose-colored glasses off and really read through the pages. Why is this character doing this? Sandwiches do nothing for the story here. Do we need to know how each of them is interacting with a bowl of water? This where I scream into a pillow for the second time.
For the readers, you know what it’s like to read a novel that’s a slog, well, there’s a version of that experience for the people creating the words. For the writers out there, I’m sure you’re feeling my pain about now. Some things make sense at first glance and then our editors bring us back down to earth. It can be a gentle reality-check or a not-so-gentle one. Today was the later.
Well, the solution for me is to cut the fat, so to speak, just get rid of anything that isn’t serving the story. Will it look significantly different by the time I’m done? You might think so, but if I revise it the right way, what I want to convey to the reader will not change. It will be more dense and focused . . . hopefully, more impactful. Considering the predicament my characters find themselves in, that’s exactly what’s needed.
It’s easy to say “trim the fat” and then offer an anecdote to “just keeping going and you’ll get there” motivation. But we know it’s not that easy and sometimes you’re just too married to what’s been written to be able to acknowledge where unnecessary (but fun) filler is.
Below are some helpful steps to take when you’re confronted with this kind of problem in your revision process:
1. Take a break. Seriously, save your document, get up and walk away from your computer/notebook, etc. Get a snack, go for a walk, and don’t look at your manuscript for at least 10 minutes.
2. Read through the scene and make a bulleted list of the major plot points in a few words to remind yourself what’s happening. For example, “Find the house.” When you’re done, what stands out? The good and bad stuff. Does your “sandwich” scene play a significant role in the plot? No? Great, it’s gone.
3. Print out the pages in question so you have a physical copy to touch. Now go through and mark that bad boy up. Redline, cross out sentences, entire paragraphs, change who says a certain line of dialogue. Get rid of anything that doesn’t move your characters forward in an organic way. When you’re done, take a look at what’s left. What’s your story trying to tell you? If you’re strictly digital, you can do the same thing with the strikethrough or the highlighter tool in Word to get the same experience.
These three tactics have helped me get into the right headspace to make revisions. It’s a humbling experience. We all want to believe that every piece of prose we write is going to be beautiful and ever-lasting or this character absolutely needs to say this line or the book won’t work. Not true. Sometimes it’s better if a character physically reacts instead of saying something. Other times a screenwipe is better than detailing every single move a character makes. It just depends on what’s best for what you’re writing, there is no one-size-fits-all scenario.
Above all, try your best to be patient with yourself. Some writers can write a lot really fast and then have a lot of editing on the back end, then there’s the writers that revise as they go. But really, it all equals out in the end. Despite how agonizing it is, trust that you are not alone in these efforts and sometimes you just need to scream into a pillow.