Editing is ALWAYS tough, and I honestly think authors learn how to be editors– how to trim down their work–the hard way. You kind of have to. It’s the only way you can learn that kind of a skill: by doing (read “by attempting, failing, and trying again.”)
At least, learning by doing was true in my case. And I’m still learning. If nothing else, by now I can say I’ve made a ton of editing mistakes that I’ve learned from.
First and foremost, perhaps, is the lesson not to wait to ask “Can I fix this problem by cutting?” Don’t waste time trying fruitless to fix something, or fixing it up halfway , only to realize you really haven’t solved the problem.
Make sure you ask “Can I make a cut?” FIRST. It will save you a lot of frustration and a lot of time.
Here are some circumstances when you should ask “Can I cut?”
1. AWKWARD WORDING OR FLOW
Sometimes, it’s true, your wording is simply awkward. What you need to say is important, and you’re simply not saying it in the simplest way or the best way or in a way that emphasizes what you need to emphasize.
More often, though, I’ve found that when I come across a paragraph or a sentence that feels awkwardly worded–in the sense that it doesn’t flow–it’s because some part of the content (if not all) isn’t necessary. It’s repetitious, or it weighs things down, or it complicates silly things that don’t need to be made complicated.
Many times, when my writing feels awkward to me, it’s because I’m trying to explain too many things at once. And I’ve made various attempts to make things sound better that don’t REALLY work because the problem is as much “how much I’m saying” as “the way I’m phrasing things.”
Can I improve things by rephrasing? Generally, yes, to a greater or lesser extent. But I have found, far more often, that I can only get the passage sounding right by cutting. Cutting cutting cutting.
Saying too much at once is always a problem. But, you might be thinking, what if some of that information is needed? What if it’s vital to the story?
In that case, consider moving it to another place in your story. Considering placing that description or that piece of backstory elsewhere. Get creative: I have been so wonderfully surprised at how moving half a paragraph, or a paragraph or two, can improve not ONLY the spot in my novel where all the clutter was, but also the scene where it finds its new location. Its true fit.
It’s like that information was meant to be in that second home all along.
2. SOMETHING FEELS TOO COMPLICATED
Through the course of a trilogy, you get lots of characters. And lots of complicated relationships and backstories. Referencing them, or reminding readers who a minor character is when that character appears or is mentioned, takes a lot of finesse.
One tip about backstory: it should be backstory for a reason, meaning, it’s not as important as the actual events of your story. If it were, your story would start earlier on to include these epically important events. Remember:
- Backstory rarely needs to be as detailed or as intricate as we first believe, by the simple nature of what “backstory” is
- You don’t have to reveal EVERYTHING about backstory all at once, in one big word vomit. Give up pieces and parts. Craft a mystery about the past to get readers asking questions and wanting answers. Just make sure you answer later on.
I have spent SO much time trying to find the right way to transition in and transition back. To explain things simply. To keep things understandable. I try this and then that. I almost never think to ask, “How much of this backstory reminder is truly necessary?”
I have found myself cutting tons of the first chapter of “The King’s Sons” as I prep for a second edition. And I’m excited about the positive changes. Also, frustrated that I didn’t see this fix the first time around.
You see, you need to put yourself in the reader’s mind. And I’ve figured out I can trust my readers to remember the major background of the protagonists from my previous two installments. I don’t need to worry about people picking up book 3 who have never read the first books; notes at the start explaining how this is book 3 of a trilogy should settle that and clear up any confusion.
So, have you found, like me, that after exhausting yourself editing, fixing, and changing, and rearranging, you just end up cutting because you needed to cut all along?
Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it takes trying other things first and failing to make us see, “this passage just isn’t needed. That’s why I can’t make it work.” But still, the less often it comes to that, the better, don’t you think?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”