On October 1st, I started the fourth draft of my memoir by channeling George Saunders. I’d recently watched his interview on Late Night with Seth Myers. During that interview, Saunders explained how his editorial process shows respect for his readers and love for his characters. He sees each revision as an act of love.
I need to cut 25,000 words from my fourth draft. That’s a lot of love.
Over the past few months, I’ve read The Story Cure by Dinty Moore, attended Hippocamp, and read a number of blog posts on making good writing great. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned.
Examine your character arc: Good memoirs are about transformation. Many writers outline the narrative arc for their books and have a good sense of how the plot moves forward. But it’s also important to outline the character arc, or how the character changes over time. Outlining the character arc will help you refine your plot and delete tangential scenes.
Drop the backstory: As a teenager, I loved Stephen King’s novels. But there was one problem. Every book contained between 50 – 200 pages of backstory on his main characters. Talk about skim city. Modern readers are impatient. And let’s face it, few of us are Mr. King. In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly,” Folio agent Jeff Kleinman says, “In almost all cases if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.” My new rule of thumb: if it doesn’t affect a character’s decisions or reappear in the story, it goes.
Examine the weight of each scene: All scenes are not equal. Some contain vital moments that hold the essence of your work. Others just move the plot forward. Consider the work each scene is doing. Compress essential but undramatic scenes so you can make room for the ones that really count.
Replace adjectives and adverbs with active, strong verbs.
Nix Useless Words: Diane Urban has a blog post that contains 43 words to remove from your work. While you can make a case for keeping some of these words, each one you keep should earn its place in your manuscript.
Read your work out loud. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get to work. There’s no substitute for doing this, no matter the length of your work.
Find a second pair of eyes: We all become blind to our manuscripts’ flaws. Talented beta readers and editors can help you kill your darlings so your stars can shine.
George Saunders is right. Since October 1st, I’ve cut over 7,000 words from the first two sections of my book. I already feel more loving toward my characters and the scenes I’ve decided to keep. With some persistence and a lot of tea, I’ll scrap the next 18,000 with ease. Imagine the love I’ll feel for my work. Imagine the love you’ll feel for yours.
This post was originally published in the November 2, 2017 edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.