I sent the first five pages to my mentor the other day, and he sent them back edited within an inch of their life. While it was painful to see my beginner’s mistakes highlighted, it felt good. Like high-colonic good, but still good.
Having a pro-writer point out where I’m falling back on some useless crutches is remarkable. It seems to me (and other pro-writers, please weigh in here), that the first step is writing the hefty story, complete with plenty of extra pounds in the form of exposition, description, characterization and backstory. Next, you shave it down until it’s merely a skeleton- saving only the most important bits of dialogue, descriptions, and plot. Then, you go back through it, re-adding the bits of style and substance that flesh out the skeleton while keeping it from turning into a bloated beast.
At least, this is what I’m garnering from the comments of trusted sources. Having never written a novel before, it seems logical, if a bit inorganic.
This advice helping me in two big ways:
- Not confusing style with substance. Learning to give up clever turns of phrase is pretty basic advice that is far easier said than done. Being a somewhat bright and eloquent person, it’s damn hard to give up a particularly beautiful metaphor, no matter how useless it is. Writing beautifully makes me feel like I’ve really said something, even if it’s re-describing a hair color that the readers already know about. Learning how to trim the fat is useful and makes the story read better nearly always.
- Learning to recognize salient details that help my readers understand the story versus sharing bits of exposition that merely clarified things for myself. I noticed this right off the bat in the first 10 pages, when I describe Duane Ward’s backstory. Duane is an important character, and I want the readers to understand a couple of things about him: he’s smart, handsome, charming and middle-class. He’s also very comfortable in his own skin, despite being one of six black kids in his rural, conservative high school. He casts Lexie’s deep insecurities into sharp relief, by living a life she believes to be completely inaccessible. It wouldn’t take much to communicate this information, but on page 7 of my manuscript, I spent nearly a whole page talking about Duane’s parents and hobbies. This isn’t to say it’s not good info, but these details were really more for me to get a handle on Duane as a character rather than give my readers any substantive insight.
My book is out in the world via my personal readers and a handful of agents I’ve queried. I’m diving back in, with red pen in hand, looking for all the extra weight that needs to be cut. I doubt I’ll catch it all, but it’s becoming somewhat of a game- keeping my eyes peeled for chaff that doesn’t belong in the end product. The result? Each page is tighter, slicker, and more readable. Triple win.