Everyone who writes likely has a favorite book (or a hundred). And within those favorite books are favorite passages. My most often-revisited books fall open to specific pages, the ‘good parts’–those which hit an emotional high, or which spark a resonance within me, or even those that had me so completely enraptured in their literary spell that I forgot myself. I have re-read those passages so many times that they have become a part of my writerly being, and the best I can hope as a writer is that someday, someone’s well-loved copy of my book will fall open to a certain page.
Those ‘good parts’ provide important lessons. I am currently revising a project that has been in progress for more than a decade. I have set it aside for years at a time, unable to find the secret magic that would make it what I believed it should be. But this time around, I finally feel like I’ve found the work’s soul. The magic secret was to set only one clear goal in editing–to treat every passage, every sentence, every word, as a ‘good part.’ This requires looking at the work from the ‘inside,’ not the ‘outside.’
In prior attempts to revise this work, I had edited it with various specific goals in mind, all of which had to do with the work as seen from the outside. I was editing to reduce its scale or simplify the overall structure in order to make it ‘acceptable.’ This editing approach was the product of fear and uncertainty. The first (admittedly bloated and awful) draft was roughly 300,000 words. I cut it down to 220,000 and sent it to rather shocked beta readers. I cut some more. I watched other writers’ reactions when I mentioned it was down to 200,000 words, and I became focused on length. I was looking at the work as a product, something to be fit into a package. And it wasn’t fitting. I tried to make it fit, by breaking it into two volumes. But then there was no satisfactory ending to part one. I tried streamlining the plot, cutting characters, but the story lost its heart.
Now, I am doing what I should have done from the beginning. I am not thinking about word count, about cutting the work into a number of independently marketable parts, or about publishing rules/trends/standards. I am simply trying to make the work as long as it needs to be to tell the story. No more. No less.
To do that, I have to sit down, every day, and think about the writing from the inside out. I have to focus on what exactly, the story is about, not what kind of package it will fit. (And here is where I want to give a big shout out to Lisa Cron, Donald Maass, and the WU community for constantly reminding all of us that story is the center of stories.) The words, the sentences, the passages, the chapters that don’t have a role in that central story need to go. No matter how evocative, or joyful. If it’s an enjoyable but irrelevant minor character, if it’s a lot of detail that doesn’t help the main story trajectory, if it’s beautiful description that goes on too long, if it’s a lot of fun banter that does not communicate anything meaningful, it needs to meet the proverbial red pen (or in modern terms, the delete button). In the most loved passages of my favorite works, there is nothing unnecessary. This is something important to remember.
Editing the work in this manner has made me look at every single part of the work as a ‘good part.’ Of course my work has chapters that I think are much better than others–more emotionally resonant, better paced. While I might look forward to editing the ‘good parts,’ focusing on how every passage relates to story proves that there can be no ‘not so good’ parts. If I avoid editing a chapter because it is ‘not so good’ then it means my job is not done. My current goal is to edit the book until there are no scenes which I do not look forward to editing. It’s not that every passage has to offer an emotional high, or fast-paced action, or nail-biting tension (although all of those are good). It’s that every passage has to have a reason to be there, and it has to be as loved, by me, its author, as a ‘good part.’
[pullquote]Each chapter has to live and breathe as if it had a life of its own, because it’s that life that draws any reader on.[/pullquote]
Each chapter has to live and breathe as if it had a life of its own, because it’s that life that draws any reader on. There can be no servile chapters, none that simply get the job done. If a chapter serves only to get the reader from plot point A to point B, because B is really where it’s happening, no one is going to make it past point A. Have you ever read a book that had a great beginning or a great climactic moment or a great romantic scene, but you just don’t remember all the details of how the characters got from opening to conclusion? Have you ever been reading a book for the first time, and found yourself ‘skipping ahead’ to get to the part that was more interesting or which mattered?
Every scene can and should be a favorite scene–a ‘good part.’ Think about it. If there is a passage in your work that you skip over, or that you avoid getting around to editing, then what do you think a reader will experience in it?
Make every passage in your work a ‘good part.’ Love every word. Every sentence, paragraph, chapter, and part. And if you do, then maybe your book will become one of those dog-eared volumes that doesn’t fall open to just one passage, or two, but one of those volumes which has been re-read so many times, in its entirety, that it is falling to pieces.
Do you love every word?
Do you find yourself struggling to work on the ‘not-so-good’ parts, when they need the most attention?
Illustration generated by using the FUN and addictive app at http://www.neoformix.com/Projects/WordHearts/index.html