Therese here. Today’s guest is one of the kindest and most positive authors around: Rebecca Rasmussen. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, was just released five days ago, on 4/12. I adore the description of this book:
When a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds’ heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can’t, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who’ve brought them. The two sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health.
But back in the summer of 1947, they knew nothing about trying to mend what had been accidentally broken. Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn’t change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn’t exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly’s eye. And, most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.
Publisher’s Weekly called The Bird Sisters “Achingly authentic” and Library Journal Review gave it a starred review, saying that Rebecca’s “poetic prose creates an almost magical, wholly satisfying world.” Definitely my kind of book.
Rebecca’s here today to talk about something every writer understands: hard edits. Enjoy!
Explain, Exemplify. Translation: Cut It Out!
Right after I gave birth to my lovely daughter, who I will call Bird Daughter here in cyber space, I decided it would be a fabulous idea if I got to work on a novel, too. (Both were firsts for me.) I was sleeping only a few hours a night, smelled like spit up & milk, and was generally unrecognizable to anyone who had known me B.G.B. (before giving birth!), but I was also pretty afraid that I was about to slide down the mothering hole wherein all I would be able to talk about would be my darling daughter. What she ate: milk! When she drooled: all the time! How she gurgled & wiggled her toes when she was content: almost never!
What you need to know: I love(d) Bird Daughter.
But I love(d) myself, too, as well as the creative work I was doing before her appearance in my life. So off I marched on my first novel, which I wrote between the aforementioned feedings, droolings, and occasional toe wigglings. I was also teaching my own class and attending a few others at the University of Massachusetts where I was a graduate student in the Program for Poets and Writers, and where my husband was a student in the Classics department.
Fast-forward about seven month’s worth of stolen moments at Starbuck’s, in my car, in random hallways at school, even waiting in line at the financial aid office…
I had a draft of a novel! A novel! And impressive bags under my eyes, too! (And a darling daughter who could sit up on her own without tumbling over.)
…It was a cool spring day in late April of 2008, and I was sitting by the duck pond on campus getting ready to defend my thesis, which was called The Bird Sisters from the very first day I sat down to write it. I was wearing “professional” clothes that itched my skin and I was watching the ducks skittering across the blue-green water hoping that my committee liked birds as much as I did.
Who doesn’t like birds? I thought.
The people who run them over and don’t stop!
It turns out that everyone on my committee liked birds just fine. They simply thought there could be less of them (in a sense).
A very wise, talented, and generous writer named Noy Holland was chairing my thesis committee that spring. One of the first things she said to me was this: “Your book is very good, Rebecca. It reminds me of Housekeeping.”
The Housekeeping? I thought. By my beloved Marilynne Robinson? This is going swimmingly! I’m getting my mom to babysit later and hubby and I are celebrating! I’m going to eat Thai food and drink beer and spoon coconut ice cream!
The second thing Noy said was this: “You need to cut 100 pages.” (My manuscript was 345 double-spaced pages at the time.)
Good lord, no! What? Where? When?
“How?” I said, utterly confused. I couldn’t conceive of being able to cut that much from my novel. But I trusted Noy’s opinion and somehow knew she was right even if I didn’t understand just then. Though I admit I kept wondering where the story would go if 1/3 of it went to the recycling plant down south.
Noy showed me something completely invaluable that day. She went through several pages of my manuscript with me sentence by sentence, crossing out every third or fourth one along the way and trimming the others down.
She taught me about the trouble with constructing a story under the model of what she called “Explain, Exemplify.”
Here’s a rudimentary, out-of-context example of what she meant:
Unrevised Sentence number #1 (45 words): “On her way to drop her children off at the elementary school in town, the woman had run over a goldfinch, and her daughter had cared enough (cried enough—she was still doe-eyed and teary when they arrived) to make her do something about it.”
So in this first sentence, I explain that the daughter had cared enough to make the mother do something about the goldfinch they ran over on the way to school. And then, as if the reader won’t yet understand my meaning, I add that she cried and then I describe her teary doe eyes…
Noy’s point was that every time I did this in the novel, I bogged the story down unnecessarily. I wasn’t allowing my significant details to speak for themselves. I wasn’t trusting that the reader would “get it.” So I explained, and then gave an example to show the reader what I meant. I.e. the daughter cares for the injured bird, so she cries, and from that gesture comes the tears.
Yikes! Can anyone say redundant? Don’t get me started on the doe eyes either! Their once-existence in the novel still embarrasses me! (I blame it on being in my twenties.)
Revised Sentence number # 2 (34 words): “On her way to drop her children off at the elementary school in town, the woman had run over a goldfinch, and her daughter had cried enough to make her do something about it.”
I know what you’re thinking: 11 measly little words. But sometimes that’s the difference between good and great, unpublishable and publishable, tediousness and concision. That’s how I ended up cutting 100 pages from my manuscript and it’s also how I ended up with an agent and an editor, and very few edits to do once I signed my contract. Once Noy showed me how to take the vision for a sentence and pare it back to its most essential form, people started to say yes instead of no.
Maybe I would have learned this on my own. Maybe not.
All I know is that Noy Holland has a place on my acknowledgment page and in my heart, right along with Bird Husband and Bird Daughter, who, incidentally, wiggles her toes a lot more these days.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s jenny8lee