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Putting Words on Trial

[1]Why are you here? What is your purpose? Would anyone notice or care if you disappeared forever? If you fail to make a compelling case for your existence, you will be exterminated. 

This is not the first scene of a dystopian novel. These were my opening statements when I put every chapter, sentence, and word of my novel manuscript on trial. If my words could not defend their space on the page, I handed down the maximum penalty: I deleted them.

To be fair, I stole this revision strategy (or a version of it) from author Chris Castellani (Leading Men, Viking 2019). Chris borrowed it from Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, where she attributes the advice to put “every word on trial for its life” to an unidentified friend. Good advice, it seems, is meant to be passed on.

For me, it all started, as most good things do, in the drawing room of a haunted thirteenth-century Irish castle. In June this year, I gathered with several other GrubStreet writers, including Chris Castellani and Alice Hoffman (Faerie Knitting: 14 Tales of Love and Magic, Simon and Schuster 2018) for a writing retreat.

As we worked in Kilkea Castle, one of the most haunted castles in Ireland, Alice challenged us to write a ghost story. Alice Hoffman, who I’ve always suspected has secret supernatural abilities herself (have you read The Rules of Magic and Practical Magic?) has this gentle, unassuming way of teaching. She sat with us on the comfy castle couches and wrote alongside us while we nibbled on scones, sipped tea, and explored our darker writing selves.

During Alice’s workshop, I developed a fully formed ghost story. I liked it, but it needed work. As a novelist, I usually write longer pieces and wasn’t sure how to revise my very short ghost story or if I even wanted to.

The following day, in that same drawing room, Chris led a workshop and challenged us to put every word we wrote on trial. That seemed a bit extreme. My novel in progress, a literary thriller, was 99,000 words at the time. How could I possibly put every one of those words on trial?

But my ghost story? It was only 1,000 words. That night I took Chris’ advice and put my ghost story on trial. Every single word. Why are you here? I asked each word. What is your purpose? I whittled it down to a 700-word flash fiction piece.

Our final night in Kilkea Castle, we all gathered around a fire in the dungeon, sipping wine and Irish whiskey, to share what we had written. I read my ghost story. It felt muscular and lean because I had burned off so much unnecessary language. I liked the growl and rumble of tight sentences.

But could I do that with an entire novel?

After I returned home from Ireland, I set a court date. I channeled Chris’ enthusiasm and put my entire novel on trial. For the first round of questioning, I called each chapter to the stand. (Please bear with me. I’m really enjoying my extended courtroom metaphor.)

What is your purpose? The answer on the chapter level must relate to plot. Does this chapter or scene either move the plot forward or fundamentally develop a character or relationship? If a chapter’s purpose was rooted in setting, mood, theme, or pretty language, I stopped and reconsidered. Would anyone miss you if you disappeared forever?

I love to visualize plot via line graphs, bar graphs, and spread sheets. When I put my scenes and chapters on trial, I examined where they fit on my super nerdy (but very colorful) plot charts. Does each scene impact the plot chart? Does it escalate tension or develop character in a vital way? Does something change between the opening of the chapter and the closing?

Defend yourselves! I yelled at my scenes. Several chapters and scenes buckled under my relentless questioning.

Killing my darlings hurt, but I steeled myself and showed no mercy. (You can read HERE [2] about how I resisted killing a precious darling and how it almost broke me.) I slashed and deleted entire chapters. I imagined tossing offending scenes into the dungeon of Kilkea Castle.

After putting every chapter on trial, I was exhausted. I wanted to quit. But then I heard the cheery echo of Chris in my head. Put every word on trial.

I took a deep breath and a shot of Irish Whiskey.

I scrutinized every sentence. I challenged every comma, adverb, and adjective. What is your purpose? After reading and rereading my manuscript during this two-and-a-half-month-long trial, my head ached, my eyes burned, but I’d come this far, and I was hellbent on seeing this trial through to the end.

I decided to give my novel the last word.

I went back to page one and listened to the entire manuscript read aloud to me by my laptop. (If you use Word, go into System Preferences, click on Accessibility, then Speech. You can choose from several narrator voices. I’m partial to the ‘Samantha’ voice.)

Listening to my manuscript read aloud helped me call out repeated words and phrases, rambling, clunky, or choppy sentences. I noticed repetition in dialog and awkward phrasing I had not recognized on the page.

Every few paragraphs, I interrupted Samantha’s narration and cross examined suspicious sentences and words. Would anyone care if you disappeared forever?

As the judge in this trial, I occasionally invoked the right to impose lenient sentences on my sentences (paragraphs and words.) Some phrases are just pretty. They just are. Some make me laugh, or evoke a sense of wonder. Sometimes I fall in love with an adverb (gasp!)

But for the most part, I showed no mercy. When the trial wrapped up, there was blood on the floor. My 99,000-word manuscript emerged as a leaner 92,000-word document.

A Cheat Sheet for Putting Words on Trial

STEP ONE: Put your chapters and scenes on the stand.

STEP TWO: Paragraphs, sentences, and words take the stand.

STEP THREE: Allow your manuscript to speak in its own defense.

STEP FOUR: Be willing to disregard # 1 – 3 when necessary and trust your gut.

That last night in the dungeon of Kilkea Castle, Chris and Alice inspired us by reading snippets of their works in progress. Other writers offered excerpts of essays, short stories, and novels. Maybe it was the ghost of the Irish earl rumored to roam the castle halls, perhaps it was Alice’s (possibly supernatural) charm, Chris’ contagious optimism, or the communal nature of writing in the company of other writers, (or the whiskey?) but whatever it was, something inspired me that night to reach deep inside myself and do the difficult work of revising my entire manuscript.

I am so glad I followed through.

If the idea of putting your words on trial appeals to you, I offer some words of caution. Don’t attempt this with a first draft (or second or third draft.) It’s a waste of time to scrutinize individual words if you are still working on the form of your plot. Be patient.

If you are wary, try it out on a short story or maybe a single chapter before taking on a book-length manuscript.

But when you are ready, be brave. Be ruthless. Put your words on trial. Every single one. Then drop me a line and let me know how it went.

Do you have any questions I should add to my list? I’d love to hear about other deep revision strategies and how they have worked for you.

About Julie Carrick Dalton [3]

Julie Carrick Dalton [4] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel FOUR DEGREES, a literary climate thriller, is forthcoming from Forge (Macmillan) in early 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. FOUR DEGREES won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Her short fiction has appeared in The Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and several online publications. As a journalist, she has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.