Are you reading K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors blog? Of course you are. Silly question.
There’s an especially nummy treat in a recent edition — The Elephant in the Room: Are You Ignoring Your Story Revision Instincts? by Alythia Brown of Publishing Tips for the Restless Writer, which you are also reading, right? Of course you are.
The whole article is incredibly useful — I would sub-sub title it “How To Get Yourself To Just Shut Up Already!” But that’s me — Ms. Brown is far more gracious than I.
The gist is that you already know what to cut. You do. You just don’t want to listen to that nagging little voice that says things like “This belongs in a different book.” Or “Dude, I thought you gave up writing while under the influence of Jane Austen.” Or: “This does not sound like any character in this story, not even the dog.” (Hey, don’t snark — I’m editing something now that tells the most affecting parts of the story from a horse’s perspective. I’ll post the usual news flash when I’m done because you WILL want to read it. But I digress.)
In short, you are too in love to cut. So don’t! says Ms. Brown.
Instead, create a Misfits folder and nestle your lovelies in there. Not necessarily because they really are the shining rays of genius you believe them to be — promise, upon further reflection you will realize that many of them are not! But the Misfits folder gives you permission to cut with a machete by reframing your mission: you’re not cutting. You’re rescuing, re-homing, paying the proper respect to your pet paras by removing them from the riff raff that obviously don’t see their worth. Hmmph!
I try to do this with my own writing. I do. It’s hard. Scrivener is an excellent tool for this sort of thing as it allows you to structure your text into movable chapters. (The Outline view in Word does essentially the same thing, but keeps all the text in one place so you can still use Find and other editing tools. But no one likes using Word except me, I know. Lonely, lonely…)
I find the Misfits approach especially useful when I’m working with writers as an editor, and most useful of all when I’m working with writers as a coach. It can be incredibly nerve wracking to hand your work over for someone else to do heaven knows what to it. It’s also nerve wracking to hear someone blithely say, “let’s see what happens if you cut…” NO! MY BABIES!! With the Misfits approach, I can pat your hand and hum “Everything’s All Right” from Jesus Christ Superstar because your babies aren’t being cast into the cold, cold digital ether, they’ll be safe and sound right over… here.
(And here’s where I earn that “Handy Tips! You Love Those!” tag.)
BUT! While your manuscript is still in edit, be very very very careful to treat your Misfits as the special snowflakes they are. When you realize that you want a Misfit back, particularly if you want only part of a Misfit back, MOVE the desirable text out of your Misfits folder and back into your live manuscript. Do NOT COPY and PASTE.
You will hate this. You will feel, in the moment, that having two — or three or four or eleventy-squillion — copies of your Misfits couldn’t possibly hurt. Backups are good, right?
Not in this case, bubbeleh. Here’s why:
When you cut a chunk of text during the writing process, chances are excellent that you will edit the surrounding text at some point, right? Yes. And if you copy a piece of that cut text and paste it back into your original, you’re probably going to edit that too, right? Yes. And so on.
Words don’t work alone. The ideas, sensations, colors, indefinable overtones you’re trying to get across depend heavily on all the little decisions you make about word choice, sequencing, perspective, balance, all things that can change drastically depending on context. The more you edit and change and copy and paste and edit and pull threads and modify tone and copy and paste and whatnot, the harder it will be to recognize the bits and pieces of your Misfits you have put back into play.
So, let’s say you like a character’s physical description, but it just doesn’t work where it is, so you put it in the Misfits folder. And let’s say that description included “piercing blue eyes that see into your very soul” (which it shouldn’t because that’s crap, but let’s roll with it). And let’s further say that when you need to describe another character, you completely ignore my advice (silly you) and you COPY that description and PASTE it back into your live manuscript, leaving the original in the folder. Still with me?
OK, so now you have two copies of the “piercing eyes” description, one in Misfits and one in play. You need to edit the one in play because this character actually has piercing green eyes that see into your very soul. And brown hair instead of blonde. And an overbite. And smells of prunes. So you mess with things until they fit. And you go about your business.
The problem comes three weeks later, after a lot of writing and rewriting and Misfit hacking, when you need to describe yet another character. You look in your misfits folder and see your “piercing eyes” description. You still like it, and you know you’ve used some part of it, but you seem to remember changing it so much it’s probably unrecognizable. You decide you’ll COPY and PASTE it again, and change it until it’s unrecognizable again, and go about your business again…
And that, my friends, is how you end up with five characters who have piercing eyes that see into your very soul. I am not making this up — this is an example from an actual manuscript that I actually edited. (To be fair, not all of the piercing eyes saw into your very soul, but there were definitely five piercings.)
“BUT,” you cry, “if I move my Misfit back into my live manuscript, and then edit it, my original Misfit is gone from me never to return! How can you live with yourself, you heartless brute?!”
There are any number of solutions to this psychological hit. Maybe you create an “Original Misfits DO NOT USE” folder. That way you can go and bask in their glory whenever you want. Or maybe you strike through anything from your Misfits folder that you’ve put back into play. That way you’ll know that you can use the “shining tresses” part, but the “piercing eyes/very soul” bit is done and done.
Whatever solution you choose, my point is this: If your goal is a sharp manuscript with as few reader snags as possible, MOVE your Misfits.