Too much meringue
Fragments of York: the Festival of Writing 2011

Looking for the ram in the thicket

In Alarm Bells and Coughing Fits I was exploring how, and why, it might be better to think in terms of sacrificing darlings than murdering them, when you're revising your work. You resist cutting something which you know you should cut because it's good ideas beautifully written; or it says something you want to say or includes facts you'd love to include; it cost you a lot in time or feeling or effort; it's funny or touching or evocative. These are all good things to be doing with writing, but here... it just doesn't fit. It slackens the tension or spoils the pace, it breaks the frame when it shouldn't, it preaches at the reader or dumps info. You must get out the knife.

Sometimes you can just cut a sentence, a paragraph, a character or a setting and, like your appendix or your tonsils, the surgeon-writer does a few little stitches and the body of the novel can do perfectly well without it. But sometimes it can't. Sometimes, when you cut a piece which you don't want to cut but you must, you also lose stuff which you do need. And the same goes for when you cut something which you think works, but which enough of your trusted readers - writers' circle, editor, critique-mate, Masters workshop - say doesn't, that you have to accept that readers aren't getting what you'd want them to get. (Though of course with this problem there is always the option of doing it better.)

So you cut what should go but - help! - a building-block of a particular theme goes with it, or some necessary backstory, or a revealing little bit of someone's character, or essential evocation of the setting in place or time. Perhaps a character or a house or a craft, necessary but minor in other places, loses the one place where they were fleshed out into believability and vividness. Or a key prop or letter or other plot-device must find a different but equally convincing means of existing or being delivered. And whereas it's not so hard to be ruthless with things which have only survived so long because you're in rebellion against your Inner Puritan, these are much more compelling temptations to grant a reprieve: you do actually need some of what's here.

I'd suggest that the way to get yourself to sacrifice this kind of darling to the greater good is to think first about what you're going to do instead: look for the ram in the thicket before you actually line up to cut your Isaac's throat. Doing it this way has several advantages:

  • it clarifies exactly what and how you should cut, and so exactly where and how you should make up the loss elsewhere
  • if your thinking means you suddenly get cold feet, or realise that your reasons for cutting are actually part of a larger or a different problem, you haven't done anything which will be tiresome to reverse (though I'd always suggest that if you do anything major, you do it on a new copy of the file. If it's right, you can always rename that copy to be the main draft.)
  • it makes you feel more positive about the cut because you don't feel it purely as a loss of material or wordcount, but as a matter of substitution
  • it helps you to be organised in making the change, by deciding what will need doing where; you're less likely to leave loose ends, or to get in a muddle with lots of fiddling.

And then be brave; it's this kind of work which can make the difference between a good story decently told, and a novel with a real, compelling energy and voice. Good luck!