Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Quite often I find inspiration for a blog article from questions asked in the comment sections of other articles and from books or manuscripts I read. Today I’m inspired by a manuscript of my own.
I’ve been working feverishly to finish my own nonfiction book—on self-editing for fiction writers—and this week I found myself at quite the impasse. I worked my way through and around several issues, but one issue had me frustrated. When I reorganized chapters into a stronger and more logical flow, I simply couldn’t figure out what to do with one chapter.
I’d moved other chapters easily—they fit into the new pattern well. I dropped one chapter completely and folded key contents of another into a different chapter to create a more pleasing arrangement, but that one chapter . . .
Yesterday I finally had the epiphany I needed—cut the whole chapter. It simply doesn’t belong.
The chapter focused on beta readers. And while it contained some solid suggestions, it was at best a peripheral issue in a book on self-editing. The thrust of the book is on the editing process itself, not on side issues, not even if they’re mentioned briefly in other sections of the book.
Some side issues, maybe many, don’t belong when they step too far from the main focus and theme of a book.
The same is true in fiction, of course. Digressions can be useful and entertaining, but when they steer readers too far from the main plot or characters, it’s time to rethink their necessity in a story.
If the digression and the focus wander too far from the main points without adding enough in return, without being worth sending readers off in a different direction, reconsider that digression.
If you’ve got a really cool side plot or rabbit trail or digression that nonetheless doesn’t quite fit the rest of the story . . .
If you’ve got a side issue that leaches power from your main story issues . . .
If you’ve got a story thread that only incidentally links to other threads or characters . . .
If you’ve got a story element or a tone noticeably different from everything else in the story . . .
. . . consider ruthlessly cutting that digression, issue, or element from your manuscript.
If you haven’t figured out a way to fit the side issue in, maybe it’s because you haven’t investigated all the options. But if you’ve tried multiple options and still the digression doesn’t fit, causes problems rather than solves them, perhaps it’s time to cut that digression out and not compromise other story components to make it sort of work.
Sometimes the best choice is not forcing something to work, but getting rid of it altogether. No matter how well written or how captivating on its own, a scene or secondary plot or a flashback may not belong. The best choice may be to cut the problem out rather than try to finesse it in.
If including such an element weakens other scenes or story elements or their impact on the story, then consider cutting the problem issue.
Sometimes we get so attached to one scene or thread that we can’t imagine cutting it. But if it was important to the story that you started and yet it’s not important for the story that you ultimately end up with, that scene or thread can go.
Maybe the scene or text in question once fit. Maybe it never fit and you just like it. Maybe you want it to fit because you’ll eventually be able to use the threads it introduces a couple of books later in a series. Whatever the reason you want to keep something that doesn’t fit, consider your rationalizations. If you have to weaken the story as a whole, if forcing something that doesn’t work into other elements that work without it then compromises those elements, that’s not a wise course to take.
I’m guessing that we often understand why some new idea doesn’t fit with what we’ve already got; such additions are fairly easy to cut out. But if our writing project included a particular element—scene, event, topic—present from the start, we may not see its ill-fit as easily. We may assume that since it was there right at the beginning, it obviously belongs. Yet not everything does belong, even if we thought it once did. Even if it actually once did.
Stories and writing projects change with time. They develop. They often take on a shape and a feel we could have never imagined for them back in the early days of the project.
What I suggest for such cases is that you understand that it’s okay to cut even an element that’s been with a story from the beginning. If your story or writing project took off in a direction different from your original intention, some of those early elements won’t fit and don’t belong.
Yes, they’re familiar. Yes, they may seem organic to a story since they’ve been there all along. But if they don’t belong in the story or book that ultimately develops, they simply don’t belong and should be cut. If cutting a scene or plot thread or character enhances the story, shouldn’t it be cut? If the title you gave a book in the early days doesn’t fit the story that ultimately emerges, shouldn’t it be changed?
No matter how fascinating the character, if a secondary character—or even the protagonist or antagonist—doesn’t work for the story that arises out of your early drafts, shouldn’t that character be forced out?
Sometimes you’ve got to be ruthless, cutting not only what you recognize as an element that doesn’t work, but cutting what you’d once imagined was integral to the story. Don’t assume that just because a character, plot thread, description, or setting detail was there on day one that it still fits. Examine every component of your story or writing project, even core issues that seem to need no scrutiny. Consider not only trying to “fix” an issue; consider cutting it out completely.
I don’t know why I hadn’t considered cutting this particular chapter earlier. I guess I simply assumed it still fit. After all, I’d put it in way back when after deliberation and evaluation; I hadn’t thrown it into the mix willy-nilly. It had once fit. I wasn’t mistaken about that.
But that was several years ago. And I obviously hadn’t considered its fit for the product I eventually ended up with. Just because it had once worked and I’d once made sure it did work, that doesn’t mean it still fit once many other changes had been made. The chapter isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t right for the book that has finally coalesced.
I can use the chapter as a blog article—look for one about beta readers in the coming days. But I can also be confident that cutting it from the manuscript about self-editing was the right choice. And I can use this experience as a lesson to myself—
Remember that chapter that you tried to force into the book? Don’t do that again. If something no longer fits, try recognizing that fact sooner rather than wasting days trying to force it in where there’s no room for it, where it doesn’t match other components of the project.
Recognize that all items need reevaluating as a project moves forward because while some once fit or looked good at the start or at a particular stage, not all will work for the book that ultimately emerges out of the myriad possibilities.
It’s likely that you know this truth in a general sense; I do as well. And while I had no trouble cutting a different chapter a few days earlier, it simply didn’t occur to me that this other chapter no longer belonged. I’d evaluated its use once or twice before, so I didn’t think to evaluate it again. But once I tried to arrange it into its proper place, I discovered it had no place. And then when I decided to cut it completely, I easily saw that cutting it didn’t interrupt anything else in the manuscript. There was not one little ripple generated by removing the chapter. The chapter hadn’t been an integral part of the book after all. It had been a piece wholly unrelated to what the book had become, an extra puzzle piece that couldn’t be forced into a puzzle that was complete without it.
If you’ve got story elements, perhaps elements that you’d included way back in the beginning, that don’t seem to work any longer, consider ruthlessly cutting them without a second thought. It’s likely that you’ll discover as a I did that they simply no longer have a place in your project.
Do consider fixing elements that don’t work—sometimes that’s what you need to do; I’m certainly not suggesting that some story elements don’t need attention and reworking. But don’t forget that excising an element is also an option. And it might well be the best one under the circumstances.