Monday, August 21, 2006

Queen of the Editorial Cut!

I can get blood from a turnip!

One of the things you read about from authors who've "made it" is the art of learning to cut your stuff. Spider Robinson wrote about how editor John Campbell would send his stuff back again and again with the instructions to "cut it by a third" or "almost there--take out 500 words." it was a painful process, but remarkably, each draft came out better than the first. Stephen King said in his book On Writing that after he's finished a draft, he goes back with the express goal of cutting 10 percent.

I'm a wordy person, as most folks can tell from my e-mails and blogs, so cutting is a way of life for me. My first real experience was when a friend and I wrote a Star Trek spoof that was 14 pages long. We had cut it to 8 for a contest. It took hours, and finally cheated by using 1.5 line spacing instead of double. I haven't had such a challenge as that since.

Until this week.

I was writing a Vern mystery for a Christmas anthology to benefit Toys for Tots. In it, Vern and Sister Grace must protect the nasty entrepreneur, Daniel Flint, who's being haunted by the Christmas Carol ghosts. Flint is trying to pressure the city to condemn Vern's neighborhood and sell him the land so he can build a mall. (It happens. Check out "Eminent Domain Being Abused?") Plus, it's Grace's first Christmas, and she's having culture shock. So, I have a lot of issues: eminent domain, materialism, the meaning of Christmas, Dickens' Christmas Carol, plus a homesick young woman, a heartsick old woman, a haunted theater, and let's not forget the mystery... I was feeling pretty good to write a first draft of 4100 words. Except that the max word count is 3500.

I cut it to 3750, then sent it around to friends. Those who aren't familiar with the Faerie/Mundane universe were confused, however. (Guess what I'd cut first?) So back in went an abbreviated explanation. 3950. I thought it was tight.

It needed to be tighter.

So back again, going backward, then forward. Can I exchange this three-word phrase with a single word? Is this emotional detail necessary or is it understood? This 50-word segue is great but doesn't advance the plot--cut it. This clue gets totally dropped later--drop it now. The manuscript bled black ink by the time I was done--but it was 3500 words. Even more, it's a sharper, cleaner story than the first, second, or fifth revision. And it was fun!

I accept my crown as queen of the editorial cut.

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