[by Whitney Bak]
When an editor takes the literary equivalent of a hedge trimmer to your bountiful, blossoming book baby, the process can feel more than a little personal. While some authors begin working with an editor in the very early stages of developing their manuscript, many don’t solicit editorial help until they’ve produced a mostly finished product; something they’ve spent countless hours agonizing over and tweaking and refining and shifting.
Of course, no one wants their editor to simply give them a pat on the back for writing the next New York Times bestseller (well, maybe just a little); for the most part, authors seek editors who will give them genuine, constructive, thoughtful feedback about their work. But receiving that feedback can be challenging—to say the least. Particularly when it includes (and to some level, it will include) making cuts to your carefully crafted wording.
Whether you’re actively contemplating your editor’s advice (should you really ditch the prologue?), preparing to work with an editor, or seeking additional ways to polish your manuscript prior to soliciting an editor or agent, these four questions can help guide you to the cleanest, leanest version of your story.
Where Does Your Story Really Begin?
Did you flinch a little when you read that aside about cutting your prologue? Whether I’m editing a novel or a memoir, I frequently suggest that authors cut or trim their front matter (prefaces, prologues, introductions, author’s notes, etc.). This is not because I have anything against front matter (if anything, I’m a little partial to material that “sets the stage”). Rather, it’s because authors often include these components simply because they don’t know where to start their story.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from Sarah J. Maas’s bestselling YA fantasy series Throne of Glass. The first and titular book in the series follows the story of a young female assassin who is given the opportunity to earn her freedom from imprisonment by participating in a competition to become the king’s champion. This is where the story starts. However, Maas also wrote a series of prequel novellas, which were later compiled together and published into a volume called The Assassin’s Blade. While these stories are engaging and offer valuable background information about the protagonist, they are not essential to understand the events of the first book and, in fact, introduce characters and plotlines that don’t become relevant until much later in the series.
When a story starts too early, readers are not yet invested in the characters, and details that only require a brief mention may be expanded on to the detriment of the narrative’s pacing and flow. What’s more, this background information runs the risk of introducing details and plotlines that aren’t truly relevant to the main story. That’s why author and editor Allison K. Williams suggests, “Cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.”
Remember: just because the information needs to be cut doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. These initial pages of cut text can significantly inform your approach to your characters, making them more well rounded and believable. But not all information that is valuable to you is equally valuable to your reader.
Who Are You Writing For?
Just as there are times you may be writing for yourself rather than for your readers (and therefore should consider cutting text), there are times you may find yourself writing for your readers rather than your characters—and these instances, too, require reconsideration.
Wait a minute, you may object. Technically, the whole book is for the reader. So what’s the difference between writing for characters and writing for readers? The key is to include details—especially details disclosed in dialogue—that make sense for and are true to the characters themselves. Why would characters tell one another things they already know? Keep in mind that if you’re writing a memoir, your character is you, and this same advice applies.
Julia Quinn, a prolific romance writer and the author of the Bridgerton series, gives a brilliant example of this faux pax in action:
Flash forward to 1999. I am writing what I think will be the first book of a trilogy … I open with a mother and daughter, and I realize that in the course of their conversation, I, the author, need to impart a great deal of expository information. …
But how do I inform the reader? I don’t want to do what writers call an “info dump,” which is basically when the author dumps a whole lot of information in the opening chapter in an unnatural manner. My favorite (or rather, least favorite) example of this is when two characters have a conversation, but they are clearly talking to the reader and not to each other. If I were to do this in The Duke and I, it would come out something like this:
Daphne: Mother, did you ever think you would have eight children?
Violet: No, and I certainly didn’t think all eight would look so much alike.
Daphne: It does mean that people confuse us, but I suppose I have it easier than the others, since I’m the oldest girl.
Violet: Oh yes, I see what you mean. Eloise, Francesca, and Hyacinth will have to get used to the ladies of the ton mistakenly calling them by your name.
Daphne: It’s a good think you named us alphabetically.
Violet: That was your father’s idea.
Daphne: I’m so sorry he’s dead.
If you find you’ve written a scene like this, chances are it’s time to pull out the metaphorical scissors and get down to cutting (or, like Quinn, you may decide on a different narrative approach to convey this information).
Do You Need Dialogue or Detail?
“Info dumps” of any kind—whether they happen in dialogue or in the narrative itself—are best avoided, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to ensure a healthy mix of dialogue and exposition. Of course, this advice varies depending on the genre of your book. For instance, heavy exposition may be more appropriate in fantasy stories due to the amount of world building required. Even so, you’d be hard pressed to find a Tolkien fan who can’t admit that the start of The Lord of the Rings is, well, dull (well written, but dull none the less). Conversely, many memoirists feel the compulsion to share a lot of expository information about themselves, whether at the beginning of the story (which we’ve already discussed) or somewhere in the middle.
In general, it’s helpful to consider whether descriptive information could be conveyed in dialogue instead of the narrative. Which is to say, rather than describing a character’s surely, unkind personality over a series of paragraphs, could the character have a brief verbal exchange that quickly showcases this personality for the reader? Or instead of spending a lot of time describing a character’s predicament, could the character share their struggle with a close friend (who wouldn’t already have a reason to know this information)?
On the flip side, especially in the case of an argument between characters or an internal struggle, could a conversation be summarized in a sentence or two of narrative instead of multiple pages in which the characters hem and haw? While dialogue should reflect the true flow of characters’ exchanges, it should also be engaging. These long, drawn-out conversations are no one’s favorite part of conversing in real life, and the same logic applies to fictional realms. Sometimes, an entire page of dialogue can be replaced with a simple transition—or cut altogether.
Are You Bored?
The above advice primarily deals with need to keep your readers engaged—from the moment your story begins with a bang to its brilliant conclusion. Or, in short, how to keep your book from becoming boring. But there’s another easy way to tell if your pacing has slowed to a crawl or if your dialogue is losing readers’ interest: consider whether you want to read it.
When you’re editing your manuscript, are you inclined to skip over certain sections? If the answer is yes, consider whether those sections need to be included at all. If not, it’s time to chop away! But if a boring section contains important information, then you know a rewrite is required—and probably some heavy trimming as well, using the advice shared above.
Writing an engaging book is a balancing act between sharing essential information and keeping the plot moving. But with an open mind and a bounty of trust in yourself and your reader, you’ll find the combination that feels just right. And who knows—that cut text could become the start of a brand-new manuscript. Rather than deleting it, paste your cut text into a clean document and save it for a rainy day. You’ll thank yourself later.